By Tom Balmforth and Jason Hovet
MOSCOW / PRAGUE (Reuters) – Russia has told the Czech Republic to deliver the statue of a prominent Soviet military commander that was dismantled in Prague last week despite Moscow’s protests, leading to a violent diplomatic dispute on the subject.
The statue of Marshal Ivan Konev, who led the Red Army forces during the Second World War and drove Nazi troops out of Czechoslovakia, is insulted by some in Prague as a symbol of the decades of post-war communist rule.
But in Moscow, Konev is hailed by the authorities as a war hero, and the removal of his statue was seen as a diplomatic insult and part of what Russia sees as a dangerous attempt to rewrite history.
The statue of Konev, who also played a leading role in suppressing the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and building the Berlin Wall in 1961, was demolished on April 3 by the Prague city authorities, who said they wanted to install it in a museum .
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has asked Czech Defense Minister Lubomír Metnar to stand up for him, the Russian Defense Ministry said, demanding that the statue be sent back to Moscow.
Russia is ready to pay for transportation or other costs, the ministry said.
“We expect information from you about the location and time of the handover,” Shoigu said in a statement by the Department of Defense late Thursday.
The Czech Foreign Ministry said that it was up to the Prague municipality where the statue was located to decide what to do.
“If the community decides to give it to the Russian authorities, it’s up to them to decide,” said a spokeswoman.
The Czech Ministry of Defense and the Prague City Hall could not be reached immediately for comment.
The statue has been the center of controversy in Prague for years. It was repeatedly destroyed and local authorities tried to cover it up with a tarpaulin, causing rage among the pro-Russian residents.
Before the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Soviet campaign had become a highly sensitive issue for Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin has accused Russia’s critics of reducing Soviet war efforts and their enormous loss of life, and Moscow must defend what he described as history rewriting.
Regardless, Shoigu on Wednesday appealed to the Russian investigative committee dealing with serious crimes to prosecute all foreign officials responsible for dismantling statues in honor of Soviet citizens.
(Edited by Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White)