What’s in a name? Prague set to incur Russian wrath by honouring Boris Nemtsov

When Iran officially changed the name of the street where the British Embassy in Teheran is located from Winston Churchill Street to Bobby Sands Street in 1981, the British government sealed the entrance to the embassy and knocked through a wall into Ferdowsi Avenue to create a new entry point.

Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA who died in May 1981 while on hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison after being sentenced for firearms possession. Radical Iranian students changed the street’s name both in honour of the Irish republican, and as a way of antagonising the UK.

“When we discovered the embassy had been forced to change their mailing address and all their printed material to reflect a side door address in order to avoid using Bobby’s name anywhere, we knew we had won,” Pedram Moallemian, one of the Iranian students behind the move, told the Bobby Sands Trust earlier this year.

Councillors in the Czech capital Prague are now set to go ahead with a similar stunt by renaming a square in front of the Russian Embassy after the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, a fierce foe of Vladimir Putin.

Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow 2015. In late June 2017, five Chechen men were found guilty for agreeing to kill Nemtsov in exchange for 15 million rubles (253,000 US dollars); neither the identity nor whereabouts of the person who hired them is known, but there have long been suggestions that the Russian secret services were involved.

The Czech capital will honour Nemtsov, deputy prime minister in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government in the 1990s, in a ceremony on February 27, the fifth anniversary of his death, in the currently named Pod Kaštany Náměstí. Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna is expected to attend.

Prague is not the first city in emerging Europe to honour Nemtsov: both Kyiv and Vilnius have recognised the opposition leader in a similar way. Prague’s councillors also want to rename another public area in the city after the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

“This is another gesture by the current Prague coalition government meant to symbolise support for those who oppose authoritarian steps in Russia and beyond,” said Richard Turcsanyi, director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University.

Earlier this year, Prague created a diplomatic spat with Beijing when the city’s liberal mayor Zdeněk Hříb approved a sister-city deal with the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

Hříb is a member of the Czech Pirate Party, an opposition group that came third at last year’s European Parliamentary elections, and depends on support from smaller parties, including the Green Party.

But there are suggestions these opposition parties now oppose the Czech Republic’s relations with Russia and China in order to burnish their pro-democracy credentials ahead of next year’s legislative elections.

Russia has yet to comment on the renaming of the square in front of its embassy, and it remains to be seen if it will go to the same lengths as the British in Teheran in 1981 and create a new entrance to the building.

Like the Iranian students of 40 years ago, Hříb would no doubt see such a reaction as a victory.