8 August 2020, Saturday, 12:12
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Russian Liaisons with the Czech Republic

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Russian Liaisons with the Czech Republic
Christian Kvorning Lassen

The rise of nationalist far-right parties across Europe has opened up new avenues for Russia to attain influence through these parties within European countries, most notably within the former Soviet bloc.

While some of those attempts are more overt and arguably successful than others – such as the case with Jobbik in Hungary – others have been more subtle, more difficult to directly pinpoint.

Collusion with Russia among Czech Political Parties

The Czech Republic is arguably a case of the latter, in large part due to the political environment in the Czech Republic diverging markedly from Hungary, the most overt point of reference within the V4 countries. Jobbik’s popularity is immense in comparison to other far-right parties in the former Soviet bloc, whereas in the Czech Republic, the far-right has suffered from numerous corruption scandals, most recently leading to the fall of the Necas government and the fragmentation of the right-wing, giving rise to smaller, as of now arguably inconsequential, parties of dubious credentials (Usvit being a prime example).

Instead, the primary colluders with Russia are to be found on the left-wing. The Czech Communist Party (KSCM) has made no secret of its pride in its legacy as a former hardline communist party, and has since the fall of the Soviet bloc been connected to Russian/pro-Russian sensibilities, exemplified in opposition to US presence in Europe, common military exercises and sanctions against Russia, arguing there is no “Russian danger.” However, having been unable to translate its electorate, often achieving double-digit percentage of votes, into tangible political results has so far limited the influence that Russia is able to exert through the party.

The Czech Social-Democratic Party (CSSD), of more moderate left-wing sentiments than KSCM, is arguably not overtly pro-Russian, although it merits noting that the party generally keeps an either neutral or low-profile on questions relating to Ukraine and Russia.

Falling out of category, the protest movement “ANO”, spearheaded and founded by Slovak-born Andrej Babis, former member of KSC (the Czechoslovakian Communist Party) now turned finance minister and businessman with the business conglomerate Agrofert, can at best be described as a populist protest party against the traditional political establishment. However, it is worth noting that Andrej Babis himself is strongly suspected of having worked for the Czechoslovak Security Service (StB), for which he is involved in court preceedings in Slovakia. Similarly, a high number of people in his entourage are suspected of having pro-Russian affiliations.1 This suspicion is further exacerbated by ANO’s low profile on issues pertaining to Russia, as well as its resistance towards European solutions to the refugee crisis, although the latter can arguably be attributed to the party’s populist opportunistic nature rather than more entrenched Eurosceptic prejudice.

Czech Presidents and Russia; The Good, The Bad & The Ugly?

Vaclav Havel’s pro-European and humanitarian views are well known and requires no further elaboration in this context. However, his two successors, Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman, has both on several occasions advocated for and acted in ways that can be considered pro-Russian.

The most prominent examples pertaining to Vaclav Klaus, a staunch Eurosceptic if not outright anti-EU politician, revolve around energy security and the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008. In the 1990s, before becoming president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus actively promoted Czech-Russian oil and gas agreements while opposing an alternative agreement with Norway. Fortunately for the Czech Republic, Klaus did not succeed in his efforts, which helped the Czech Republic avert a major energy crisis in the 2000s when Russia cut off the supply to Ukraine.

During the Russo-Georgian war, Vaclav Klaus was one of the few European statesmen to openly back Moscow’s intervention in Georgia.

In addition to the above stated examples, Vaclav Klaus has consistently favored Russian over European interests on a wide range of issues, ranging from opposition to the intervention in Kosovo to opposing the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, despite being obliged by Czech law to do so.

Vaclav Klaus’ successor, the current president Milos Zeman, is following a similar vein, although he is not ardently Eurosceptic nor of right-wing leaning. Despite these differences, a common denominator between Klaus and Zeman are their suspected ties to LUKoil, the most prominent Russian company in the Czech Republic. During Vaclav Klaus’ tenure as president, LUKoil has secured several contracts helping to maintain strong Russian influence on the Czech energy sector. LUKoil has similarly cultivated ties with President Milos Zeman, whose now former right-hand man, Miroslav Slouf, has arguably been LUKoils strongest lobbyist in the Czech Republic and one of the key figures in the now largely irrelevant party “SPOZ” (Party of Civic Rights – Zeman’s People).While Zeman himself has denied allegations of having received Russian money, the party itself has admitted taking money from lobbyists connected with Russia.1 While no proof has emerged of President Zeman having received Russian money to fund his presidential campaign, numerous allegations to this has been made since his election. These suspicions has not diminished as President Zeman in 2015 visited Vladimir Putin in Russia, an event that divided Czech politicians.

Underlying Systemic Causes

Listing all the systemic causes that enable Russia to exert influence in the Czech Republic would be impossible in this context, yet several key aspects are worth elaborating upon as the primary catalysts for the channeling of Russian interests in the Czech Republic.

First, several aspects of the legal system pertaining to political parties and state companies is underdeveloped in the Czech Republic. According to the NGO Reconstruction of the State, laws to enable transparent funding of political parties, declarations of assets upon taking office, independent public administration and no political interference in investigations are as of yet not passed, providing ample avenues through which Russia can influence Czech elites.

Second, as already touched upon, is the Russian influence in the energy sector, and the influence of CEZ, the 70% state-owned Czech power conglomerate. CEZ has previously been alleged by the Czech Green Party (a small, environmentally-oriented party that did not make it into parliament in the last elections) of being at the center of “a network of loyalties and linkages in a nontransparent environment. That network includes courts, police, prosecutors, regional governments, and political parties." Regardless of the accuracy of this claim, CEZ has in the past been involved in murky politics revolving around tenders pertaining to the completion of the Temelin nuclear power plant, in which Russia’s bid was allegedly favored over the French and US bids for no discernable reasons until the tender was cancelled by the government.

Additionally, another incident indicative of Russian meddling in the Czech Republic is the activities of the arguably overstaffed by traditional standards Russian Embassy in the Czech Republic (numbering 125 employees), having in recent years stepped up its efforts to purport what is arguably Russian propaganda. Although embassies are expected to promote national interests, the Russian Embassy in the Czech Republic has in the past featured fake stories from several of the pro-Russian servers and news-portals in the Czech Republic pertaining to the conflict in Ukraine and generally anti-Western agendas.

Lastly, recent reports by the Czech Republic’s Counterintelligence Agency (BIS), has reported unusually high activity of Russian agents in the Czech Republic, as well of “asymmetric indifference to the issue of security risks from Russia […]” by the Czech governing elites.

Conclusion

In sum, the Russian influence in the Czech Republic is contrary to Hungary not primarily centered around a strong political party but diverged amongst a plethora of actors and sectors. Although the Czech Republic remain firmly entrenched in and committed to NATO and EU rather than Russia, who still does not enjoy support amongst the vast majority of the population, it cannot be taken for granted that this won’t change given the waning support for the EU following its inability to provide a compelling response to the migration crisis, a topic hotly debated in the V4 countries. Given the dispersed avenues through which Russian influence can potentially be channeled, it is similarly hard to pinpoint exact areas in which Russian influence can be limited. As this paper shows, structural reforms within state administration has to be undertaken (and in some respects are being undertaken, although it’s a slow process), as well as efforts being made to diversify Czech energy dependency, as the energy sector is Russia’s most potent avenue to achieve influence.

Whether such undertakings are possible remains to be seen. Currently there are no influential contestants to President Zeman, and with the polls currently pegging the new party ANO as the most likely successor to the current government, it is difficult to accurately predict the setup and outcome of any future government. However, with the upcoming Brexit referendum and subsequent Czech musings about a possible future referendum on “Czechxit”, the Czech Republic seems ripe for increased Russian pressure and influence, which correlates with recent years’ reports of increased Russian efforts to achieve such results.

Christian Kvorning Lassen, Europeum, specially for charter97.org