Monday

21st Jan 2019

Knife-edge Czech poll could put 'Kremlin troll' back as president

  • Zeman (l) with Russian leader Vladimir Putin (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Prague Castle's "pro-Kremlin troll", Czech president Milos Zeman, can do little harm to the EU even if he stays in place at this weekend's election, experts say.

Zeman, the incumbent president, is fighting for a second term in a run-off election against academic Jiri Drahos.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Drahos would put human rights back into Czech foreign policy (Photo: NoJin)

The latest poll put them neck-and-neck, with Zeman on 45.5 percent and Drahos on 45 percent - with the 10 percent who were still undecided likely to settle the outcome on Saturday (27 January).

The two candidates could hardly be more different.

Zeman, a 73-year old former communist, is known for his hard drinking and for his pro-Russian and anti-Islamic rants.

Drahos, 68, is a mild-mannered scientist with liberal, pro-EU views who evokes memories of the late Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's post-Cold War leader and philosopher.

When they spoke in a TV debate on Thursday, Zeman mocked Drahos for lack of political experience, while Drahos called Zeman a "symbol of division".

But that was gentle compared to some of the fake news circulated in Czech media on behalf of both candidates in recent days.

Pro-Zeman activists accused Drahos of being a paedophile and a communist agent. Pro-Drahos ones claimed Zeman was dying of cancer.

The two men have also traded accusations on Russia.

Zeman said it was "an insult to Czech citizens, to accuse them of being manipulated by foreign intelligence".

Drahos said that after Russian meddling in votes in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and US "it's logical that Russian secret services … are very much involved in the [Czech] campaign".

This Czech presidential vote comes after a billionaire populist tycoon, Andrei Babis, won the Czech parliamentary election last year.

It also comes amid a wider clash between the political establishment in Europe and the anti-EU far right and left.

Zeman effect

But for Jakub Janda, an expert with the European Values think tank in Prague, even if Zeman beats Drahos, little will change.

"Zeman would keep bashing EU sanctions against Russia, would be harshly critical of the EU on migration, would keep bringing in Chinese influence for which he openly lobbies," Janda said.

"The EU would see a Trump-like rhetorical figure shouting from Prague Castle," he added, referring to the US president Donald Trump.

Janda said there was little prospect of Zeman engaging directly with Babis to steer Czech policy, however.

The analyst added that the only way Zeman's call for a referendum on a Czech exit from the EU could gain traction would be "if another migration wave hit Europe".

Balazs Jarbik, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment think tank, agreed.

He said Zeman would "remain the Czech (pro-Russian) troll of the EU", but would have little opportunity to sway the pro-EU and pro-Nato Babis.

"Radicals have their limits within the EU. They can be a distraction, which helps them in the beginning as 'speakers of truth, but are usually unable to suggest policies that would bring in more support from the [political] centre," Jarbik said.

An EU diplomat added that "after five years of Zeman in office, everybody in the EU already knows that he should not be taken seriously and that his statements reflect only the Kremlin's position, but rarely the real Czech position".

Drahos focus on human rights

If Drahos were to win, he would "try to reach out to Western allies … to break the isolation created by Zeman", Janda said.

He said Drahos would be "very resistant to Russian connections" and would "reinstate the focus of Czech foreign policy on human rights", but would "continue to pursue restrictive stances on migration policy in the European debate."

Janda, whose think tank is a leading debunker of Russian propaganda, said Czech awareness-raising efforts on the problem have helped to make "most of the political and media establishment … very much resistant to this threat".

He said about one quarter of the population was still "vulnerable" to Kremlin messages.

Jarbik said the fake news in the Czech election appeared to come mostly from domestic sources.

He said Russia's absence could be explained by the fact it has a "sober" view on the limitations of Zeman's usefulness or by Russian concerns that overt support could harm Zeman's chances amid growing alarm in Europe on Kremlin meddling.

"Russian support can kill its own friends these days," he said.

Salvini invokes God and Russia on Poland trip

Orthodox values, opposition to EU institutions, and friendship with Russia should form the backbone of a new Italian-Polish league, Italy's Matteo Salvini has said.

News in Brief

  1. Germany sent 8,658 asylum-seekers to other EU states
  2. Poll: Macron popularity up four percent
  3. 'Economy is broken' says Oxfam in global inequality report
  4. Vestager under pressure to allow Siemens-Alstom deal
  5. Teargas and clashes in Athens over Macedonia name change
  6. EU trade commissioner asks for green light for US talks
  7. Slovakia's commissioner takes unpaid leave to run for presidency
  8. Minority elects Lofven as prime minister of Sweden

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us