Thursday

28th Jan 2021

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.

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  • 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.

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