Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Opinion

Czech president is Russia's Trojan Horse

  • Zeman (l) and Putin (r). The Czech Republic is the only Nato ally whose president denies that Russia has a military presence in Ukraine. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The Kremlin has many friends in Europe - Nigel Farage in the UK, France’s Marine Le Pen and the AfD party in Germany to name a few.

Hardly any of them hold executive positions, however.

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  • One might ask, what the hell is going on in Prague? (Photo: Moyan_Brenn)

This is what one of Russia’s best friends, Czech president Milos Zeman, brings to the table.

Zeman, who will stay in office until at least early 2018, is an active part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign against EU and Nato states.

The Czech Republic is the only Nato ally whose president denies that Russia has a military presence in Ukraine. “I take seriously the statement of [Russian] foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that there are no Russian troops [there],” Zeman has said on the record.

That is contrary to the findings of the Czech intelligence services, of Nato and of the OSCE, the international monitors in Ukraine.

Zeman also supports lifting of Western sanctions on Russia. He says it every time he meets Russian media.

Small wonder that he is a star on Russian propaganda outlets. According to a recent analysis of Russian-language media conducted by Semantic Visions, a Czech consultancy, Zeman was quoted 34 times more than German president Joachim Gauck in the past three years.

The Czech head is portrayed as one of the few EU leaders who refused to be “a puppet of the United States.”

Zeman appears to like this role. He has, on two occasions, publicly announced that he had banned the US ambassador to the Czech Republic from entering his castle.

His pro-Russia rhetoric also includes attacks on Ukraine.

He has endorsed Russian propaganda claims that Kiev is ruled by fascists. He has said Ukraine is trying to artificially alter its geopolitical orientation and that EU aid for Ukraine is throwing money down the drain.

He told Chinese TV that the US and the EU used to dictate the Czech Republic’s behaviour but that this is no longer the case.

He even endorsed the Kremlin’s treatment of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was kidnapped in Ukraine and condemned in a show trial in Russia.

Huge popularity

One might ask, what the hell is going on in Prague?

To understand Zeman better, one should know that his campaign manager and, later, his chief economic adviser, Martin Nejedly, used to be a top executive at Lukoil, a Russian oil company with close ties to the Kremlin.

Czech intelligence services mistrust Zeman’s chancellery so much that they have denied top security clearance to his chief of staff and to his top military aide.

But the Czech government has tolerated his behaviour because of his popularity.

He has few formal powers, but he has a big political platform.

His anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic populism (he called the migration crisis “an invasion” of Europe) has won him a huge 56 percent approval rating.

A hero for the Communist Party

He wields strong influence inside the ruling and socially conservative Social-Democratic party, more and more of whose MPs are parroting Zeman’s pro-Russia statements.

He is also a hero for the pro-Russia Communist Party, which wins about 15 percent of seats in elections.

If he joined forces with Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s most powerful man, they could build the most resilient pro-Russian political infrastructure in any Nato or EU nation.

Babis is the Czech finance minister. He is also an oligarch who is one of the country’s richest men and most popular politicians.

Zeman and Babis already get along quite well and refrain from criticising each other in public.

The next presidential elections are in January 2018.

If Zeman holds on to power he might drag Babis into his pro-Russian orbit. This informal coalition could mark a geopolitical shift in the Czech Republic which would be hard to reverse.

Jakub Janda is deputy director of European Values, a think tank in Prague

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