Tuesday

23rd Jan 2018

Opinion

The real decision on Czech future will come in January

  • Billionaire mogul turned PM-designate, Babis' policy concerns appear to be more domestic than foreign (Photo: anobudelip.cz)

With the anti-establishment ANO (Association of Dissatisfied Citizens, or 'Yes') movement of Andrej Babis winning parliamentary elections by a landslide, the political future of the Czech Republic will be decided by presidential elections in January.

Either Babis will rule in tandem with the current president, Milos Zaman, who openly serves Russian interests, or a new, pro-Western head of state will balance out ANO's powerful chief.

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Babis and ANO dominate Czech politics.

It came second in a vote in 2013 and was a junior coalition partner for the past four years, but it won 78 out of 200 seats in the Czech chamber of deputies last weekend and will almost certainly form the next government.

What does Babis want in foreign policy?

He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. His political profile is closer to the centrist Slovak prime minister Robert Fico than to the right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban or the head of Poland's ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Babis lacks a coherent ideology to guide his actions. Foreign or EU policy is not his priority.

Since joining Czech national politics, the business tycoon hasn't built a foreign policy or EU team in his party. Most of of his interests lie in domestic politics and in his personal fate, as he now faces criminal charges on fraud related to EU subsidies.

His key talking point on Europe is the need for a more restrictive EU migration policy and he has called for Nato to destroy the (empty) ships of migrant traffickers.

He might be interested in French proposals to establish migrant-protection centres in Northern African countries.

But outside of immigration, there is not much in his foreign plans. It is fair to describe Babis as a conservative eurosceptic who rejects EU federalisation. He does not want the Czech Republic to join the eurozone - a stance held by a majority of Czechs.

The big question is what he will do regarding Russia and the country's geopolitical orientation.

He has criticised Western sanctions against the Kremlin for limiting business opportunities, but he has also voted to support Czech measures for countering Russian hostile influence operations in the country.

Given his record of swinging from one side to the next on issues he does not care that much about, the position and influence of Babis' defence chief, Martin Stropnicky, will be important.

Stropnicky is a staunch advocate of Euro-Atlantic ties and a fierce supporter of measures to counter Kremlin subversion, but the big question is what influence and subsequent cabinet seat he will hold.

Second, future Czech foreign policy will also depend on the junior coalition partners with which Babis will team up. If he makes a deal with Russia's useful idiots in the far-right SPD party, there could be a pro-Russia shift.

A government which includes the SPD would have a foreign policy which would differ from pro-Atlantic conservatives (ODS), or Christian Democrats.

Wait for January

Right now, all moderate parties have refused to join a coalition with ANO. Babis is waiting to see if they will change their mind.

That means the formation of the government could be put on hold until the presidential election in January. Despite the Czech president being constitutionally a ceremonial figure, he or she can project heavy informal influence.

The incumbent, Zeman, openly promotes pro-Russian disinformation, repeats Russian messages about Ukraine and Syria, and acts as the Kremlin's loyal ally in the Russian media space. His key advisor directly received Russian money in late 2016.

With Babis struggling to put together a coalition, the deal-breaker for the Czech Republic is if Zeman gets re-elected.

If so, he would probably divide spheres of influence with Babis and take over Czech foreign policy. Czech politics has seen tis before. Between 1998 and 2002, the two strongest political powers agreed on division of influence without attacking each other - a deal which effectively crippled Czech democracy for several years.

If Zeman were lose to a pro-Atlantic challenger, it would probably moderate Babis on foreign and security policy. The real decision on where Prague will turn will come in January next year.

Jakub Janda is deputy director of European Values, a Czech think tank, where he also runs the Kremlin Watch Programme

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