Elephants in the Room

Is the Czech Republic Falling Under Putin’s Shadow?

Central Europe and the Balkans are slowly but surely slipping away from the West’s embrace.

Andrej Babis near Prague on Oct. 04, 2017. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Andrej Babis near Prague on Oct. 04, 2017. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 20, voters in the Czech Republic will go to the polls for Parliamentary elections. Opinion polls show that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant ANO party will win a convincing victory.

The Czech Republic has long been a bastion of pro-Western, liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan pluralism. The Prague Spring of 1968 challenged Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 ended it.

Never one to forgive or forget, Russia has for the past 20 years pursued a single-minded yet sophisticated counterrevolutionary campaign to roll back the changes wrought by heroes such as Czech Nobel Laureate Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president. Their covert action aims to undermine public confidence in state institutions, weaken the rule of law, and put an end to the dream of a united Europe “whole and free.”

The Kremlin has achieved stunning successes. Britain voted to leave the EU. NATO ally Turkey is now installing Russia’s most sophisticated air defense system, not compatible with the Atlantic Alliance. Far-right movements have made historic gains in France and Germany. Russian fingerprints are all over the Catalan independence movement in Spain. Governments or politicians whose interests align more closely with Moscow than Brussels have taken power in Hungary, Serbia, Moldova, and Bulgaria.

In 2017, the Czech Republic risks becoming the latest in the ever-expanding club of oligarch-riddled regimes that Russia has helped engineer. The disruptive populism promoted by Andrej Babis, the leader of the ANO party and the putative prime minister, may make the Czech Republic the latest casualty in Putin’s relentless campaign to weaken the West from within.

Babis is a billionaire who owns Agrofert group, a conglomerate of more than 250 companies spanning chemicals, agriculture, and media, valued by Forbes magazine at $3.4 billion. He served as minister of finance from 2014 to 2017, when he was fired due to allegations of tax fraud. In addition, Parliament has recommended that he be prosecuted for EU subsidy fraud.

Despite these setback, or perhaps because of them, Babis has successfully positioned himself and ANO as outside disrupters who can “drain the swamp” in Prague and return power to the people. His record as a successful businessman and manager appeals to voters, as do his calls to curb immigration, impose fiscal discipline, and limit ties to Europe. Unfortunately, the line between public good for the Czech people and private gain for Babis becomes quickly blurred in ANO’s slick campaign marketing.

The party’s close association with the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, considerably strengthens the political fortunes of Babis and ANO. Zeman has supported Putin’s intervention in Syria and endorsed Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine. He defined the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war between rebels and the state, effectively denying any Russian aggression or military presence on Ukrainian soil. Zeman opposed EU sanctions on Russia, calling them “ineffective” and “stupid.”

Zeman’s ties to senior Kremlin figures and Russian oligarchs are no secret. He is a friend of Vladimir Yakunin, former director of Russian Railways, and the former high-ranking officer of the KGB. Martin Nejedly, the CEO of the Czech branch of the Russian energy firm Lukoil, is an official adviser to Zeman.

Zeman and Babis share a strong Eurosceptic streak. Despite proclaiming support for remaining in the EU and NATO, Zeman told Czech Radio that he “will do everything for [Czechs] to have a referendum and be able to express themselves” on membership in both organizations.

A determined and relentless Kremlin is systematically dismantling the security architecture of the post-Cold War international order. Nations that were once beacons of principled resistance to tyranny — first Hungary and now the Czech Republic, are succumbing to a new form of Russian power projection: weakening from within.

In this 21st-century assault on democratic values and Euro-Atlantic institutions, there are no invading troops or tanks. Rather, the forces of subversion are less visible and subtler. They are to be seen in corruption investigations that go nowhere, or independent newspapers that go out of business, or corporate mergers without a clear money trail.

Central Europe and the Balkans are slowly but surely slipping away from the West’s embrace. This is clearly not an accident, but can it be prevented?

The United States should be neither blind nor passive in the face of this danger. America and its European allies must resolutely resist Russia’s efforts to restore the Soviet sphere of influence to the countries once behind the Iron Curtain.

Hopefully, it is not too late. And here’s a prediction: Whither goes the Czech Republic, so goes the rest Eastern and Central Europe. If the heirs of Tomas Masaryk, Aleksander Dubcek, and Havel surrender the legacy of honor, integrity, principle, and freedom that these men of greatness bequeathed to them, the forces of darkness will have won a great and strategic victory.

Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Ereli is a former U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.

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