Anton Shekhovtsov

Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (Austria)

Russian-connected Advisor Maintains Influence Over Czech President

The stance of the Czech people toward Russia is characterized by ambivalent and complicated attitudes rooted in the history of the 20th century. On the one hand, the invasion of Czechoslovakia carried out by the Soviet Union and its allies to crush the liberalizing trends in the country’s politics remains one of the major national traumas for the Czechs and determines negative views of and distrust toward Russia as an heir to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, many people are still nostalgic about the socialist times (which is manifested, in particular, in the popularity of the largely unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia that until very recently was the third largest party in the country) and this nostalgia about socialism is often translated to the legitimacy of pro Russian views. However, the significance of this legitimacy should not be exaggerated: the majority of the Czech people are (still) very skeptical about Russia. 1

And yet when the Czech Republic joined the EU’s sanctions against Putin’s Russia in 2014, one could observe the full range of conflicting attitudes toward Moscow among the Czech political elites. Following the Russian invasion of Crimea, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who led the center-left Czech Social Democratic Party, admitted that Russia had broken international law but said that he would not consider imposing sanctions on Russia. 2 And, even after the EU imposed sanctions related to the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Sobotka would still say that he saw no sense to halt business with Russia and warned against creating “a new Iron Curtain between the European Union and Russia.” 3 At the same time, following the annexation of Crimea, Czech President Miloš Zeman declared that if Russia had gone beyond Crimea he would have pleaded “not only for the strictest EU sanctions, but even for military readiness of […] NATO forces entering Ukrainian territory” to stop Russia’s military advance. 4 However, Zeman made a U-turn on his harsh approach toward Moscow the same year and, while speaking at an event organized by the US-sanctioned Russian businessman Vladimir Yakunin, called for the removal of the sanctions imposed on Russia. 5 In his turn, Sobotka would become more – but never full-heartedly – supportive of the EU’s sanctions, and criticize Zeman for questioning the effectiveness of the Crimea-related sanctions. 6

Sobotka’s government also implemented several measures that went against Moscow’s foreign policy interests and possibly undermined its subversive activities and influence operations in the Czech Republic. In 2016, the Interior Ministry launched the National Security Audit that identified, in particular, the threat of Russia’s influence on “radicalization of persons or selected groups” in the Czech Republic. 7 The next year, the same ministry established the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats that would “tackle new asymmetric, or hybrid, threats.” 8 However, these developments were possible not only because of Sobotka’s government’s position on Russia, but also thanks to the work of the Czech intelligence service, Security Information Service, that had publicly reported on Russian malign activities in the Czech Republic since 2000. 9

In the Czech political system, the president has restricted powers. However, Zeman became the first Czech president to have been elected directly by the people rather than the parliament, which endowed the post with increased symbolic significance. Zeman misused that new authority to mainstream illiberal views, as well as forming a spiral of disinformation with media resources that spread fake news and conspiracy theories: Zeman would draw on the resources disseminating misleading information, while they would quote Zeman in their publications.

Against the background of the relative weakness of the main Czech far-right party, Freedom and Direct Democracy, Zeman inherently became – especially in the wake of the refugee crisis – the main far-right figure in the country, frequently making anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT and sexist statements and remarks as well as taking the lead of the anti-refugee movement. As Zeman’s far-right rhetoric proved to be successful with Czech society, 10 he used the right-wing populist language of dividing politicians into pro-refugee globalists and anti-refugee patriots in the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections.

It is from these anti-refugee and ultranationalist positions  – amplified, reinforced and radicalized by the disinformation media – that Zeman attacked his main opponent in the elections, President of the Czech Academy of Sciences Jiří Drahoš, who appeared as a centrist and pro-EU/NATO politician. 11 Contrary to Drahoš’s platform, Zeman’s campaign smeared him as an un-patriotic candidate who would replace the Czech population with immigrants. One of Zeman’s political advisors who was responsible for the attacks on Drahoš from the far-right position was Martin Nejedlý. Before Zeman was elected president, Nejedlý donated money to Zeman’s campaign, which raised suspicions about Russian interference as, at that time, Nejedlý was a managing director of Lukoil Aviation Czech, a subsidiary of the Russian Lukoil oil company. 12 After Zeman’s election, Nejedlý, who had vast economic relations with Russia, 13 became his chief advisor and, implicitly, his contact with various Russian stakeholders. In 2016, Nejedlý’s position of an advisor to Zeman became endangered as a result of Nejedlý losing a judicial dispute about the sale of aviation fuel from the Czech strategic reserves, but Lukoil paid off his fine of approximately $1.3 million (and liquidated Lukoil Aviation Czech) and he was able to keep his position. 14

Nejedlý and the head of the Czech presidential Office Vratislav Mynář co-founded the “Friends of Miloš Zeman” association that ran, in the beginning of 2018, a pro-Zeman campaign under the slogan “Stop immigrants and Drahoš.” The advertisements featuring this slogan were ordered by Euro-Agency headed by Miroslav Schön, 15 who is also the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Mountfield a.s., owned, since 2016, by the Chinese company Eurasia Development Group Limited. Although Mountfield a.s. denied that it was involved in the anti- Drahoš campaign, 16 it is hard to deny that the re-election of Zeman as Czech president was beneficial to China, as Zeman had been an active supporter of Chinese efforts to expand its business presence in the Czech Republic. 17 Moreover, after his re-election, Zeman publicly criticized the Czech Security Information Service for reporting that China and Russia intensified intelligence operations in the Czech Republic. 18

Yet even before the “Friends of Miloš Zeman” ran a pro-Zeman campaign by smearing Drahoš as a supporter of immigration, Drahoš complained about the possibility of foreign interference in the presidential elections. However, while acknowledging the increased activities of Russian and Chinese services in the Czech Republic, the country’s Security Information Service did not register any foreign interference in the presidential elections. 19

Russian actors, indeed, did not seem to be active in the run-up to the elections. To a certain extent that was understandable given the fact that the Czechs are predominantly skeptical about Russia. Moscow’s support for Zeman could hinder, rather than advance, his campaign. And the Kremlin’s meddling was hardly needed either: Russia does have a Czech edition of Sputnik, but although it supported Zeman’s re-election, it was only a drop in the bucket of disinformation produced by native Czech media such as Parlamentní listy, Pro-Vlast, Aeronet or Slovanská jednota.