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Zeman’s narrow election, by a 51 to 49 percent margin, in a second round of voting on 27 January, has disheartened Czech liberals but is widely assumed to be some kind of victory for Moscow. Of course, the Russians preferred to see Zeman elected than his challenger, moderate, pro-European Jiri Drahos. Zeman is a cantankerous, outspoken and willfully disruptive figure, the troll president, seeming to delight in causing controversy. He makes no secret of his belief that the Czech Republic should have better relations with Moscow, has said that “Crimea cannot be given back to Ukraine” and has called for an end to European sanctions.
Furthermore, his closest circle include the controversial Martin Nejedly, an entrepreneur who spent most of the 1990s working in Russia – although the details remain hazy – and then headed the Czech subsidiary of Russian oil company Lukoil until it was closed down in 2015. Nejedly, who gave a generous donation to support Zeman’s previous presidential campaign in 2012, is frequently described as some kind of Russian connection. Indeed the New York Times called him Putin’s “paymaster” in Europe. Nonetheless, as one of Zeman’s advisers, he now has offices in the presidential seat of Prague Castle and frequently accompanies him on foreign travels.
So far, so alarming. Furthermore, especially in the lead-up to the run-off voting round, after the field had been narrowed to Zeman and Drahos, the eruption of vicious and essentially false news and commentary about the latter certainly seemed to fit a pattern: the Russians identify their preferred choice in an election and then crank up the disinformation machine to make sure it happens.
This is the kind of simple narrative often embraced these days, but even if there is much truth to it, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
First of all, “fake news” has clearly become a weapon all can use. Drahos was attacked for being a supporter of illegal immigration (he is not), a thief (ditto), a secret police informant from Communist days (debunked by the officials in charge of their records) and a pedophile (even more false). Much was clearly initiated as a dirty-tricks campaign taken up and spread by Zeman’s supporters. Then there were the usual “alternative media” websites and news services that tend to have an anti-Western or simply anti-establishment bias, which gleefully repeated these slurs.
Zeman also faced his own “fake news” attacks, mainly relating to his age, drinking, and health, or that people did not need to vote for him because the incumbent automatically went through to the second round of the ballot. This was much less evident than the barrage of attacks against Drahos, though. As well as an easier time with the “alternative media,” the president also benefited from campaign funding, largely via the “Friends of Milos Zeman.” a shadowy NGO run by Nejedly and another Russia-linked adviser, Vratislav Mynar. Around a third of the money it collected came from still-unclear sources, generating the inevitable suspicions and allegations that somehow it came from Moscow.
It could be; it is certain that the Russians do seek to develop sources of “black accounts” to support convenient political candidates and movements in the West. Allegations have also emerged that Zeman had pocketed millions from corrupt deals around the Russian company Falcon Capital. The trouble is that the Czech authorities tend to be reticent about addressing the corruption still endemic within the higher levels of society (this is not the kind of country where a traffic cop will try and extort a “fine” for a spurious speeding claim) especially in light of the current allegations around billionaire Prime Minister Babis. Nonetheless, one would have hoped that this was exactly the kind of thing the BIS, the Czech intelligence service, was monitoring, and that it would come to light.
There is, after all, precious little evidence of a direct Russian hand. Malicious and sensationalist “fake news” can, sadly, come just as easily from domestic propagandists. Quiet campaign contributions could come from all kinds of local sources – including conceivably Babis himself, eager to see an ally stay in the Castle.
Nor did Moscow seem that excited during the campaign or even after Zeman’s election. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Zeman a pretty standard message congratulating this “experienced and responsible politician” on his re-election. Leonid Slutski, chair of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, simply called it “good news.” Even the government’s own paper, Rossiiskaya gazeta, ran a strikingly objective article that described Drahos as “intelligent and reliable.”
Perhaps the reason for this is that in the Czech political system, the president is primarily a ceremonial figure. To be sure, he has the power to propose a prime minister, which is of real significance at present, as Babis struggles to form a coalition or run a minority government. Even that, though, is subject to the legislature. Overheated suggestions that the president “commands the military” (he is notional commander-in-chief, but runs it only as far as one could say the British Queen is in charge of the Royal Navy) bear little resemblance to the truth.
The Prague Castle Megaphone
Prague Castle’s real value – and clearly something Zeman that treasures – is that it is a megaphone, converting the grumpy and prejudiced opinions of an ailing 73-year-old into national and international news. This is also about the only real value Zeman has for the Kremlin. There is no evidence that classified materials have ever been leaked from Zeman’s administration. There is no evidence that Zeman’s pro-Russian leanings have ever meaningfully affected Czech government policy (it is still firmly committed to the EU sanctions regime, to NATO, and to the return of Crimea to Kyiv).
On the other hand, amplified by the presidential megaphone, Zeman’s views do provide useful copy for Russia’s propagandists. The words of the president of an EU and NATO country that fit Moscow’s narrative are echoed back to Russians (who tend to assume that any president is a powerful executive figure, like their own elected tsar) and elsewhere in central, eastern and southeastern Europe. I remember a conversation with a defense ministry analyst in Bulgaria who somberly said “the president will take the Czech Republic out of NATO” as if Zeman had the power or the mandate to do anything of the sort.
Zeman is much less useful to the Kremlin than other figures both divisive and powerful like, say, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or even, however much he would have hated to be considered convenient to Moscow, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Cafe versus Pub
Zeman was elected primarily because, for all his (many) flaws, he is a cunning, effective and experienced politician. He managed to mobilise and exacerbate a real split between the liberal, cosmopolitan Prazska kavarna or “Prague café” constituency and the rural and small-town world of the Ceska hospoda, or “Czech pub,” which mistrusts Prague, the government, and everything else associated with the establishment. (In the elections, it is worth saying that Drahos outpolled Zeman by two to one in Prague itself.) Drahos, an intellectual and a professor, ran a cautious campaign most of the time geared more at not causing offence than clearly staking out his own character, which allowed Zeman and his black propagandists to do it for him.
The smears only really kicked in during the two weeks before the second round of the elections; even before then the two candidates were neck-and-neck. Drahos was able to narrow the gap, but ultimately failed to mobilize enough voters who had backed other candidates to win the day. Given the close margin, it is certainly possible that Muscovite money or disinformation might have tipped the balance, whether galvanizing Zeman’s partisans or disenchanting those who considered backing Drahos.
A Case Study of Moscow’s Impact
So in many ways, the Czech elections provide a perfect case study of modern European politics and the role of Russia within them. First of all, if Russia did play a role, it was only because there was already a strong constituency of voters disenchanted with the existing system, and the election was in the balance. The evidence that Russian meddling can do more than nudge results by a percentage point or two is sorely lacking.
Secondly, even when the Russians are able to rejoice in a result that goes “their” way – whether or not they can claim credit –they are rarely able to capitalize on it to any great degree. Zeman is not, whatever his more bilious detractors say, the “Kremlin’s Trojan horse." For all his enthusiasm for Russia (and China, for that matter), he is a Czech patriot, not a Russian one. For example, when NATO staged its DRAGOON RIDE operation in 2015 and US forces drove south through Central Europe, and when anti-American protesters called them “occupiers,” it was Zeman who sharply criticized these “anti-American fools.” His real power is limited, and the Czech Republic is hardly likely to turn against NATO or the EU. Moscow will get a few sound bites, but little more.
But thirdly, the response at home is likely to be polarizing and panicked. Stuff happens, and when it can Moscow takes advantage of it. But we can expect instant responses claiming Moscow helped Zeman “steal” the election. Zeman’s election is not just a triumph for provincialism, racism and small-mindedness, it is, sad to say, also a rejection by a sufficient proportion of the Czechs of the kind of Prazska kavarna politics that Drahos represented. We saw this before, when Zeman was first elected, trouncing liberal Atlanticist Karel Schwartzenberg in a campaign that, surprise, also involved “fake news” before it was a thing, with eleventh-hour claims that his rival was backing the claims of Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II.
Rather than assume this is all part of a sinister Russian strategy (even while acknowledging that Russia does meddle when it can), and rather than claiming that this is all a battle of truth versus fakery (the Czech Interior Ministry’s much-vaunted “anti-hybrid war centre” was noticeably absent throughout the election, despite its mission of combating disinformation), this has primarily to be considered a symptom of a wider crisis of values in the West. Trump, Zeman, Brexit, the rise of the populist left and right, the spread of “alternative media:” all these represent a profound deficit of legitimacy. Instead of using Russia as a convenient scapegoat, allowing them not to have to consider how they failed to win the disenchanted heartlands, all those who decry the elections of the Zemans of this world should look to closing this political and cultural chasm. Moscow exploits this gap – but it is we who are failing to close it.