The story of the Central European nest of Russian influence: can Prague reinvent itself?

The Czech Security Information Service recently uncovered a Russian-operated network trying to influence the upcoming European parliamentary elections. According to local counterintelligence, the key instrument in this effort is news website Voice of Europe. The site is historically linked to several Dutch businessmen and politicians, and later found its new headquarters in Prague. While the Czech Republic's attitude towards Russia has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, intricate connections from the past are still being unraveled today. Zdislava Pokorná and Dominika Píhová take a closer look at Prague as the Central European nest of Russian influence.

Central Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: Loïc Lagarde

By Zdislava Pokorná and Dominika Píhová

In the afternoon of the 16th of September, 2023, hundreds of people gathered in the center of Prague to support an anti-government protest organized by Jindřich Rajchl, a Czech politician who chairs the right-wing PRO movement. He publicly praised Voice of Europe (VoE), labelling it an independent foreign media outlet. According to Rajchl, VoE was the only outlet that correctly reported on the scale of his demonstration.

While domestic newsrooms spoke of ten thousand participants, VoE reported that more than a hundred thousand people attended the protests. This overestimation, together with the unwavering praise VoE received from Rajchl, gave Czech journalists a good reason to take a closer look at the more or less unknown news website.

Zdislava Pokorná and Dominika Píhová are journalists for Deník N, a daily newspaper in the Czech Republic. On March 27, 2024, Deník N published the article ‘European politicians on Putin's payroll’, which sent shockwaves through Europe. The article, written by Pokorná, describes in detail how a Russian-organized network in Czechia attempted to influence the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in various European countries. The pro-Russian news website Voice of Europe is a central element in the network. Dutch politicians Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, leaders of the Party for Freedom (PVV) and Forum for Democracy (FvD) respectively, have previously given interviews to Voice of Europe.


The very first Google search led them to the Netherlands, where three Dutch entrepreneurs invested in the website’s launch in 2016. As reported by the De Groene Amsterdammer, one of them was the well-known real estate agent Erik de Vlieger. The investors claimed it was simply a business deal, detached from ideology. However, the political color of the Voice of Europe was obvious already back then.

'We are fortunate to have Voice of Europe as an antidote to the indoctrination by fake media' - Geert Wilders 

The website’s ownership was not its only Dutch link. In 2018, Geert Wilders complimented the website’s ‘valuable and exceptional work’, giving it legitimacy. 'I read Voice of Europe every day and get a lot of insights from it. (...) We are fortunate to have Voice of Europe as an antidote to the indoctrination by fake media,' Wilders said in an interview on VoE. The original piece is no longer accessible – in 2022, the website went quiet.

VoE reappeared in the spring of 2023, with its headquarters in Prague and the site’s ownership transferred to a new owner: Polish entrepreneur Jacek January Jakubczyk, who, according to the Czech Commercial Register, still holds this position today. In reality, however, the company is controlled by Ukrainian businessman and politician Artem Marchevsky. According to the Czech Security Information Service (BIS), Marchevsky is a long-time liaison to Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin and currently resides in Russia.

Both Marchevsky and Medvedchuk have now been placed on the Czech sanctions list by the Czech government; not only because of their links to the Kremlin, but also for their efforts to influence European politicians to preach pro-Russian propaganda ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections. According to the Czech secret services, Medvedchuk did not only fund the VoE with Russian money, but also paid selected European politicians, with sums reportedly reaching hundreds of thousands of euros.

'If we are talking about such a large amount, over 500,000 to a million euros, it is not to support the website or to pay for an interview, that is just ridiculous,' says Czech MP Pavel Žáček, who chairs the security committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies and has a detailed overview of the case. According to Žáček, the funds were intended to create a fifth column within the European Union. Neither Žáček nor the BIS would mention specific names of the politicians who were targeted. 'In general, however, I can say that I am not surprised by the group of politicians this concerns. They visit Russia, verbally attack Ukraine, and convey the Russian narrative and propaganda,' says Žáček.

The case involves six countries: the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, and Germany, where two politicians, Petr Bystroň and Maxmilian Krah of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, are suspects. Who else was on the payroll is not yet publicly known.

The Czech Secret Service collected the names of politicians who were in contact with the pro-Russian network in 2023, but not every politician who has been publically linked to the case was necessarily on Medvedchuk's payroll. Further information about the nature and conditions of their cooperation has not yet been disclosed.

Marcel de Graaff, Dutch MEP for Forum for Democracy. Photo: European Parliament

This is where Dutch politician Marcel de Graaff, currently an MEP for Forum for Democracy (FvD), comes into the picture. The Czech BIS has passed on his name to the Dutch authorities because they suspect he has links to the pro-Russian network. Another figure who often appears in the media due to his connection to Voice of Europe is Dutch pro-Russian politician Thierry Baudet, who founded the Forum for Democracy party and has described the conflict in Ukraine as a war between NATO and Russia.

'It's important to remember when we talk about the current situation in Ukraine that in my opinion, this is not a Russian-Ukrainian war. It is a NATO war against Russia. I think it was a provoked war. I think Russia is the defending party here, even though they decided to attack first,' Baudet said in an interview with Voice of Europe in August 2023.

Even though the website's headquarters are in Prague, Czechia is missing from the list of targeted countries. The Czech capital has simply become the center for Russian operations in the heart of Europe.

Friends and culprits since 1989

Voice of Europe is certainly not the first pro-Russian influence network that has been uncovered in Czechia. This is partially explained by the historical connection between former Czechoslovakia and the Russian Federation, but also by Czech politicians' long-standing affection for Russia that has been shaping the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.

When the pro-Western Václav Havel was Czechia’s President, the Prime Minister was Václav Klaus, later succeeded by Miloš Zeman. Both Klaus and Zeman would later become president of Czechia, and both were known to sympathize with Russia. This led to a series of controversial political moves during their time in office.

One such move was the sale of around 2.5 billion dollars of Soviet debt in 2001. The Czech government decided to sell this debt, which Russia still owed to Czechia. Zeman's administration chose to sell the debt to a company called Falkon Capital without holding a tender. The company had to pay 20 billion Czech crowns (880 million current U.S. dollars) to the Czech Republic, only one-fifth of the face value of the debt. To this day, it is still unclear where Falkon Capital company got this money from or why Zeman's cabinet sold Russia’s debt for only a fifth of its book value when the common price on European markets of such debt was up to 60 percent of its book value.

Several years later, when Václav Klaus was president, he helped the Russian oil empire as it sought to expand in Central Europe. A secret meeting between the head of Lukoil Vagit Alekperov and Václav Klaus took place in November 2008. The meeting drew a lot of attention when it was reported on by the Czech weekly Respekt. The Czech government had no information about the meeting. Some members of the cabinet learned about it only through a yearly report published by BIS. The president's office stayed silent on the matter.

Klaus has always been known for his warm relationship with Russia. In 2009, he flew to Moscow twice. The second time, he stopped by Moscow State University to present one of his books – Blue, not Green Planet. In fact, oil company Lukoil helped publish it in Russia, and the company maintained contact with Klaus afterward. In 2011, Lukoil was involved in displaying a unique set of exhibits from the Kremlin at Prague Castle.

President Miloš Zeman invested a huge amount of political capital in deepening relations with Russia and China

In 2013, president Václav Klaus was succeeded by Miloš Zeman, who invested a huge amount of political capital in deepening relations with Russia and China during his two presidential terms. Zeman’s rise to power was closely linked to Czech businessman Martin Nejedlý, a man who stands by Zeman's side until today. Nejedlý did business in Moscow in the 1990s, but it is unclear how he was able to get access to some of the most powerful people in Russia, including the head of Lukoil, as a young foreigner. According to several sources in the Czech security community, he may have been cooperating with the Russian secret service, the FSB. Nejedlý has repeatedly denied such claims.

As mentioned, Zeman's inclination towards Moscow already existed when he was prime minister between 1998 and 2002. This included the aforementioned sale of Russian debt and his contacts with influential Russians, which he maintained even after retiring to his cottage in Vysočina. A case in point is his regular attendance of a conference on the Greek island of Rhodes, arranged by the organization Dialogue of Civilisations under the patronage of Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of the Russian state railways and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Zeman attended the conference in September 2014, just a few months after the outbreak of war in the east of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. 'We need to lift sanctions that are not only unnecessary but also counterproductive. They produce the opposite effect of what their designers expect,' he told the conference audience in fluent Russian.

Meeting between Czech President Miloš Zeman and Russian President Vladimir Putin in China in 2017. Photo: Kremlin

Earlier that year, Zeman had visited the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In 2017, he returned to the Black Sea resort for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin himself. They discussed Russia's efforts to extradite hacker Russian Yevgeny Nikulin from the Czech Republic. Nikulin had hacked several American technology companies, and therefore the United States requested Czechia to extradite him. After meeting Putin, Zeman and his associates openly lobbied the Czech government for the hacker to be extradited to Russia rather than the United States. However, then Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikán withstood the pressure and sent Nikulin to the US. There were many more instances in which the president's office interfered with the powers of the governing cabinet to the benefit of Russia.

In 2018, Russian agents tried to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with Novichok poison in Salisbury, in the United Kingdom. Moscow attempted to deflect the attention away from itself by claiming that the deadly substance likely came from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Great Britain, or Sweden.

President Zeman decided to follow the false trail and immediately tasked the Czech intelligence services with an investigation into whether the poison was being developed and stored in Czechia. Czech intelligence services said that no substance of the Novichok type has ever been produced, developed, or stored in Czechia, admitting only the microsynthesis of the substance A230 in the past. Skripal was poisoned with a different substance: A234. Despite having this information, Zeman said in a public statement that Novichok was indeed being produced and stored in the Czech Republic. Russian media used this in their disinformation campaign against Czechia. The Czech government tried to set the record straight by denying that Novichok was ever developed or stored in Czechia, but the damage had already been done.

Between Prague and Moscow: the real drop in temperature

Russia probably conducted its largest information operation ever in Czechia in 2014, after two people had died as a result of explosions at the Vrbětice ammunition warehouse. It took seven years before the Czech public learned that at least two agents of the Russian GRU military intelligence service, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, were responsible for the explosions. Those were the same GRU officers from unit 29155 who poisoned former Russian agent Skripal and his daughter with Novichok in 2018. Both Chepiga and Mishkin had requested access to the ammunition warehouse in Vrbětice under false identities, after having previously arrived in the country with false passports. Afterward, the duo was awarded the Hero of Russia state decoration. Others who had participated in the operation were given free apartments.

Revelations about the Vrbětice explosions finally buried the Czech president's dreams of rapprochement with Russia

Following the Vrbětice explosions, Czech authorities took several measures against Russian influence. Firstly, the revelations led to the expulsion of dozens of diplomats, embassy staff (and agents) from the Russian embassy in Prague. Secondly, the Czech government excluded Russia's Rosatom from a multi-billion dollar tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. Rosatom called the decision regrettable and politically motivated. The revelations about the explosions at the Vrbětice ammunition warehouse finally buried the Czech president's dreams of rapprochement with Russia.

vrbetice explosionFootage after the explosion in Vrbětice in 2014. Photo: Police of the Czech Republic

Why was Prague so important for Russia? 'It was easier (for the Russians to conduct operations, ed.) in Prague because they had a really big community and embassy in the Czech Republic', explains Karel Randák, the former director of the Czech Office for Foreign Relations and Information. 'The same was true for another city, Karlovy Vary, where they had a really big base.' Another crucial factor, according to Randák, is the fact that the Russian embassy owns several properties in the Czech Republic. 'The Russians are still trying to conduct their influence operations, they have a lot of people to do it and they spend a lot of money on it. However, relations have changed, mainly due to the change of political leadership,' Randák points out.

New government, new rules

Randák refers to the ruling government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala from the Civic Democratic Party, who strongly supports Ukraine but also wants to combat Russian influence. The same applies to the current Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský from the Czech Pirate Party, who took it upon himself two years ago to enforce a Czech sanctions law, a local version of the famous Magnitsky Act on national sanctions against foreign companies and foreigners who have committed serious violations of the law. The bill was passed in the second half of 2022, giving the Czech Republic a new instrument to add people linked to the Russian regime to its sanctions list.

'The legislation as such has a broader scope than just human rights. It can be used in the case of a threat of terrorism, against terrorist organizations, it can be used in cyber-attacks if we can demonstrably link the computer to the perpetrator. It can be used against weapons of mass destruction... I call it a 'Swiss knife',' Lipavský said about the versatility of the law.

Among other things, the adoption of the law allowed the Czech government to include the Russian government agency Goszagransobstvennost on its sanctions list. This is a government agency that manages Russian real estate around the world and falls directly under Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Czech Republic has now frozen dozens of properties belonging to the agency, as well as the agency's bank accounts.

Czech intelligence services have also uncovered several cases in which Czech citizens have cooperated with Russia. One of the major examples was uncovered two years ago when the Security Information Service revealed that Russia's External Intelligence Service (SVR) had a 'mole' at the Czech Foreign Ministry – a man who leaked sensitive information to them.

The counterintelligence agency had been secretly monitoring the employee for years, but did not disclose the official's name. What is publicly known is that this employee had worked at the ministry since the 1990s and, in addition to the headquarters in Prague, had also been employed at Czech embassies, including an embassy in an unnamed African country.

Has Czechia finally parted ways with Russia?

All things considered, the revelations regarding the Voice of Europe and the pro-Russian influence operation headed by Marchevsky and Medvedchuk, who were allegedly trying to influence the upcoming European Parliament elections as well as bribing European politicians, are only the most recent Czech-Russian episode the BIS has encountered.

Parliamentary elections will be held in Czechia in less than two years and the current polls indicate that the ANO movement, led by former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, has the best chance of winning – perhaps even thanks to the pro-Russian narratives he has been spreading lately.

The Czech Republic’s new approach to handling Russian influence operations on its territory has been praised by many, but time (and election results) will tell if the country has finally parted ways with Russia or if another change in political leadership will turn things around once again.

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