Election of Zeman shows limits and opportunities of Moscow's meddling

The pro-Russian Czech president Miloš Zeman (73) won the election from pro-European candidate Jiri Drahoš. This is good news for the Kremlin, and shoudl have been clinched by Russian disinformation. But is it that simple? Security analyst and columnist of RaamopRusland Mark Galeotti, who works in Prague, puts things into perspective. Fake news can come just as easily from domestic propagandists and the presidency is but a ceremonial job. In essence this political fight amounts to the split between the Prague Café and the Czech pub.

tsjechische verkiezingen milos zeman jiri drahosPro-Russian Zeman (left) with a slight margin defeated pro-European Drahos

by Mark Galeotti

Zeman’s narrow election, by a 51% to 49% 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 Drahoš. Zeman is a cantankerous, outspoken and wilfully 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 Drahoš, the eruption of vicious and essentially false news and commentary about the challenger 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.

Mixed messages

First of all, ‘fake news’ has clearly become a weapon all can use. Drahoš 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 official archivists of their records) and a paedophile (even more false). Much was clearly initiated as a dirty tricks campaign to be 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 Drahoš, though. As well as an easier time with the ‘alternative media', the president also benefited from campaign funding, largely via the ‘Friends of Miloš Zeman' a shadowy ngo run by Nejedly and another Russia-linked adviser, Vratislav Mynář. Perhaps 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; certainly the Russians do seek to develop sources of ‘black account’  to support convenient political candidates and movements in the West. Besides which, allegations have 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, at least (this is not the kind of country where a traffic cop will try and extort a ‘fine’ with a spurious speeding claim) especially in light of the current allegations around billionaire Prime Minister Babiš. Nonetheless, one would have hoped that this was exactly the kind of thing the BIS, the Czech intelligence service, was monitoring, and that this would have 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 Babiš 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. 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 Drahoš 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, there is a certain power to propose a prime minister, which is of real significance at present, as Babiš 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 in in charge of the Royal Navy) bear little resemblance to the truth.

The Prague Castle megaphone

Prague Castle’s real value – and it is clearly something Zeman 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, though, Zeman’s views do provide useful copy for Russia’s propagandists. The words of the president of an EU country, a 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 South-Eastern Europe. I remember a conversation with a defence ministry analyst in Bulgaria who affirmed in sombre tones that 'the president will take Czechia out of NATO' as if Zeman had the power or the mandate to do anything of the sort.

This is useful, but nothing that important. Zeman is much less useful to the Kremlin than figures both divisive and powerful like, say, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or even, however much he would have hated to be considered convenient to Moscow, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński.

Café vs 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 Pražska kavarna or ‘Prague café’ constituency and the rural and small town world of the Česka hospoda, or ‘Czech pub,’ which mistrusts Prague, the government, and everything else associated with the establishment. (In the elections, it is worth saying, Drahoš outpolled Zeman by two to one in Prague itself.) Drahoš, 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.

tsjechische verkiezingen pubCzech pub and beer garden

The smears only really kicked in during the two weeks before the second round of the elections, and even before then the two candidates looked neck-and-neck. Drahoš was able to narrow the gap, but ultimately failed to mobilise sufficient voters who had backed other candidates to win the day. Given how close the margin, it is certainly possible that Muscovite money or disinformation might have tipped the balance, whether galvanising Zeman’s partisans or disenchanting those who considered backing Drahoš.

A case study of Muscovite 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, that even when the Russians are able to rejoice in a result that goes 'their' way – whether or not they can claim credit – then they are rarely able to capitalise 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, when anti-American protesters called them 'occupiers', it was Zeman who sharply criticised 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 polarising 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 Pražska kavarna politics that Drahoš 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 the Second World War.

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 legitimacy deficit. 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.

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