Czech President Milos Zeman once again broke ranks with other European leaders and the Czech government by visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling for sanctions to be dropped.
Zeman– who has made defending Russia as well as vilifying Islam his main themes – is leading a huge delegation of Czech businesses to Russia, travelling on a four-day trip in three airplanes.
Meeting in Sochi on November 21, Zeman told Putin that sanctions must be stopped. “Mr President, we must put an end to this!” he said.
Putin told Zeman that “a normalisation of relations between Russia and the EU would be in the common interest”.
Putin said that Czech-Russian bilateral relations are developing "despite all difficulties, among other things thanks to your efforts". Russia-Czech trade had increased by more than 40% in the first nine-months year-on-year, he said.
The former Social Democrat prime minister has long argued that the Czech Republic should focus on rebuilding its business links to its former overlord. Hence he has brought 132 companies with him to seek Russian contracts.
But he has gone beyond this since his election to the largely ceremonial post of president in 2013, by defending defend Russian foreign policy. He has praised Russian intervention in Syria (and criticised the US’s), dismissed the Kremlin’s incursions into eastern Ukraine, calling the conflict a civil war. He has shrugged off the annexation of the Crimea, calling it a “fait accompli”, and has suggested that Russia merely financially compensate Ukraine.
Zeman, like Hungary's strongman Viktor Orban, has regularly met Putin. Both appear fascinated by the way Putin has built up his power base to become the master of all he surveys. At the same time, the Kremlin has flattered them by treating them as serious international players.
Zeman has also allegedly relied on Russian funding to run his election campaigns, funnelled through his adviser Martin Nejedly, formerly Lukoil’s partner in a Czech joint venture. Zeman and Nejedly have always denied this, but the president has failed to provide transparent accounts for his campaigns.
These pro-Russian views have isolated Zeman internationally (he never had an official visit to meet former US President Barack Obama) and have led to running disputes with the outgoing Social Democrat-led coalition, but have not harmed his popularity.
Zeman, 73, is seeking re-election in January despite questions over his health. According to recent opinion polls he would easily win the first round but could lose to former Academy of Scientists head Jiri Drahos in a run-off.
If he were to win re-election Zeman may be able to exert more control over the country’s foreign policy because prime ministerial nominee Andrej Babis has little interest in the subject and may rely on the president’s backing to remain in power if he is only able to form a minority government. Zeman and Babis have formed a marriage of convenience in which the president has blatantly supported the billionaire tycoon and in return Babis has refrained from backing any other presidential candidate.
Babis’ “centrist populist” Ano party won the general elections convincingly earlier this month but so far has only won potential backing for a minority government from the hardline Communist party, which remains an enthusiastic supporter of the Kremlin. Babis, who himself has criticised sanctions, is also likely to be supported by the neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) of Tomio Okamura, another admirer of Putin.
Babis has promised the SPD chairmanship of the key parliamentary security committee, for which Okamura has nominated Radek Koten, a regular disseminator of Russian online fake news. Russia has been very successful in spreading its propaganda inside the Czech Republic, notably by getting online disinformation into popular local websites such as Parlamentni listy.
If he becomes more influential inside the government, Zeman is also likely to be able to push the case for Russia’s Rosatom to build new nuclear reactors at Dukovany, which at some CZK100bn is by far the country's biggest planned investment project.