Incumbent Czech President Miloš Zeman – 72-year-old, heavy drinking smoker that he is – has confirmed he’ll be standing again in 2018. I don’t know whether to be horrified or impressed by his stamina. Inevitably, though, this raises the usual issue of his status as a so-called ‘trojan horse’ or ‘useful idiot’ for the Kremlin, given his relatively Moscow-friendly stance.
When he was campaigning in 2012-2013, Zeman was pitted against the aristocratic Karel Schwarzenberg, a strongly Atlanticist and pro-Nato figure. No wonder Moscow preferred Zeman, a frequent and populist critic of Nato, the EU and the Atlanticist perspective. But it is hardly the case that Russia is the only country ever to try to influence other country’s politics (witness Barack Obama’s warning to the British that if they voted for Brexit they would find themselves “at the back of the queue”), it is rather the scale and means they use that are egregious and objectionable.
This manifested itself in favourable coverage in Russian-controlled and -influenced media, and the continuing questions about the funding provided by Martin Nejedly, then director of Lukoil Aviation Czech. This local branch of the Russian Lukoil combine shut down in 2015, but many still say Nejedly was acting as a conduit for Moscow’s financial support.
This could be true, but Zeman’s success was not down to Russian support so much as the fact that his socially conservative views and country squire persona proved more appealing to Czech society beyond the “Pražska kavarna” or “Prague café” set than Karel, 12th Prince Schwarzenberg and Duke of Krumlov.
Has he been a “Trojan horse”? Not so much. He has taken advantage of the relative weaknesses of successive governments and expanded his profile beyond the essentially ceremonial role of the presidency, commenting on whatever catches his eye with a striking lack of restraint. Perhaps we should all be glad that so far he hasn’t caught Trump’s tweeting habits. He is undoubtedly divisive, and more sympathetic to Russia’s position than the Czech or European mainstream. He has said that “Crimea cannot be given back to Ukraine” and that what is happening in Donbas is a “civil war” rather than Russian aggression.
But Zeman is his own man, not just a Muscovite mouthpiece. It is often forgotten that in the same address where he made his comments about Crimea, Zeman also acknowledged – in contradiction of Moscow’s line – that the peninsula had been illegally annexed. Or that this critic of Nato denounced those (encouraged by Moscow) who called the US soldiers involved in the 2015 Dragoon Ride operation ‘occupiers’ “because we have experiences with occupations (1938 and 1968) and it looks different". In other words, he was willing to contrast US Nato forces positively with the predominantly Russian Soviet forces who crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, at the time he warned that “anti-Russian fools” and “anti-US madmen” were equally bad.
Inevitably, the Russians make the fullest use of Zeman’s convenient utterances in their information warfare. Ironically, his main value to them is everywhere but in the Czech Republic: they cite him at home and abroad to try and demonstrate that there is some kind of growing pro-Kremlin consensus. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin once notably tweeted – in English – that Zeman was "a real man" for his public spat with Washington over attendance at the 2015 Victory Day parade in Moscow, where Zeman was the only Western head of state to attend.
He is also convenient because of his very divisiveness: one of the Kremlin’s key political warfare goals in Europe is to spread disunity between and within countries to ensure no common front can emerge to combat its imperialist agenda closer to home. It is also delighted by any controversies and contretemps which help erode the legitimacy of the Western democratic order, not least to minimise the normative challenge it presents to the Kremlin.
Zeman has relatively little real power though, beyond the power to nominate candidates to try and form the next government (which then needs to be able to command a parliamentary mandate). Nor has there been any evidence that his installation at Prague Castle – and even Nejedly’s position there as an adviser – has led to any security breaches or intelligence leaks.
More to the point, the dangerous irony is that Zeman’s critics can be just as useful for Moscow. The more rabid of the pack, those who are quick to characterise him as nothing but a Kremlin stooge, are also stirring up precisely the kind of division that the Russians love to see. Zeman stands for an unpleasant and opportunistic brand of socially conservative and often xenophobic populism. He is abusing the bully pulpit of Prague Castle to pick self-indulgent political fights with the government. These are all good and valid reasons to campaign against him. Yet to fixate on a supposed Moscow connection, in effect to condemn the majority who voted for him in 2013 as dupes and anti-patriots, is only to alienate a constituency that instead needs to be wooed.
Zeman, in his cavalier disregard for the niceties of consensus-building, his open doubts about the European project, his scare-mongering about a mythical migrant threat, is a symptom of a wider malaise in both the Czech Republic and the West as a whole. Addressing that on a fundamental level will naturally undermine the Zemans of this world.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.