VISEGRAD BLOG: Czech President Zeman's pro-Russian policy blows up in his face

VISEGRAD BLOG: Czech President Zeman's pro-Russian policy blows up in his face
Czech President Milos Zeman has been a frequent guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
By Robert Anderson in Prague April 20, 2021

Over the past few weeks, the Czech government appeared to have crossed a line in what critics argue has been a longstanding but gradual shift towards Moscow and away from the West; now, with the recent tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian and Czech diplomats, that shift has gone dramatically into reverse.

Relations between Prague and Moscow have been shattered. The Czech Republic may now line up squarely on the side of Washington, as tensions rise between new US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladmir Putin – over Ukraine, the imprisonment of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, and other Russian dirty tricks in Western democracies – ahead of a potential opening summit between the two leaders that Prague was bidding to hold. 

For pro-Russian Czech President Milos Zeman, who seemed to have victory in his grasp with the dismissal earlier this month of pro-Western Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, this reverse must have been hard to take – his spokesman said he would not be making any comment until the weekend.

Saturday’s quickly called late night press conference of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek was if anything more explosive than the little remarked incident it focused on: the sabotage of an ammunition depot in Vrbetice, near the country’s eastern border, in 2014.

Rather belatedly, BIS, the Czech secret services, recognised that the aliases of two Russians who are thought to have entered the depot matched that of the two alleged Russian agents accused of attempting to assassinate Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in the UK in 2018.

Czech media have reported that arms and ammunition stored in one of the depot’s warehouses was destined for a Bulgarian arms dealer, who would sell them on to Ukraine. The agents are suspected of planting explosive devices on the arms which were meant to kill the arms dealer, but they bungled the operation and the devices detonated prematurely, killing two security guards. One of the agents is also suspected of being involved in the 2015 attempted poisoning of the Bulgarian arms dealer with Novichok, also used in the Skripal case.

On Saturday, Babis and Hamacek announced the expulsion of 18 alleged Russian agents from its huge (130-strong) embassy in Prague; Moscow responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomats in Moscow, "crippling" the embassy, according to Hamacek, which now has just five diplomats left. Prague is now considering whether to retaliate to the retaliation with further expulsions from the Russian Embassy, long suspected of being a base for Russian spying throughout the region.

Close to treason

The shocking plunge in bilateral relations needs to be seen in the context of the Babis government’s previously amicable relations with Moscow, and opposition fears that this was about to get even warmer, following the dismissal of Petricek. For the country’s rightwing, as well as the liberal establishment who revere the memory of dissident President Vaclav Havel, the shift in the country’s orientation since Zeman became president in 2013 and Babis entered the cabinet in 2014 is not just worrying, it is close to treason.

“Since the beginning of 2014 it has been clear that the influence of Russian 'diplomats' is growing and expanding in our country,” said political analyst Ivan Gabal. “When reviewing what happened in the wild 2014, one cannot but notice the repeated laxity in our security needs, the periodically expressed doubts about Ukraine's right to determine its development, and the frequent parroting of Russian lies by our high constitutional officials. This includes a declared critical stance toward EU and Nato action.” 

The opposition detests Babis,  a populist billionaire who was a former Communist party member and a secret police informer, according to the Slovak National Memory Institute, which holds his files (he denies this). Babis has expressed scepticism over sanctions on Russia, though he has little interest in foreign policy and has allowed Zeman to dominate the country’s stance towards Moscow. He is now being accused of acting late on the Vrbetice case and of first trying to cover it up and then downplaying its significance.

Zeman,  a longstanding friend of Moscow and opponent of sanctions, has made frequent trips to see Putin and is a regular visitor to Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin’s Rhodes Forums.  Zeman has also called for the “Findlandization” of Ukraine, and has downplayed Russian involvement in the conflict there. The funding of his presidential campaigns has also been murky, and it has long been rumoured that some of the money is sourced from Russia.

Zeman has built up the foreign policy role of the president and Prague Castle has now essentially taken control of policy towards the Kremlin, choosing both the Czech ambassador to Moscow and the government’s plenipotentiary for relations with Russia.

He has also pushed for the sacking of the head of the Czech secret services, Michal Koudelka, whom he accused of exaggerating the danger posed by Russian and Chinese espionage. "I hope I do not reveal any state secret other than the secret about the incompetence of BIS,” Zeman said in 2018. “In the past six years, there has not been a single indication that even a single Russian or Chinese spy managed to be uncovered.”

In 2020, Zeman even tasked BIS with providing him with a report on Russian intelligence officers working in the Czech Republic and Czechs working with Russian intelligence, including the content of information they pass on and what the cooperation looks like. The BIS refused and leaked the request, causing an outcry and leading opposition senators to call for Zeman’s impeachment.

“The president is not a security risk, but a security threat,” said Jan Lipold, chief commentator for online news server Seznam. “Instead of supporting its credibility or just saying nothing, Milos Zeman undermines the authority of Czech counter-intelligence. This is unique in Europe, and now we have it in black and white that it was in line with Russian interests.” 

Deafening silence

Zeman and Babis have long supported each other for mutual benefit, and Zeman also remains influential in his former party, the Social Democrats. He has pushed for Czechia to buy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and for Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy group, to take part in the €6bn Czech tender to expand the Dukovany nuclear power station.

Earlier this month, Zeman appeared to be close to achieving his goals. Hamacek, who has always tried to stay on the good side of Zeman, given his power within the struggling Social Democrats, took over as acting foreign minister after sacking his party colleague for challenging his leadership. Lubomir Zaoralek, a former Social Democrat foreign minister, had refused Hamacek’s public offer to take over, saying the ministry had been “gutted” of influence under his successor. 

Hamacek immediately announced he would fly to Moscow to negotiate the purchase of Sputnik V vaccines, echoing Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban and former Slovak populist premier Igor Matovic, who was later forced to step down over his unilateral move. 

Moscow’s “vaccine diplomacy” looked like it had chalked up another victory, though Hamacek had said that any purchase would only take place after the European Medicines Agency had given its approval to the vaccine. He also now rather unconvincingly claims this was a feint to mislead Moscow. Whatever the truth of the matter, this trip is now out of the question for the foreseeable future, as is the idea of holding any Biden-Putin summit in Prague.

Earlier this month Moscow could also be happy that Rosatom had been kept in the tender for building a new unit at the Dukovany power station,  despite reported concerns from the Czech secret services and angry demands from the country’s rightwing and liberal opposition parties. Now Babis’ Industry Minister Jan Havlicek has said that Rosatom will be excluded from the tender.

The BIS has finally won its battle to exclude Rosatom, and with the alleged Russian sabotage and spy expulsions appearing to prove their warnings true, Zeman’s humiliation is complete. His silence has been deafening.

“The silence of the president in these difficult moments seems to be as tragic as the death of the people who died in the explosion,” said opposition Civic Democrat MP Jana Cernochova in an interview for Extra. “Someone [may] think that President Zeman took a week to think about it because he lacks instructions from Moscow. After all, the president should be the first to stand up for his citizens and demand an explanation, an apology and a compensation.” 

Petr Gazdik, Deputy Chairman of the Mayors and Independents party, reacted in a similar way on Twitter. "Today, President Milos Zeman confirmed in his announced silence that his deeds are not of the head of the Czech Republic, but an agent of an enemy power.”

For Zeman, the collapse of his Russian policy is even more bitter given that he has also suffered a significant reverse in his drive to build stronger relations between Prague and Beijing. Zeman championed Chinese investment in Czechia through the Chinese conglomerate CEFC, whose CEO was attached to the Castle. He also supported Czech investment in China, flying back from there on the private jet of recently deceased Czech billionaire Petr Kellner, whose Home Credit operation was one of the first Western businesses to offer consumer loans in China.

Over the past couple of years, Zeman’s China policy has also collapsed. CEFC imploded and was taken over by the Chinese government; its CEO has now disappeared. Moreover, the investment never materialised: Chinese investment numbers are still lower than Taiwan’s. Kellner’s death is also a big loss for China, even though the billionaire had been refocusing his investments on his native country after racking up significant losses from his Russian and Chinese operations, partly because of the pandemic but also because of over-aggressive lending policies.

Meanwhile, Czechia has bowed to American pressure and Kellner’s Cetin telecom infrastructure company excluded Huawei from the country’s telecom backbone. Prague City Council, led by Pirate mayor Zdenek Hrib, has torn up its friendship treaty with Beijing and has built up relations with Taipei. 

For Zeman, now 76 and confined to a wheelchair, it looks like his political career is ending in the defeat of everything he tried to achieve. Babis looks unlikely to win re-election in October against the combined opposition, and Zeman’s former party, the Social Democrats, will be lucky to re-enter parliament. His most lasting legacy in fact might be the destruction of his former party, which he had built up to dominate the country’s politics from 1997-2017, but could not bear to see become a normal West European-style Social Democratic party.