In Czechia, enthusiasm for the West is waning while Russia’s influence is regaining strength. Could the Czechs become a bridge between East and West?
At the Café Louvre, prominently located on Boulevard Národní between Prague’s Old and New Town, the good old days are alive and well. Under stucco ceilings adorned with heavy chandeliers, liveried and bow-tied waiters flit around between glistening wood tables. More than 100 years ago, Kafka enjoyed his coffee here; Albert Einstein is another famous patron. The owners take a lot of pride in this heritage. Even today, this place oozes Czech history in all its Austrian-Hungarian imperial and royal splendor.
Milan Horáček picked a spot at the very back of the parlor, away from the bustle of international tourists who are busy taking pictures of the street through the windows. After ordering strawberry soup and an ice cream sundae, the 71-year-old glances up somberly from the menu. “I’m rather ill-disposed towards my fellow Czechs right now,” he says.
On paper, the Czechs are doing great. Economic growth is vigorous, unemployment is at only 2.4 percent. It is a success they owe partly to Horáček‘s efforts.
Following the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, he returned to his home country after 20 years in political exile in Germany, where he had helped found the Green Party and had been elected to the German parliament in 1983. Upon his return, he became a member of the advisory staff to the new Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel.
Together, they worked on setting the nation on a steady Western course. In 1999, after separating from Slovakia, Czechia joined NATO; in 2004, it joined the EU. By then, former dissident and human rights activist Havel had already left office. Yet it seemed he had accomplished his historic mission of embedding Czechia in the Western community of states.
Fourteen years later, there is reason to doubt whether he really achieved that. The EU’s reputation in the country has suffered massively in the past few years. The Eurobarometer indicates that confidence in European institutions is lower in Czechia than in any other former Eastern bloc nation. Not even a third of the population has a positive view of the community. Only crisis-ridden Greece scores lower in this category.
At the same time, the Czechs increasingly favor a country they used to view mostly as an adversary after the fall of Communism: Russia.
This is a development no one could have easily foreseen. Exactly 50 years ago, Soviet tanks came rumbling through the streets of the Czechoslovakian capital to crush the Prague Spring. Twenty-one years later, the Velvet Revolution was also directed against Russian influence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia could hardly wait for the last Russian troops to leave the country. So how is it possible that esteem for Russia is suddenly on the rise again?
“The Czechs’ view of Russia has always been volatile,” Radek Buben explains. He is a political scientist at Prague’s Charles University. As early as the 19th century, large parts of the population looked favorably towards the east. “Back then, Russia was the only independent Slavic power,” Buben says. The Tsar, they hoped, could liberate the Czechs from Austrian domination and protect them from German influence.
Even back then, some voices cautioned that the Tsarist system was also mainly an apparatus of oppression, yet overall, the positive view prevailed – partly also because the Czechs, unlike their neighbors in Poland and Hungary, had not yet had any first-hand negative experiences with Russia.
The pendulum has been swinging back and forth ever since, Buben says. To this day. In the 1990s, Russia was mainly seen as the former oppressor, yet this has given way to an image of Moscow as a potential ally in the fight for Europe’s cultural identity – a view held by large parts of the population now.
“Many Czechs are skeptical about the West, mainly in terms of social issues,” Buben explains. “The social movements of the 1970s and 1980s had a much lesser impact here than on the other side of the Iron Curtain.”
Now, there is also a sentiment that immigration to Europe might further change the character of the continent. “The dominant view is that each society should take care of itself. Multiculturalism is seen as a threat,” Buben continues. This makes Russia a role model – after all, President Vladimir Putin styles himself as the defender of an ethnically and religiously homogenous Europe.
A study by the International Republican Institute last year confirms this. Almost 40 percent of surveyed Czechs agreed with the statement that Russia and Putin could be allies against an EU “that compels us to abandon our values”. Just as many respondents had reservations about Putin as a person, but they wanted Russia at their side in this particular matter. This bodes ill for Havel’s vision to firmly and irreversibly anchor Czechia in the West.
For the sake of a full picture, though, we must also mention that Western institutions have been in an almost constant state of crisis since Czechia joined them. Early on, the country was unenthusiastic about the war in Kosovo. A few years later, long-standing allies fell out with one another over the right course of action in Iraq.
The situation within the EU was even more dramatic. Four years after the Czechs joined, the world economy took a dive following the financial crisis, which soon thereafter also seized the Eurozone. For several years, Europe experienced a permanent state of emergency, only to be superseded by the conflict about migration.
In the light of all these problems, large parts of the population turned away from Western institutions – and from the liberal elites that had promoted integration into these institutions under Havel. “Since the Velvet Revolution, a lot has improved in the country, but large parts of the population had expected more,” says Jonáš Syrovátka at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI).
More and more people are therefore nostalgic about the seeming simplicity of the time before the Revolution. Add to this a deep-rooted general sentiment amongst the Czechs that they belong neither fully to the East nor to the West. “Many believe that due to our location in Central Europe, we can cherry-pick from both sides,” says Syrovátka. “The Czechs would like to be a bridge between East and West.”
Moscow has also taken note how the Czechs sit on the fence. The Kremlin is observing developments in Czechia very closely – and, according to security agencies, also likes to occasionally nudge the country in the desired direction.
Czech security agencies warned that Russia is trying to “influence Czech public perception and opinion” via Czech-language media, thus promoting a “relativity of truth”.
“There are more than 40 websites with connections to Russia that routinely put out fake news,” says Pavel Havlicek at AMO, a foreign policy think tank in Prague. The Russian propaganda medium Sputnik also has a Czech edition. “The propagated messages are often anti-EU, xenophobic, and pro-Russia, for instance regarding the conflict in Ukraine and Crimea,” Havlicek continues.
This sentiment is now also being spun from the very top, as President Milos Zeman is adopting an increasingly pro-Russian stance. In the past year, he advocated ending European sanctions against Russia and considering the annexation of Crimea as “a done deed”. He suggested that Ukraine should be “compensated” for the loss of the peninsula – in money, oil, or gas.
The suggestion was a clear deviation from the European consensus on Russia, but at home, the proposition was received well. Zeman was just reelected in January – with support from the alternative media scene and financial funding from muddy sources.
Other connections are more obvious. Zeman’s closest advisor worked in Moscow in the 1990s and established the Czech affiliate of Russian mineral oil corporation Lukoil before co-founding the political movement of the future President. The President also attended multiple events held by Putin confidante Vladimir Jakunin, a former KGB officer who is blacklisted by the USA.
Zeman’s influence on everyday Czech politics is limited. But parliamentary majorities have shifted after last year’s elections as well. The new Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is heading a minority government that relies on the tolerance of traditionally pro-Russian Communists. The right-wing populist party SPD, which also steers a pro-Russian course, was elected to the Czech parliament for the very first time.
The impact of this new constellation can already be felt. When parliament recently voted on a deployment of Czech troops to the Baltic region for a NATO operation, the Communists and SPD increased pressure on Babiš to refrain from such deployment, unsuccessfully. Yet analyst Havlicek thinks that this development harbors risks. “The Prime Minister is not pro-Russian, but the current political constellation with Zeman as our head of state and the Communists as tie-breakers could have an impact on Czech foreign policy in the medium term,” he says.
At the Café Louvre, former Presidential adviser Horáček isn’t holding back his concerns. Just a few days prior, President Zeman had invited journalists to Prague Castle and then proceeded to burn red underwear that a group of artists had flown above the castle in protest in front of the press. Meanwhile, new corruption charges against Prime Minister Babiš keep coming to light.
“Right now, the vilest things are coming to the surface that could possibly emerge in this sad nation,” Horáček says. “A clown in Prague Castle and a crook at the head of our government.” And yet, he has not given up hope that Havel’s vision for Czechia will ultimately prevail. “It is not a law of nature that things have to get worse,” he says. “The pendulum always swings back and forth.”
The research trip to Czechia was made possible by a Transatlantic Media Fellowship by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America in Washington, DC.
This article originally appeared in German in Handelsblatt on 23 June 2018. It was translated into English by Kerstin Trimble.