Parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic on Oct. 20-21 could deal a double blow to the EU project. The next Czech government is likely to be a populist coalition that will hamper democratic practices and leave the country more vulnerable to Russian efforts to further divide the European Union.
The ruling pro-EU Czech Social Democratic Party has been in persistent conflict with an openly pro-Russian President, Miloš Zeman, and the populist Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, or ANO, movement led by wealthy Czech oligarch Andrej Babiš. ANO is unabashedly euroskeptic, resists further European integration, and opposes various EU policies, including the economic sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.
During the past year, support for the Social Democrats has fallen under 15 percent despite the relatively respectable performance of the Czech economy. The ANO movement outperformed the Social Democrats in several key regional elections in October 2016 with a focus on national identity and opposition to immigration. In recent opinion polls, it registered a double-digit lead over the Social Democrats and looks on track to lead any new coalition government.
ANO has no clear ideology but plays on populist themes to gain power. Similar to the ruling parties in both Hungary and Poland, it is less concerned about democratic checks and balances and more focused on restoring national sovereignty, which it alleges is under threat from Brussels. This can steer the country toward a more centralized and statist capitalist system that favors loyal oligarchs. The rule of law in the Czech Republic is already failing to meet EU standards because of high-level political interference in the judicial process that often targets political opponents. This is likely to worsen under an ANO-led government.
Opponents charge that Babiš and Zeman will continue to exploit xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments during the election campaign and resist the European Union’s migrant quota directive, under which member states are expected to accept a share of Muslim immigrants. This is similar to the stance of several Central European leaders who claim that Brussels should not impose mandatory quotas that will destabilize their societies.
An ANO victory will also assist the Vladimir Putin regime in driving a wedge through Central Europe to disable a common front against Russia’s expansionism. The Kremlin already views Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico as pliable leaders who can be enticed to distance themselves from the European Union and NATO. The Czech Republic is now the main target. The current president is often accused of being openly pro-Kremlin, and his close advisers reportedly maintain financial connections with Moscow.
The focus will now be on the incoming prime minister. Links between Moscow and amenable Central European politicians are based primarily on lucrative business contracts and donations to political campaigns, together with compromising personal material that can provide extra political leverage. After winning office in March 2013, Zeman pledged to promote closer political and economic ties with Moscow. He has connections with General Vladimir Yakunin, a former Chairman of Russian Railroads, Putin confidant, and ex-KGB officer blacklisted by Washington for involvement in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Zeman also received funds for his election campaign from Martin Nejedlý, a former head of the Czech Lukoil office who is Zeman’s senior economic advisor.
Zeman openly favors Babiš to become the next Czech prime minister. Such an outcome could further estrange the country from both the European Union and NATO. Babiš was dismissed from the Finance Ministry in May following allegations of tax dodging and fraudulently using EU subsidies. Czech police have asked parliament to allow for Babiš’s prosecution, with some reports linking him to opaque Russian business interests. Babiš uses his substantial media holdings to attack political opponents.
In addition to weakening the European project, an ANO-led coalition may jeopardize regional security. Until now, Czech intelligence services have been vigilant in uncovering Russian subversion. Under a Moscow-friendly government their work could be curtailed and undermine EU intelligence sharing. The current Czech government monitors and alerts the public to false news spread by websites supported by Moscow. The Kremlin is reportedly behind at least forty Czech-language websites peddling conspiracy theories. The goal of such operations is to sow doubts among citizens about the value of democracy and create negative images of the European Union, the United States, and NATO.
In addition to canvassing for the lifting of EU sanctions against Moscow, the next Czech government is likely to facilitate new energy deals with Russia that would undercut the region’s energy diversity and competition. For instance, an ANO government is likely to select Russia’s Rosatom to build a new reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia lie at the epicenter of Russia’s campaign to subvert EU and NATO states from within. Putin’s policy planners calculate that governments can be influenced to serve Kremlin designs, transforming Central Europe into a neutral zone. The election of populist politicians with ties to the Kremlin will present new threats for the EU, which is already grappling with challenges to democracy and the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.