Russia saving its energy for January presidential election
Despite the Czech disinformation community being the most advanced and established compared to other Central European states, major challenges remain, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections and the presidential election in January 2018.
The situation in the Czech Republic has revealed active pro-Putin disinformation networks, an extensive Russian diplomatic and intelligence community stationed in the country, and President Miloš Zeman as a leading pro-Kremlin figure on the one side and the newly established policies and capacities of the Czech state to counter hostile influence of foreign powers (including disinformation) on the other. The struggle between the Czech security establishment and pro-Putin powers continues, even if it is not a major topic in the current parliamentary electoral campaign.
After experiencing a massive spread of hostile disinformation and other tools of Kremlin influence in the region, the Czech government decided to take action. The cabinet adopted a new policy document, titled the National Security Audit, in December 2016 setting up policy priorities on the “influence of foreign powers”, new structures and procedures, which includes a new 20-man Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHT) operated within the interior ministry. It does not aim exclusively to counter disinformation, nevertheless, it is considered to be one of the main tools in the playbook to fight hostile influence. The CTHT has been perceived by many journalists as an anti-fake news centre, which is slightly misleading since it primarily focuses on hybrid threats (meaning all the ways hostile foreign powers try to intervene in Czech domestic affairs) and most of its work is non-public or classified as the whole-government policy is being implemented within all the security-related ministries.
While the policy remains incomplete, there have been some signs that the efforts are already bringing effect. According to the Vulnerability Index on Central Europe, the Czech Republic now ranks the second least vulnerable state after Poland. Yet, despite the Czech disinformation community clearly being the most advanced and established compared to other Central European states, major challenges remain, especially in light of upcoming parliamentary elections as well as presidential election in January 2018.
The effectiveness of pro-Kremlin forces in Prague is a result of the Czech president’s loud pro-Putin support as well as the fact that key disinformation-spreading groups have developed a working business model, raising an estimated one million euros in annual revenue from online advertisements alone. Moreover, the Czech Republic has also been a springboard to some Russian intelligence activities, considering the fact that 130-150 personnel held diplomatic posts in Prague in recent years, a number overwhelmingly large when compared to others in the region.
President Zeman is constitutionally a ceremonial figure, yet, his informal political influence remains significant. Zeman is the pivot patron of Russian (and also Chinese) influence in the country which makes it clear whom the Kremlin and its proxies will probably support in the presidential election in January 2018. Zeman supports the local pro-Putin disinformation community, systematically spreading Putin messages about Ukraine or Syria, attacking the government’s efforts to push back against Russian influence in the country, serving as the Kremlin’s loyal ally in the Russian media space and openly mocking the work of Czech intelligence agencies.
Remarkably, the Czech security community does not expect major foreign interference in the parliamentary elections happening this week. The expected winner Andrej Babiš (the ANO party chairman) is not a pro-Kremlin figure as his foreign-policy stances are not stable, given the fact that he is not really interested in international affairs at all. The other key parties (ČSSD, ODS, KDU-ČSL, TOP 09) with relevant coalition potential hold clearly or slightly pro-Atlantic views, so there is not much of a winning scenario for the interests of the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, Babiš’s Russia policy is not well defined and he often changes his views. If Zeman were to win the presidential re-election in January 2018, Babiš could align with him, tolerating his pro-Putin narrative. Furthermore, Babiš’s approach (centralised leadership, business-oriented, pragmatic policies) could lead the Czech Republic to become a target of strong attempts by the Kremlin and the business interests around him to extend economic influence. Babiš has already called for the lifting of western sanctions against Russian aggression. However, it is also possible that Babiš could be swayed by the pro-Atlantic and anti-Kremlin stances of his own defence minister and leading foreign policy figure within his party – Martin Stropnický.
Open pro-Kremlin voices are also visible within the Communist Party (KSČM) and the far right “Freedom and Direct Democracy” led by Tomio Okamura, a well-known populist who regularly attends pro-Kremlin international gatherings. Both parties have a very limited chance of joining the government coalition since their policies and politics are out of the mainstream, however, they have a relevant social influence. So far, no major interference is noticeable outside the regular disinformation campaigns which haven’t increased in volume during the campaign. If a major interference in the parliamentary elections were to happen, it would most likely be scrutinised by the relatively strong Czech expert and media community, which is already aware of the threats. Such interference would raise alarms and could endanger Russia’s main objective – helping Zeman win his second presidential term (2018-2023). In fact, Russia has already interfered in the presidential election. In late 2016, Martin Nejedlý, a key Zeman advisor, received over one million euros from Lukoil (a Russian state-owned company) to cover his personal debts and so that he could stay around the president and run most of the campaign, as he did in 2013 when he joined after working for more than a decade in Moscow and then for Lukoil.
As we have seen in other western elections, an effective way of supporting a Kremlin-preferred candidate is to directly attack his or her main opponent. That is why we can expect efforts to discredit and create disinformation about Zeman’s key challengers – Jiří Drahoš and Michal Horáček. If any of these two challengers win, they would undoubtedly confront the pro-Kremlin community in the Czech Republic, as they are both highly critical of the current incumbent’s actions. Moreover, if we are to see interference on social media, it will most likely be on Facebook rather than Twitter (Twitter has limited political and social impact in the Czech politics with only about up to half million users). Facebook has more than four million Czech users, but it also harder for automated bots and fake profiles to operate, especially after the lessons of the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
Therefore, in the context of this week’s parliamentary elections there is no doubt that the Kremlin-inspired Czech disinformation efforts will save their energy for what they see as the biggest prize – keeping Zeman in the Prague Castle.
This article is a shortened abstract of the latest joint study looking at Russian interference options in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Jakub Janda is the Head of the Kremlin Watch Program at Prague-based European Values Think-Tank, he has been advising the Czech government on countering the hostile influence of foreign powers.