THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW
Date: 10 August 2017 Author: Jakub Janda, Veronika Víchová
The Kremlin’s hostile influence in the Czech Republic: The state of play
This is a brief report on the state of play of the Kremlin’s hostile influence in the Czech Republic as of July 2017, and on what is being done to counter it. It consists of four basic responses to questions, put together from the reports and papers authored or co-authored by the European Values Think-Tank and complemented by open sources in order to make the report as current as possible. The goal of this report is to present the situation in the Czech Republic, to introduce the main channels of the Kremlin’s hostile influence, their effectiveness, and the most relevant responses from the government and the civil society.
1. What is the general character of Czech-Russian relations?
The relations between the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation have always been marked by the legacy Czechs carry from the communist era and the invasion of the Warsaw Pact military into Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, there is still a considerable part of the population that shares pro-Kremlin sentiments, especially amongst voters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the third-most popular party in the country. Generally, Czechs have acted pragmatically when dealing with Russia in the past, focusing mostly on economic and energy interests, but repeatedly expressing concerns about democracy and human rights issues. According to the 2012 Czech Export Strategy, Russia was among twelve priority countries.
Energy security is possibly the most sensitive topic in the Czech-Russian relations, with the Czech Republic being slightly dependent on Russia and the Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom being an exclusive supplier of fuel for the Temelin nuclear plant. The reputation of Russia as a reliable supplier was damaged after turmoil accompanying the previous efforts of the United States to allocate anti-missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and in Poland, to which Russia reacted by curtailing oil supplies via the Druzhba pipeline in the Czech Republic by 50%. Since then, the Czech Republic has been a vocal supporter of projects reducing the negative impacts of energy dependency on Russia. The Czech energy sector is still of interest to Russian business, especially Gazprom, as well as espionage.
The economic exchange has been declining recently following the devaluation of rouble, the recession of Russian economy, and economic sanctions. The Czech Security Information Service (BIS) warned in its Annual Report against the penetration of Russian capital connected to the grey zone economy in the Czech environment, and the strengthening of the Kremlin’s political influence in the Czech Republic. But the Czech foreign policy continues being active in the Eastern partnership region.
After the start of the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, the Czech Republic shifted its views on the political level. By now, the Czech Republic is well aware of the threats posed by the Kremlin, even though the Czech President Miloš Zeman works on maintaining relations between the two countries, denies the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine and has repeatedly criticised the EU sanctions against Russia.
2. What tools of Kremlin’s influence are most active in the Czech Republic?
Prague, the Capital of the Czech Republic, has always been a fruitful soil for Kremlin’s active measures and clandestine operations, partly because of its convenient geographical position in the centre of Europe. According to the Annual Report of the BIS, the Russian intelligence services were the most active ones in the Czech Republic in 2015. Russian intelligence officers often operate under diplomatic cover of the Russian Embassy which has more employees than embassies of other states, including the United States and China, the report says.
As of 2017, the Russian Embassy in Prague consists of 48 members of diplomatic personnel and 81 members of administration and technical personnel. These numbers are still higher than the ones of the United States (40 diplomats) and China (25 diplomats).
According to anonymous sources from the Czech counter-intelligence services, there is a base of Soviet espionage from the 1969 in Prague which never left and revived its contacts after the Velvet revolution. These former Soviet agents are now operating within the circles of organized crime and make an effort to influence high politics and enhance the dependency of the Czech Republic on Russia.
It is not an easy task for the Czech Republic to respond to the state of overpopulation at the Russian Embassy in Prague. The number of Czech diplomats in Moscow is lower than the size of Russian spy community in the Czech Republic. Therefore, expulsion of Russian diplomatic employees might soon result in an empty Czech Embassy in the Russian Federation.
The Czech media space has problems of its own, primarily the conflict of interest due to the ownership of several media outlets by the former Deputy Prime Minister and a hot candidate for the Prime Minister’s seat after the general elections in October 2017. Despite these issues, it is important to note that the mainstream and public media manage to inform the Czechs objectively and responsibly, for the most part. The few cases of bias were mostly connected to the TV Prima channel which applied a policy of only broadcasting negative reports about Syrian refugees.
There is only one official Russian quasi-media project in Czech language, the website Sputnik. But there are also many subjects and personalities which, directly or indirectly serve the interests of the Kremlin. Furthermore, there are around 40 Czech-language websites without known links to the Russian government, which repeatedly publish false reports and spread manipulative narratives, often motivated by adoration of Russia or economic interests. Most of these disinformation and manipulation websites are largely non-transparent, they do not disclose the names of the authors of the content, financial resources or owners. In cases where the people behind the websites are known, they are often widely personally interconnected. Several websites are owned by only one person and the authors of opinion articles and commentaries publish on many of them at the same time as well. The same characteristics apply also to social media campaigns, which are more often than not focused not only on supporting Russia, but on stirring emotions about the refugee crisis in Europe.
The disinformation spread in the Czech-language online outlets and social networks often originate from foreign servers, mostly either Kremlin’s official channels or conspiracy websites in English language, like Global Research or Southfront. Many of the websites do not even produce their own content, only translate foreign articles, with a very low quality. What the articles lack in quality, they gain in quantity – the number of reports per week is very high and is reinforced by sharing on social networks, especially Facebook.
The Czech President Miloš Zeman plays a crucial role in the Czech disinformation scene. He repeats the disinformation and narratives supported by these websites (for example, he repeated the statements about the alleged Banders in Ukraine or the non-truths about the alleged Ukrainian language law), and these outlets also come to his aid and support when he needs it. His statements and opinions are regularly repeated by disinformation outlets and he is generally presented as the only person in the Czech Republic who actually cares about its citizens. But there are also other politicians who help the disinformation ecosystem grow, either intentionally or because of their ignorance. Across the political spectrum, there are individuals who tend to share articles from these websites on their social media accounts and sometimes they even let themselves get caught while trusting reports which are not based on facts.
Two of the most popular disinformation stories of 2017 so far come from a notorious website Aeronet, which provides no information about its personal structures whatsoever. The first informed about an alleged radioactive cloud above Europe coming from a “strange explosion in the French nuclear plant”, accusing European governments from keeping it secret and recommending that Czech citizens buy Iodine tablets and dosimeters. In reality, the slightly increased levels of radioactive Iodine in the air were possibly coming from a different source more to the East and were not dangerous for human health in any way, unlike the Iodine tablets people were recommended to digest.
The second example represents very well a typical reaction of disinformation websites after any natural disaster or terrorist attack – accusing someone from a false flag operation. After the recent tragic chemical attacks in Syria, Aeronet reported that there is evidence confirming that the attacks in Idlib were staged by the White Helmets and the CIA.
Support of political allies
In many European countries, there are politicians with significant influence, who are sympathetic towards the behaviour of the Russian Federation. They often advocate for Kremlin’s interpretation of the Ukrainian conflict or oppose the sanctions policies of the EU and the United States. They can get aid from the Russian Federation, which can be either ideological and political, for example by regular invitations for ceremonial visits in Moscow or Crimea, or financial, as we saw in the case of the French National Front. These politicians can later help the Kremlin with legitimization in front of domestic audiences.
The Czech Republic is no exception. Amongst the key political allies of the Kremlin, there are the President Miloš Zeman, most of the representatives of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, a few of the representatives of the Czech Social Democratic Party and some representatives of the extreme right.
President Zeman is used by the Kremlin’s hostile influence operations for domestic reasons inside Russia as much as for disrupting the Czech society from the inside. He undermines the Czech membership in NATO and the EU, he denies organized Russian military presence in Ukraine, and he also calls for lifting sanctions against the Russian Federation. Russian state media portray him as a European ally of Vladimir Putin, a critic of the Russian opposition and a fighter against the United States.
Besides President Zeman’s behaviour and proclamations, there are also the advisors surrounding him, often with very dubious backgrounds. The chief economic adviser of the president worked as an executive of an energy company with close links to the Kremlin for many years and the company even payed a fine for him when he was convicted of selling aviation oil from strategic reserves. The chief of Zeman’s office did not get security clearance at all and the chief of the President’s military office did not get his clearance prolonged.
3. How successful the Kremlin is in influencing the Czech Republic?
The unfortunate truth is that the data calculating the exact impact of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations on the Czech society are missing. We can find out whether Czechs believe the Kremlin-friendly narratives and the Kremlin’s interpretation of international and domestic events. To some extent, we can even measure whether the main goal of the Russian Federation is being fulfilled – the level of trust of citizens towards democratic institutions and mainstream media. But what we cannot do is to attribute these results to a specific disinformation campaign or report, to the activity of a group of websites, etc.
In 2016, the public polls conducted in cooperation with the STEM agency showed that over 25% of the Czech population believes disinformation and over 24 % of people trust disinformation and manipulation media outlets more than mainstream media. These people perceive threats and the role of Russia differently from the rest.
When we look at specific narratives, over half of Czech citizens think that the United States is responsible for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees coming to Europe, while over 28% of the Czech public believes that Russian military intervention in Syria helps solve the refugee crisis. Almost 3 out of 10 people also blamed the United States for the Ukrainian crisis, even though it is the Russian military occupying part of the Ukrainian territory. On the other hand, only 1/5 of respondents stated to believe the lie that there are no organized Russian military forces in Ukraine, despite the repetition of these claims by the President Miloš Zeman. Czech people are the most Eurosceptic within the Visegrad region, but NATO still has strong support, with the exception of locating NATO facilities on Czech soil.
Slovak think-tank GLOBSEC repeated similar polling in 2017, confirming that Czechs think they should geopolitically stand somewhere between the West and the East and remain as neutral as possible. According to this survey, 30% of Czech also believes that autocracy would be the best political system for our country and 49% of them does not believe the mainstream media.
When we speak about the impact of the Kremlin’s hostile influence, it is also important to note that despite the efforts of reporting tubes of the Kremlin in the Czech politics, the general direction of the Czech foreign policy stays unchanged. The Czech Foreign Ministry continuously supports the integrity of Ukraine, considers it a priority country for transformation cooperation, and recently also published a statement highlighting the fact that the Czech Republic considers the so-called “people’s republics” in the Eastern part of Ukraine non-legitimate and the Russian military presence in Ukraine to be a gross violation of international law.
4. What is the Czech Republic doing to counter the influence of the Kremlin?
The Czech government conducted the National Security Audit last year, within which it evaluated all the strengths and weaknesses of the Czech defence and security policies, including in the area of resilience against foreign powers’ influence. The Audit included a set of specific recommendations in order to enhance the resilience of the Czech Republic, based on which an action plan was created. Several of these recommendations are already being implemented.
Within the National Security Audit framework, the Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats has been established. It has been operational since January 2017 and amongst other things, it is supposed to monitor the disinformation community in the Czech Republic, respond to disinformation stories which pose danger to internal security, and keep track of the most important narratives spread by foreign powers. Its job is also to coordinate the efforts within different ministries to counter hostile influence and to train and educate civil servants. The first trainings already began in cooperation with Czech intelligence services, with the main goal to better prepare civil servants for defence against foreign efforts to get sensitive information.
There are also several civil society initiatives which try to tackle some of the tools used by the Kremlin to spread its influence in the Czech Republic. The European Values Think-Tank has a Kremlin Watch Program focusing on monitoring the disinformation operations in the Czech Republic, and also regular briefings and policy development on the European level. The Association for International Affairs launched a Czech-language version of the Ukrainian website Stopfake.org fact-checking news about the situation in Ukraine. The People in Need organization provides teachers with education material on the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign and organizes workshops and lectures on media literacy.
Academia is also active, with the researchers from the Masaryk University taking the lead, dedicating their work to manipulation techniques of disinformation websites. Also, the Zvol si info initiative originated by the students of the university, shows young people how to confirm their sources and choose objective and reliable news. Last but not least, individual journalists are conducting investigations from time to time, in order to reveal the origins and connections of the people behind the disinformation projects in the Czech Republic. A good example would be the work of Ondřej Kundra from the Respekt magazine who inquired about the Aeronet website.
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