Election of Zeman shows limits and opportunities of Moscow's meddling

The pro-Russian Czech president Miloš Zeman (73) won the election from pro-European candidate Jiri Drahoš. This is good news for the Kremlin, and shoudl have been clinched by Russian disinformation. But is it that simple? Our security analyst Mark Galeotti puts things into perspective in his analysis for RaamopRusland. Fake news can come just as easily from domestic propagandists and the presidency is but a ceremonial job. In essence this political fight amounts to the split between the Prague Café and the Czech pub.

Zeman’s narrow election, by a 51% to 49% margin, in a second round of voting on 27 January, has disheartened Czech liberals but is widely assumed to be some kind of victory for Moscow. Of course, the Russians preferred to see Zeman elected than his challenger, moderate, pro-European Jiri Drahoš. Zeman is a cantankerous, outspoken and wilfully disruptive figure, the troll president, seeming to delight in causing controversy. He makes no secret of his belief that the Czech Republic should have better relations with Moscow, has said that 'Crimea cannot be given back to Ukraine' and has called for an end to European sanctions.

Furthermore, his closest circle include the controversial Martin Nejedly, an entrepreneur who spent most of the 1990s working in Russia – although the details remain hazy – and then headed the Czech subsidiary of Russian oil company Lukoil until it was closed down in 2015. Nejedly, who gave a generous donation to support Zeman’s previous presidential campaign in 2012, is frequently described as some kind of Russian connection. Indeed the New York Times called him Putin’s 'paymaster' in Europe. Nonetheless, as one of Zeman’s advisers he now has offices in the presidential seat of Prague Castle and frequently accompanies him on foreign travels.

So far, so alarming. Furthermore, especially in the lead-up to the run-off voting round, after the field had been narrowed to Zeman and Drahoš, the eruption of vicious and essentially false news and commentary about the challenger certainly seemed to fit a pattern: the Russians identify their preferred choice in an election and then crank up the disinformation machine to make sure it happens.

This is the kind of simple narrative often embraced these days, but even if there is much truth to it, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Mixed messages

First of all, ‘fake news’ has clearly become a weapon all can use. Drahoš was attacked for being a supporter of illegal immigration (he is not), a thief (ditto), a secret police informant from Communist days (debunked by the official archivists of their records) and a paedophile (even more false). Much was clearly initiated as a dirty tricks campaign to be taken up and spread by Zeman’s supporters. Then there were the usual ‘alternative media’ websites and news services that tend to have an anti-Western or simply anti-establishment bias, which gleefully repeated these slurs.

Zeman also faced his own ‘fake news’ attacks, mainly relating to his age, drinking, and health, or that people did not need to vote for him because the incumbent automatically went through to the second round of the ballot. This was much less evident than the barrage of attacks against Drahoš, though. As well as an easier time with the ‘alternative media', the president also benefited from campaign funding, largely via the ‘Friends of Miloš Zeman' a shadowy ngo run by Nejedly and another Russia-linked adviser, Vratislav Mynář. Perhaps a third of the money it collected came from still-unclear sources, generating the inevitable suspicions and allegations that somehow it came from Moscow.

It could be; certainly the Russians do seek to develop sources of ‘black account’  to support convenient political candidates and movements in the West. Besides which, allegations have emerged that Zeman had pocketed millions from corrupt deals around the Russian company Falcon Capital. The trouble is that the Czech authorities tend to be reticent about addressing the corruption still endemic within the higher levels of society, at least (this is not the kind of country where a traffic cop will try and extort a ‘fine’ with a spurious speeding claim) especially in light of the current allegations around billionaire Prime Minister Babiš. Nonetheless, one would have hoped that this was exactly the kind of thing the BIS, the Czech intelligence service, was monitoring, and that this would have come to light.

There is, after all, precious little evidence of a direct Russian hand. Malicious and sensationalist ‘fake news’ can, sadly, come just as easily from domestic propagandists. Quiet campaign contributions could come from all kinds of local sources – including conceivably Babiš himself, eager to see an ally stay in the Castle...

Read the full article here.

Dr Mark Galeotti is the IIR Senior Researcher, the Co-ordinator of the Centre for European Security of the IIR as well as an internationally recognized expert on transnational organized crime, security issues and modern Russia.