Czech mayors challenge China, Russia from junior ranks | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.12.2019
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Czech mayors challenge China, Russia from junior ranks

Mayors in the Czech Republic have been sidelining their national government in confrontations with Beijing and Moscow. Their unilateral actions add to the disarray that characterizes their country's foreign policy.

Slapping his heavyset bearded face, Pavel Novotny feigns boredom, outrage and madness as accusations of fascism rain down on him.

The mayor of Reporyje — a village on the outskirts of Prague — gives as good as he gets in a vulgar spat with the hosts of "60 Minut" one the most influential political programs on Russian state television. Base entertainment it may be, but it frames a wider tussle that has lower-level Czech officials seeking to disrupt links with Russia and China that are being engineered at national level.

Read more: Spirit of dissent lives as Czechs mark Velvet Revolution with protest

Fury in Moscow has been provoked by Novotny's plans to build a monument to the Russian Liberation Army, a band of Russian POWs and deserters who fought for the Nazis before turning on their German masters to help liberate Prague in 1945.

Russia has hinted at sanctions and accuses Novotny of "pulling fascism from the grave." The former tabloid journalist told President Vladimir Putin to mind his own business.

Watch video 04:29

Grim reality in Czech Republic

"Increasingly, Czech relations with Russia are shaped by local authorities," notes Lukasz Ogrodnik at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Foreign policy schizophrenia

In many countries, such intrusion into international relations would likely be cut short. However, Czech foreign policy is mired in confusion, with the president, populist government, and political establishment jockeying for control.

The freelance interventions of lower-level officials add more players. Novotny's antics mirror the controversial meddling of President Milos Zeman.

An outspoken populist, the head of state seeks to strengthen ties to the east. His "alternative foreign policy" is at odds with the Czech Republic's formal Western alliances, which often come with demands for democracy and human rights attached.

Prague

Lower-level officials have begun to play an outsized role in Prague's relations with other countries

Prime Minister Andrej Babis sided with a Czech security services' recommendation to oust Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei from state contracts earlier this year. However, his minority government generally struggles to defend the country's pro-Western orientation in the face of Zeman's maneuvering. Reports suggest Huawei continues to supply hardware for Czech infrastructure.

Read more: Angela Merkel faces party revolt over Huawei in German 5G rollout

Other parts of the political establishment hope to correct the course. The main Czech security service, BIS, has issued explicit warnings that Russian and Chinese espionage and hybrid warfare pose an increasing threat. Zeman has rejected the findings and branded his country's security services "amateurs."

Deputy Foreign Minister Ales Chmelar, in an interview with DW, insisted that foreign policy is aligned under the government, and that "provocations" by local officials "have only short-term effect on bilateral relations."

However, Ondrej Kundra, a journalist specializing in security issues, says a new "mayoral foreign policy is changing the public debate and complicating Zeman's efforts to forge closer links with Russia and China."

'Revolt against the president'

The fuss in Reporyje amplifies an argument nearer the center of the city, in the Prague 6 district, where Mayor Ondrej Kolar earlier this year ordered the removal of a statue of Marshall Ivan Konev. 

Moscow maintains that Konev's Red Army troops liberated Prague, and anger quickly spread among communist and neo-Nazi groups. When Kolar's children were threatened, the family was placed under police protection.

Ondrej Kolar, mayor of Prague 6

District Mayor Ondrej Kolar has ruffled feathers in Moscow

A statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev in Prague, Czech Republic

The statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev in Prague 6

"The extremist groups take their orders directly from the Russian embassy," says the mayor.

BIS says that the embassy, which sits behind high walls just one kilometer from Kolar's office, is stuffed with spies. The mayor of Prague 6 is aware that the ramifications reach far beyond his prosperous district, which hosts myriad embassies in elegant early 20th century villas.

"It wasn't my plan, but the situation in Prague 6 is now part of a wider revolt against the president's alternative foreign policy," Kolar says. "People are saying enough is enough."

City mayor Zdenek Hrib is also resisting embracing the East. His refusal to respect the "One China" policy, as well as invitations to Taiwanese and Tibetan delegations, has sparked a bad-tempered confrontation. Prague's sister-city agreement with Beijing was ripped up in October.

Diplomatic tension has spread to the national level. China has threatened to pull investments and has cancelled cultural exchanges. Zeman, widely criticized for failing to secure the billions in Chinese investment that he promised, warned of economic repercussions.

From his office in Prague's historic center, Hrib says China has proved it is an unreliable business partner. "How could we consider entrusting a company from such a country to build our critical digital infrastructure?" he asks.

'Free cities' alliance

Although slammed as a dangerous political stunt by some, Hrib's fight with Beijing has encouraged a further decline in already skeptical public opinion on China.

The media has exposed the efforts of Zeman-linked oligarch Petr Kellner to infiltrate academia and boost China's image. Opposition parties are calling for a special parliamentary commission into the influence of authoritarian regimes.

Hrib, meanwhile, has formed a "Pact of Free Cities" with the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest and Warsaw, who also oppose the populist drift in East Central Europe. The quartet has been careful to note the importance of EU and NATO membership to their countries.

Chinese and Russian spies apparently see it similarly. BIS warns that the main aim of operations in the Czech Republic is to gain influence inside these international institutions.

The mayors of Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw announce their alliance

The mayors of Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw are all at odds with their national governments

President Zeman, for his part, has raised numerous objections to EU sanctions against Russia and slammed "dirty tricks" being used against Huawei.

Journalist Kundra says he expects more international incidents as opposition officials increasingly take things into their own hands.

"They use us [the Czech Republic] as a Trojan horse," warns Kolar. "The Czech Republic must return to a Western orientation. If Prague 6 has helped promote that then I'm happy," the mayor adds. "We've seen the alternative!"

Hrib is more cautious. He says he understands he may have added to the foreign minister's workload but insists he's merely defending his city from Beijing's bullying. He evades suggestions of dabbling in foreign policy or "provocation."

Then, cracking a broad grin, he suggests a photo in front of his certificate of honorary citizenship from the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib poses in front of his certificate of honorary citizenship from Taipei

Prague Mayor Hrib poses in front of his certificate of honorary citizenship from Taipei, where he was a student

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