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How Russian interference is impacting Czech politics

April 19, 2024

The Russian influence network that was found to be paying cash to pro-Kremlin lawmakers in the European Union is heavily active in the Czech Republic.

Picture of the Voice of Europe website
Czech authorities recently shut down the Prague-based pro-Russian Voice of Europe news site, which they say paid hundreds of thousands of euros to politicians from a number of EU member statesImage: ROBIN UTRECHT/picture alliance

Following a probe led by the Czech Republic, EU leaders agreed this week to launch a task force to counter Russia's efforts to interfere in June's European elections.

The decision came two weeks after the Czech Republic's Security Information Service (BIS) reported that it had uncovered a network used by Russia to funnel cash to politicians across the European Union.

Populists and nationalists in Germany, France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary were reportedly paid to push pro-Russian narratives with the goal of influencing the upcoming elections and weakening the EU's support for Ukraine in its defense against Moscow's aggression and war.

The cash was apparently routed through an anti-establishment website called Voice of Europe (VoE), which is based in the center of the Czech capital, Prague, and owned by Jacek Jakubczyk, a Pole.

Czechs moved quickly against Russian propaganda platform

The Czechs swiftly shuttered the site and imposed sanctions on pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedcuk and Artem Marchevsky, who had financed and managed the outlet respectively.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala speaks to the press, Prague, Czech Republic, December 21, 2023
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala suggested that the authorities had 'hit a network of influence that would have a serious impact on the security of the Czech Republic'Image: Michaela Rihova/CTK/picture alliance

The BIS had reportedly followed Russian couriers travelling from Poland to Prague with suitcases stuffed with cash to fund the operation. Poland has seized large amounts of cash and charged one person with working for the Russian secret services.

Although the names of the politicians on the receiving end of this financial funnel have not been revealed, suspicion centers on those featured on VoE.

Accusations against a member of Germany's AfD

One of the politicians accused of receiving money from VoE is Petr Bystron, a Czech-born lawmaker for Germany's far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) and one of its leading candidates in the upcoming European elections.

Czech news outlet Denik N reported that Bystron was also involved in organizing and financing a conference — The Future of Europe — in Prague in February, which was attended by VoE and many politicians it has interviewed.

Bystron denies the claims: "At no time have I received any payment or cryptocurrencies from an employee of VoE [or any Russian]," he wrote in a letter to the AfD leadership. That seemed to be enough for the AfD, which ended a probe into the matter.

Bystron, who left the Czech Republic aged 16 when his family was granted political asylum by Germany in 1987, has also accused the Czech government of attempting to interfere in German politics.

German AfD lawmaker Petr Bystron gesticulates as he addresses members of his party in Magdeburg, Germany, July 29, 2023
Petr Bystron, a Czech-born lawmaker for Germany's far-right populist AfD party, has been accused of receiving money from Voice of EuropeImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, sees things rather differently.

"Vladimir Putin can't put anything into Czech, Slovak or German minds from the Kremlin. He needs local language and local allies," she told Czech radio station Cesky rozhlas, adding that these local allies "either believe that Russia offers us a better future, or this involves financial transactions or perhaps corruption."

Is the impact on Czech politics being underestimated?

While the revelations have spurred intelligence agencies across the EU into action, they also threaten to send shockwaves through Czech politics and society.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala suggested that the authorities had "hit a network of influence that would have a serious impact on the security of the Czech Republic."

Pavel Havlicek, a political analyst at Prague's Association for International Affairs, told DW that the impact of the episode on the Czech Republic is being "underestimated."

He pointed out that there has been much greater focus on the effects of the VoE scandal on other countries, such as Germany, than on the Czech Republic as few accusations were made against Czech politicians.

However, Russian intelligence has been encouraging a persistently noisy anti-establishment scene in the Czech Republic in recent years in a bid to foment political and social confusion. And that strategy has only gained impetus since Russia's invasion of Ukraine amid the current Czech government's staunch support for Ukraine.

Speaker of the Czech parliament Marketa Pekarova Adamova speaking into a microphone, Prague, Czech Republic, February 29, 2024
Speaker of the Czech parliament Marketa Pekarova Adamova says that Russian propaganda 'is being pushed hard' in the Czech Republic Image: Michal Krumphanzl/picture alliance/CTK

"Russian propaganda is being pushed hard here," Marketa Pekarova Adamova, parliamentary speaker and leader of the center-right Top 09, which is a member of the ruling coalition, told DW last year. 

She made the comment following huge protests, which on the surface were focused on the cost-of-living crisis but came with a strongly pro-Russian narrative.

"They have allies in the opposition and among the protest organizers," she said.

A boost for Russia?

Analysts suggest that although the exposure of the VoE scheme has raised BIS' profile among Western partners, it is also likely to have boosted the cyber warriors of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Havlicek points out that the scandal encourages support for anti-establishment narratives.

The closure of the VoE and the sanctions have helped boost assertions that the Czech Republic's "liberal elite" is anti-democratic, clamping down on free speech and silencing dissenting voices.

Political parties linked to the affair, such as the radical right-wing Trikolora and SPD, which helped to organize The Future of Europe conference, are also thought likely to benefit.

Such populist and anti-establishment forces are expected to do well in the upcoming EU election with their anti-migration campaign message.

The Czech Republic has taken in approximately 300,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Is the Czech coalition government at risk?

Even though Russia's attempts to influence politics in Europe have been exposed, its strategy of spreading chaos and confusion appears firmly on track, with polls showing support for government parties at historic lows as the EU vote approaches.

Russia's hybrid warfare: the real threat to the West?

In the Czech Republic, for example, the VoE episode could threaten the stability of the five-party center-right government coalition, with some suggesting that the mainstream parties risk playing into hands of the Russians.

In early April it emerged that Cyril Svoboda of the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-CSL) — which is part of the ruling coalition — had been interviewed by VoE. Svoboda was not only former leader of the party but also a former Czech foreign minister.

A fierce fight has since erupted inside the party amid calls for the expulsion of Svoboda, who also had his photo taken dining with Putin in 2015, a year after Russia's annexation of Crimea, and has expounded pro-Russian narratives on the war.

Journalist Martin Fendrych suggested that the KDU-CSL has "made a mistake" by resurrecting Svoboda as a political voice. "Now he is suddenly a 'negative celebrity'. That's not smart," Fendrych suggested on Cesky rozhlas.

Indeed, the storm brewing inside the party could be seen as another gift to Russia and evidence of the success of its strategy of spreading confusion and disinformation.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe