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The Czech Republic's new friends

January 31, 2018

The re-election of President Milos Zeman is seen by some as a sign that the Czech Republic will strengthen ties with Russia and China. Is the country headed toward a rift with the European Union?

Milos Zeman
Image: Reuters/D.W. Cerny

The leaders of Russia and China were among the first to heartily congratulate Milos Zeman on his re-election to a second term as the president of the Czech Republic last week. Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Zeman's "authority," and Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the "strategic partnership between China and the Czech Republic."

In terms of statements, no other head of state or government in the EU has been as eager over the last several years to pledge a desire to improve cooperation with Russia. Last fall, he told a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that sanctions against Russia were "destructive and ineffective," and called the annexation of Crimea a "done deal."

Looking east

The speech sparked diplomatic uproar — like so much of what Zeman says. But what can he actually do, beyond his rhetoric, to push forward with distancing his country from the EU and increasing rapprochement with Russia and China? After all, the Czech presidency does not have much executive power. In theory Zeman can do little more than name ambassadors as a way to influence official foreign policy. But in practice, say experts, Zeman still conducts "private foreign policy."

When traveling to Russia and China, he is often accompanied by Czech businessmen and major manufacturers, and he has been instrumental in bringing about lucrative trade deals. Two of his most important assistants are also intricately involved in such behind-the-scenes agreements: Vratislav Mynar, his chief of staff, and Martin Nejedly, one of his most important political advisors. The latter worked as a businessman in Russia for years and was, until 2015, co-owner and manager of Lukoil Aviation Czech, which made headlines for its controversial business practices and filed bankruptcy in 2015.

Milos Zeman and Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin (at right) has praised Zeman's 'authority'Image: picture-alliance/Russian Look

Jakub Janda, a political scientist at the Prague think tank European Values, says that in the coming years Zeman will concentrate on sealing strategic business deals with Russian and Chinese state-owned entities. One such multibillion-euro deal will be with a Russian company for the proposed expansion of the Czech Republic's Dukovany Nuclear Power Station.

"Zeman advocates such deals and surrounds himself with advisors and assistants with dubious connections to Moscow and Beijing," says Janda. "Thus, the Czech Republic's tendency toward further distancing itself from Western partners will continue."

Swerving through Europe

One possible correction of that course may come from (provisional) Prime Minister Andrej Babis. But the degree to which Babis can effect change on the matter is unclear. The billionaire leader of the right-wing populist ANO (Yes) party is the de facto owner of the agricultural and chemical conglomerate Agrofert, which receives massive EU subsidies and is active throughout the block, including in Germany. That means Babis is interested in wholly integrating the Czech Republic into the EU and in maintaining good relations with Brussels. He has repeatedly warned against the idea of orienting the Czech Republic eastward but has also reiterated Zeman's sentiment that EU sanctions against Russia are a mistake.

Babis' serpentine, pragmatic maneuvering was on full display recently when he affirmed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's anti-EU rhetoric while attending a Visegrad summit between Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary in Budapest. But then he turned around to call for a more active role for the Czech Republic in the EU during a visit to Brussels just days later.

Andrej Babis
Babis has business interests throughout EuropeImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Cizek

"Zeman and Babis have been working in tandem over the past few months," says Jiri Pehe, a foreign policy adviser to former President Vaclav Havel and now the director of New York University in Prague. "However, there are a few issues that threaten to put Babis on a collision course with the president."

One such issue could be the question of holding a referendum on the Czech Republic's EU membership. Zeman has voiced support for it, although he has said he himself would choose to remain. Babis is strictly opposed to the idea of a "Czexit."

Some observers feel that any serious political debate on the issue could quickly turn into a nightmare. "The most we can hope for from Milos Zeman," wrote Petr Hinzejk, a commentator at the liberal Hospodarske noviny newspaper, "is that he could be halted by the fear of going down in history as a negative figure. And that he will not want to be remembered as the man who opened the door to an exit from the EU." 

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter