Almost three decades after the end of the Soviet occupation, the countries of Central Europe (CE) are once again at a geopolitical crossroads. After successive waves of migrants flowed over the continent in 2015 and as a struck several Western European cities, the rarely united Visegrad countries have started to question the immigration policies of many Western-European politicians.

The underlining strategic question is simple: Can CE disagree with Western Europe on Islamic migration and still stay a part of the alliance of Western democracies, or will some members of the group reject the Western approach to Islam so harshly that they will swing geopolitically to the East? The later situation would surely involve an eager Kremlin, arms spread wide welcoming those returning to their fold of influence.

There is already abundant evidence of how Moscow has tried to sway public opinion and manipulate political leaders, going as far as breaching domestic security systems in CE. Every year, national counter-intelligence agencies warn publicly that intense Russian intelligence operations are highly active in this region. Around 2010, the Kremlin positioned its spy, Richard Rachardžo, into the General Staff of the Czech Army; the intelligence officer constructed psychological profiles of Czech political and military leaders, later escaping to Russia. In 2014, the Polish counter-intelligence agency, ABW, arrested a person within the Polish Defence Ministry on charges of espionage (also relating to Russia) with similar allegations being brought against Hungarian far-right MEP Bela Kovacs.

However, the effect of Russia’s interference is not uniform within the Visegrad group; those most affected are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary as Poland, due to the history of their relationship with Russia, is wary—if not outright dismissive—of any plans coming from Moscow.

According to polls conducted by GLOBSEC Trends, about half the populations of these three countries see their country’s position in Europe as something in between the East and the West, with almost half of their citizens preferring “neutrality” to any polar adherence. In effort to divide the societies further, these already doubtful segments of the population are being carefully targeted by hostile disinformation operations. If we take into account the actions of political leaders, which Lenin would call “useful idiots”, the impact is already measurable.

In the Czech Republic, the EU membership is at stake. Only 32% of Czechs are in favour of it, while the Czech President Miloš Zeman – a long-term Trojan horse of the Kremlin – has already called for holding an EU exit referendum.

In Slovakia, the NATO membership is the target with only 30% of Slovaks approving it. This is not to suggest that the Kremlin is the cause these calamitous positions. Rather it exacerbates the situations and conditions already causing social strife, such as worsening the migration in Europe by bombing Syrian cities, or, more generally, by fabricating dozens of disinformation stories in its “media”.

Useful idiots

Regardless of any propaganda, Putin is not as omnipotent as he pretends to be. That is why his agents and ministers value the “useful idiots” who act as if their decisions benefit domestic interests and causes, but just so happen to be in line with what the Kremlin desires. Be it “media” groups running disinformation projects such as Czech AC24 or OUR MEDIA, which are benefiting from the daily fabrication and circulation of disinformation, manipulation and conspiracy theories, local politicians—who call for EU exit referendums in order to score political points with their home electorate—or local paramilitary groups with extremist ties, most of those mentioned above are acting for their of personal gains – economic or political – while the Kremlin simply watches, encourages and sometimes steps in to steer the course.

Watching disinformation operations for the past two years, we can assess that they have been fairly successful in assigning false blame, with the US bearing most of the brunt. According to GLOBSEC Trends report, 38% of Czechs say that Washington is behind the war in the Ukraine, and 50% of the Czech public think that the United States is responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis. In tandem strategically, 28% of Czechs believe that the Russian military intervention in Syria has helped to solve the European migration crisis. Worse still, these ideas and statistics are reiterated by Putin’s political allies in CE – counting in their ranks the Czech President Miloš Zeman, his predecessor Václav Klaus, the former Slovak PM Ján Čarnogurský, many communists as well as most of the far-right.

Democratic institutions (should) strike back

A look at the institutional response to the pro-Kremlin disinformation offensive shows us how unwilling to defend their sovereignty some of Central European governments are. So far in Slovakia. only the civil society is responding to the call. The lone reaction from the government was a 2015 annual report of the country’s counter-intelligence agency, SIS, which pointed out Russia’s “propagandist activities” and how it attempts to “influence public opinion in Slovakia”. A similar scenario is playing out in Hungary where openly pro-Russian journalists are praising Putin and spreading conspiracy theories.

On the other hand, the Czech Government has reacted by naming and analysing the “influence of foreign powers” and “hybrid threats” as two out of eleven major homeland security threats in its new Audit of National Security. A new Hybrid Threat Centre is being established at the Czech Interior Ministry, which will be directly responding to the lack of specialized expertwithin the public administration. This is not surprising as the Czech counter-intelligence agency BIS says that the “infrastructure ({already in place} …) can be used to destabilize or manipulate the Czech society or political environment at any time, if Russia wishes to do so”. As expected, Poland is the leader in responding to the Russian threat. The Defence and Foreign Ministries are running their strategic communication teams and cooperating closely with their Baltic allies. The Polish counter-intelligence agency, ABW, dismantled a group of pro-Kremlin far-right politicians on suspicion of espionage.

What’s Around the Corner

One would ask: how far can the Kremlin influence spread in the upcoming years? More or less, it depends on the domestic success of its collaborators. The Czech President can win his second term and thus assuring a strong position for his donors until 2023. The Slovak and Hungarian Prime Ministers might start to play an open “balance game” between Moscow and Washington-Brussels-Berlin.

Radical far-right groups, extremists and disinformation businessmen might grasp the opportunity of uncertain times and seriously undermine trust towards reliable media sources and democratic institutions, paving the way again for political allies of the Kremlin.

It is only a matter of choice whether CE will remain a part of the democratic West, or if some countries will move towards the direction of those states already deeply penetrated by Russian influence. To see our potential future, we need only to look to the East.

We could slowly become Serbia, a country where the Kremlin projects its influence through dominance in the domestic energy infrastructure and other political tools like being forced to essentially host the Russian military. Taking a longer perspective, CE could become a faded facsimile of itself, societies run by local oligarchies secretly underneath the control of strong Russian voices, such as the case of Moldova. It is highly unlikely, but the worst-case scenario would be when Russia effectively occupies your territory and uses an organized-crime puppet structure to provide control, such as in Donbas. While none of these potentialities are definitive, if the proponents of liberal democracies do not unify and act, all of them are feasible outcomes in the years to come.

Jakub Janda serves as the Head of the Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director of the European Values Think-Tank, based in Prague, Czech Republic

This article was first published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017.


You can find more details on tools of Kremlin influence into Czech domestic affairs here:

Jakub Janda

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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