The Bratislava-Budapest-Moscow Hotline: What Babiš Doesn’t Say about Fico and Orbán

Andrej Babiš increasingly aligns his rhetoric and actions with politicians who cheer for Putin

27 March 2024

Before an extraordinary parliamentary session focused on security threats, Andrej Babiš refuted claims that his frequent communication with the Hungarian and Slovak governments posed a risk to the Czech Republic and facilitated Europe’s access to Russia.

Unfortunately for the head of the ANO movement, two cases have surfaced recently that show Babiš’s party is close to Moscow via connections in Budapest and Bratislava.

“They will tell you that I am a security threat because I am talking to Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico,” Babiš told his supporters on social media before the extraordinary meeting of the Czech Parliament that addressed security threats to the Czech Republic. “We are not rooting for Putin,” he added at a press conference.

The problem is that he is increasingly aligning himself with politicians who cheer for Putin. Not only in rhetoric, often aimed mainly at their domestic constituents, but also in concrete actions. Two recent examples illustrate this more than clearly.

Last week, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that the European Union had removed Slovak citizen Jozef Hambálek from its sanctions list, where the Union had placed him after the Russian invasion of Ukraine because of his involvement in the pro-Kremlin motorcycle club Night Wolves.

Night Wolf and Russian billionaire

Hambálek held the title of “president” of the club’s European branch for several years, repeatedly travelled to Russia with the bikers and was in contact with the leadership of the Russian Night Wolves, which is very close to Vladimir Putin and funded by the Kremlin. He also worked with the Czech branch of the same motorcycle club.

He was also placed on the sanctions list for allegedly training fighters on the Russian side of the war in Ukraine, which the EU believes would have taken place on Hambálek’s premises. However, Robert Fico has now denied this.

Due to these sanctions, Hambálek was unable to leave Slovakia, the authorities froze his assets and his business was shut down. Recently, the EU removed Hambálek from the sanctions list, which Fico praised while apologising to him and announced that his cabinet would compensate Hambálek.

It later emerged that this game was far from being about just one Slovak biker. According to Slovak media, the Fico government cooperated with Hungary to remove Hambálek from the sanctions list. And in return, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister there, wanted Slovakia’s support in removing other names from the sanctions list – those that, alongside Hungary, are also of particular interest to Russia.

This mainly concerned – ultimately unsuccessfully – the Russian billionaire and oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The Russian steel and telecoms tycoon has been trying to get off the sanctions list for a long time. HlídacíPes.org described Usmanov’s story, including his proximity to the Kremlin and statements such as “I am proud to know Putin”, in detail back in 2022.

Hungary has also tried to remove former Russian Formula One racer Nikita Mazepin and billionaire Vyacheslav Kantor from sanctions lists, according to Reuters. The latter was involved in the preparations for Vladimir Putin’s ultimately failed trip to the Czech Republic in 2015, when then-President Milos Zeman invited him to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

According to Aktuality.sk, Slovak diplomacy, alongside Hungary, also advocated for the removal of these names from the EU sanctions list. However, according to Reuters, a large wave of opposition was raised against this.

Pellegrini and warm greetings from Russia

A second example of how the current Slovak and Hungarian governments are playing into Putin’s hands has only come to light this week. The Hungarian investigative project Vsquare reported that the current candidate for Slovak president and head of the Slovak parliament, Peter Pellegrini, negotiated, or rather begged for, a pre-election visit to Moscow in 2020 as then prime minister – again with the help of Hungary.

Pellegrini tried to prevent the collapse in the support for his then-party Smer just before the elections four years ago, after the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico over the protests sparked by the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. It was a visit to Moscow that was supposed to impress voters, and Hungary willingly facilitated it.

As described by VSquare, citing intelligence sources, Pellegrini asked for a trip to Moscow on 13 February 2020 during a visit to Hungary – claiming that a trip to the Kremlin was more important to him than a trip to the White House. Orbán should have immediately conveyed the request to his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, who, thanks to their long-standing close relations, took it straight to Russian diplomatic chief Sergei Lavrov. Indeed, three days before the Slovak elections on 26 February, Pellegrini received an express reception in Moscow.

“If the ministry receives a request for assistance in establishing or maintaining contacts with other countries, and this request does not contradict Hungarian national interests, we are always ready to help,” the Hungarian diplomatic service commented on the aforementioned revelations to journalists.

Contacts with Russia are in Hungary’s national interest, while the Czech government describes Putin’s regime as terrorist and sees it as a clear security threat. None of this is news, but it is good to be reminded again. Incidentally, the majority of ANO’s present legislators voted in favour of the resolution in the Czech Parliament last November that the Russian regime is a terrorist regime.

Orbán printed at Babiš’s

What does all this say about Andrej Babiš? His long-standing close relations with Viktor Orbán and the entire Hungarian administration are well known. One need only recall the pompous staging of visits by Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó (yes, the one who got Peter Pellegrini to Moscow) during the Covid pandemic when Babiš hugged him for photos while handing out vaccines.

Or the fact that in 2021, Babiš’s publishing house Mafra printed a full-page advertisement in its newspapers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia of the Orbán government’s criticism of the European Union.

And, of course, there are the pre-election mutual visits – in 2021, Viktor Orbán in the Czech Republic just before the elections as a special guest of Babiš’s campaign (although the trip was organised and paid for by the state) and shortly before that Babiš in Hungary.

Then there was Babiš’s trip to Hungary in December 2022, when he was running for president; he eventually reported the trip to Orbán as one of the expenses of his campaign. And a number of other, less glamorous but equally well-served, mutual meetings.

“Dialogue” or power-political deals?

The same is true of Babiš’s affection for Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and current presidential candidate Petr Pellegrini, whom he personally supported last year before the parliamentary elections.

Babiš’s reaction to the Czech government’s decision to cancel symbolic joint Czech-Slovak intergovernmental meetings because of the Slovak cabinet’s pro-Russian actions was also completely in line with Fico’s: ‘This is international politics, not a playground. Maybe if someone behaves badly, you stop talking to them there [playground],” Babiš criticised.

This is exactly what Fico and Orbán are saying – not only towards the Czechia but especially towards Russia, which has been destroying Ukraine and committing war atrocities for over two years. After all, Slovak Foreign Minister Juraj Blanár recently defended his sharply criticised meeting with Sergei Lavrov with the need to “hold a dialogue”.

But as can be seen, apart from the virtuous-sounding “dialogue”, there are also purely power-political deals going on along the Bratislava-Budapest-Moscow axis, whether it is an entry on the sanctions lists or photos from Moscow in the run-up to the elections. These are not just labels about “pro-Russian politicians” anymore; they are concrete evidence of the Kremlin’s overtures to Andrej Babiš’s closest allies, with whom he would like to tie the Czech Republic if he gets the chance after the next elections.

But Andrej Babiš has, unsurprisingly, already left this Russian line completely out of his story by stating that “talking to Fico and Orbán” is not a security threat and that he himself is “not a fan of Putin”.

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The original text in Czech from HlídacíPes is available here.

The featured image uses one photo from the Kremlin website, Lucie Bartoš, Andrej Babiš v roce 2020, change hue and colour by VI Team, CC BY-SA 4.0; Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2024 from Belgium, EU2024BE 240321 Nuclear Energy Summit Brussels Expo JNZT 0072 (53601730363), change hue and colour by VI Team, CC BY 2.0 and Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2024 from Belgium, EU2024BE 240321 Nuclear Energy Summit Brussels Expo JNZT 0301 (53602602150), change hue and colour by VI Team, CC BY 2.0

Vojtěch Berger

Editor of HlídacíPes.org, and previously Czech Radio's foreign editor and a foreign correspondent in Slovakia and Austria. In 2016 he was awarded Czech-German Journalist's Prize 2016 in the multimedia category.

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