By Ilan Berman
Since its emergence from the wreckage of the Soviet Union more than a quarter-century ago, the Czech Republic has consistently ranked as a success story of post-totalitarian transition. Unlike that of many of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe, Prague’s path toward democracy has been more or less linear, cresting in the middle of the last decade when the country garnered the ranking of “full democracy” from the prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit. Today, however, Czech democracy is showing signs of erosion, while the country as a whole is in the process of making an alarming eastward turn.
Since the democratic high-water mark of 2013, the Czech Republic has retreated on such indicators as social equality, media freedom and political pluralism, and now ranks as a “flawed democracy” by European assessments. This decline corresponds to the rise to power of President Milos Zeman and his center-left Party of Civic Rights.
The 72-year-old Zeman, a former Czech prime minister, was thought to be a spent political force when he retired from national politics in 2002. But nationalist currents and growing domestic dissatisfaction allowed him to capture the country’s presidency in 2013, and afforded him a mandate to put his populist rhetoric into practice.
He has wasted no time doing just that. At home, Zeman’s administration has pursued a nativist, anti-immigrant political platform that has put it at odds with most of Europe. Abroad, meanwhile, Zeman has brought Prague considerably closer to Moscow.
During his time in office, Zeman has hewed a decidedly Kremlin-friendly policy line, opposing European pressure on Russia for its ongoing aggression against Ukraine and cultivating friendly relations with Moscow as a means to create distance from the European Union. That, and the cozy ties between Zeman’s top aides and Russian business concerns, have led some to label the Czech president as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Trojan Horse” in the eurozone.
Nor is Zeman alone. The Czech president appears to have forged a strategic – if informal – alliance with oligarch and political up-and-comer Andrej Babis. Babis, a former Czech minister of finance and the country’s second-richest man, is the front-runner to become prime minister if his ANO party performs as expected in legislative elections this month.
Babis’ Cold War-era past is mired in controversy (including allegations of collaboration with the former Czechoslovak secret police, the State Security or StB) that nearly invalidated him as an appointee for political office during the 1990s. Today, however, his political fortunes are on the rise – and so are his pro-Russian positions. The former finance minister has emerged as a vocal critic of Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine (measures which he has called “nonsense”), and has recently signaled that – on his watch – the Czech Republic is likely to take a much more skeptical view of the European Union and its institutions.
That may be savvy politics in Prague, where enthusiasm for European integration has waned considerably in recent years. But it is also undoubtedly music to Moscow’s ears. Putin, eager to expand his ambit in Eastern and Central Europe, has banked heavily on nationalist European politicians (like Hungary’s controversial prime minister, Viktor Orban) to serve as force multipliers in his opposition to Europe’s liberal consensus.
During his time in office, Zeman proved amenable to playing this role. All indicators suggest that Babis will as well, and his projected political victory later this month is liable to strengthen Prague’s proximity to Moscow.
That, in turn, could spell bad news for the Czech Republic’s democratic trajectory. In a 2016 survey carried out by the Prague-based STEM Institute of Empirical Research, less than 40 percent of respondents said they were fully satisfied with the functioning of democracy in the country. More than two-thirds of citizens polled in the same study said that the further development of a robust national democracy was “primarily the job of capable professional politicians.”
Such work, however, is unlikely to happen as long as Prague’s leaders look to Moscow for guidance and support.
Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. An expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices. He has been called one of America’s “leading experts on the Middle East and Iran” by CNN. Article published at U.S. News & World Report and is republished here with the permission of the author.
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