Czech political turmoil points to Eastern Europe's problems

  • Petr Boháček
  • 22.1.2018 18:47

The Czech Republic, once heralded as the poster child of the post-Communist transition to free democracy and the country of late Vaclav Havel – the symbol of the fall of the Iron Curtain – is confronted by populism, disinformation and cultural wars against absent Muslim migrants or the European Union. The Czech Republic, together with the other countries in the region, remains culturally, economically and politically still the West’s periphery, which is a problem for Europe and an opportunity for Russia.

Czech Populist Duo
While the Czech Republic has been spared of direct attacks on judicial independence, media, anti-corruption laws, or of a strong rise in nationalism, the country could not escape the rise of populism and heavy pressure on its democratic system. The source of such concerns are two political allies – President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

Zeman has been Vladimir Putin’s biggest ally in the EU, criticising sanctions, rejecting the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine or simply accepting the annexation of Crimea. In an attempt to re-direct Czech foreign policy Eastward (a competence he, as a president, does not have in the Czech parliamentary system), he voiced hopes to learn how to stabilise the society from Chinese Communist leaders during his visit in the Asian country. Zeman is also the principal author of the nationwide anti-migrant wave in the heavily homogeneous country that lacks workforce. Subsequently, this rhetoric has been accepted to a certain extent by all mainstream political parties. Similarly, the fight against EU’s relocation quotas has been adopted as a new key part of Czech foreign policy amid the absence of clearly articulated national interests and priorities.


Whether Babis and Zeman will be forced out or not, the extent of their political power highlights a worrying trend across Eastern European states.  


Meanwhile, Prime Minister Babis, Czechia’s second richest man, gained popularity with well-known anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric. His ideology seems to be only opportunism as he oscillates between left and right. He rejects criticism - whether it is about his cooperation with the Communist secret police, dubious business past, contempt for democracy and dialogue or influence over the country’s biggest media group he owns – as fake news and targeted media campaigns. To observers of US politics, such feats might sound familiar.

Both are facing prospects of being pulled out of politics. Zeman is facing a pro-EU opponent, Jiri Drahos, in the polarising 26-27 January presidential elections. Meanwhile, the Parliament voted down Babis’ government and stripped him of his immunity over an investigation into a €1.9 million EU subsidy fraud in his Stork's Nest farm project on 17-19 January. Whether they will be forced out or not, the extent of their political power highlights a worrying trend across Eastern European states.

Czech President Milos Zeman (R) looks at the Crown of Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia before the opening of the ''Czech Jewels'' exhibition on May 9, 2013, at Prague Castle in the Czech capital. Zeman, an open fan of alcohol and cigarets, struggled to stand straight and walk during the ceremony, fomenting criticism for being drunk after arriving from celebrating the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II at the Russian Embassy. Copyright

Weak institutions
The new wave of populism is nothing new in the West but unlike Eastern Europe, it can rely on critical media, durable institutions and active civil society that together are capable of ensuring the rule of law, checks and balances and maintain the executive in check. From the Prague Castle, President Zeman - largely a ceremonial post in a parliament democracy - used his own imagination to test the limits of the constitution in order to increase his political power, name his own caretaker government of his old friends, or grant another attempt to form the government to his ally Babis, all in violation of constitutional norms.

Meanwhile, Andrej Babis’ hand-picked Interior Minister voiced concerns over the investigation of his PM’s EU funds embezzlement allegations. Babis later cried foul against the investigation, claiming the Czech justice system is so weak you can simply order a prosecution. His Justice Minister left it without any comments. As a Finance Minister, Babis also faced an investigation over a tax fraud allegation, but the investigating body at the Finance Ministry found no wrongdoing of its boss.  


At no time in history have politicians directly read wishes off the lips of their voters.


Criticism of the independent Czech public broadcasting services belongs to a favourite pastime for both. Similarly to Trump, they are masters of communicating with people. They know exactly how to touch sensitive topics and make themselves look like the only true representatives of the common folk, without any actual substance behind it. At no time in history have politicians directly read wishes of the lips of their voters. The resulting personal empowerment allows them to push any institutional or legal barriers.  

Still Eastern Europe
The Czech Republic is not alone in this. The illiberal alliance between Polish and Hungarian conservative governments has been a constant reason for concerns over the state of democracy in Eastern Europe. Further East, Romania’s ruling Social Democrats continue to fight anti-corruption laws and Bulgaria’s president just vetoed an anti-graft bill that would allow for corruption investigations of persons in high public office.

Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe continues to have a significant geopolitical importance. The core of the geopolitical clash between Europe and Russia is the European Neighbourhood Policy. The advancement of liberal political and economic order threatens the ability of Russia to influence and control its neighbouring countries either via corrupt political regimes in the likes of Ukraine’s Yanukovych rule or contemporary authoritarian Belarus. That is why Russia considers liberal democracy as a threat and works to undermine it. Russian propaganda plays an indisputable role in amplifying public discontent with the Western political system and multiplying all the regional stereotypical issues.


Blaming problems on outside factors has been also symptomatic for post-Communist countries, where the main threats come rather from the weaknesses within.


Unsurprisingly, the picture is more complex. The concept of increasingly divided two-speed Europe is extremely harmful as well. Inpatient integration-happy Western members of the European Union, who are sick of waiting for the rest, do a lot of damage for alienating Eastern Europe themselves. But blaming problems on outside factors has been also symptomatic for post-Communist countries, where the main threats come rather from the weaknesses within.

Romania is one of the most active and responsible NATO members and Bulgaria solidified its Euro-Atlantic path and limited traditionally strong Russian influence. Poland plays an increasingly strategic role in deterring Russia. Czech innovative and dynamic economy ranks 1st in unemployment and has one of the highest GDP growths in the EU. Slovakia makes strides with its proactive European policy. However, persisting oligarchisation of politics, enrooted corruption, strong clientelism, media manipulation and overall kleptocracy can trump all of this.

A successful Eastern Europe, taken for granted until recently, is instrumental for the European unity and EU's dealings with Russia. The change must come from within. Eastern Europe needs an Eastern leader. Poles or Hungarians are united only in their antagonism against Brussels, while the Balkan countries struggle with their own issues. Meanwhile, the next few days will show whether the Czechs are ready to move forward or not. If so, the Czecho-Slovak power tandem could potentially assume this role.

About author: Petr Boháček


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