Russia’s War on Truth in Eastern Europe
Russian interference in elections and democracies has become increasingly widespread. With two of Putin’s strongest European allies in Czech President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, Russia is exerting aggressive economic and political influence in this post-Eastern-block country.
Putin’s hybrid war in Europe
In recent decades, information has been brandished as the new weapon. Political confrontation takes place on the Internet in the form of cyberwar. Cyberattacks on State Departments’ computer systems and servers, propaganda in traditional and digital media, and advanced digital espionage. Russia, in particular, has utilised this hybrid form of warfare both in ex-Soviet countries and in the EU, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
Hybrid warfare is an integrated hostile action which employs political warfare, cyberattacks (hacking operations against state institutions), intelligence operations, and other influencing methods such as fake news, disinformation, social media campaigns, and foreign electorates.
The primary agenda behind international Russian propaganda efforts has been to manipulate Western and European public opinion and to promote a positive image of Russia. Russia has done so via publications like Russia Today (RT), Sputnik and other controlled media outlets in countries where the political environment is more friendly towards modern-day Russia. In countries like Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Russia has been able to use the growing scepticism toward the EU to manipulate the mass-consciousness of nations whose Soviet history is complex.
The post-communist legacy makes ex-Warsaw Pact countries more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s influence of media space. Many people in these countries have an ambivalent relationship to their Soviet past, one which is tempered with pride and shame in equal measure. Add to this an unclear collective identity and it makes sense that some long for their Soviet past.
The Czech Republic, standing at a crossroads between the West and the East, has become one such object of Russia’s close attention. There have been efforts in the country to undergo rethinking of its past – in particular, the 1968 invasion of Soviet tanks into Czechoslovakia.
Once the Eastern Block, Ever the Eastern Block
Euroscepticism, national self-isolationism and xenophobia have dramatically increased throughout Europe in the past decade. The migration crisis has had a polarising effect on the mindsets of Europeans. It appears that there is not enough “soft power” in Europe to resist the Kremlin’s propaganda. Russian media has been polarizing discussions within the EU, taking advantage of the trend of Euroscepticism and populism and instead of supporting the growing popularity of far-right politicians and their increasingly anti-EU rhetoric. This is particularly the case in post eastern block countries.
The post-truth nature of political discourse in the Trump era has also given Russia the opportunity to influence independent media channels that purport to give an “alternative view.” For example, Sputnik emphasizes alternative political expression that appeals to groups of people that may feel alienated from mainstream political discourse. Propaganda is spread via a kind of “explanatory” model, whereby a lie or subjective perception of reality is presented as fact, playing into the biases of readers.
The risk of manipulation is not limited to those on the fringes of society, however. According to an analysis conducted by SafeGuard Cyber and the Guardian, around 241 million Europeans could have been exposed to disinformation promoted by social media accounts linked to Russia before the last European Parliamentary elections. Researchers discovered evidence of 6,700 so-called “bad actors” posting controversial content.
EU officials’ accusations of Kremlin interference in the recent European Parliamentary elections are still debatable. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that Russia tried to use disinformation to promote far-right parties, disseminate anti-European messages, distort the direct speech of politicians, and pollute media space with Eurosceptic views.
Fake News in the Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, despite the country’s ambivalent history with Russia, a considerable portion of the population exhibits pro-Russian sentiment. They re-elected pro-Russian president Miloš Zeman, one of the most prominent Kremlin allies in the EU, for the second time in 2018. His close ties with Russia, especially with Russian businessmen and capital, is rarely concealed. The challenge of disinformation becomes all the more concerning when local politicians are part of the problem. Zeman has publicly unequivocally denied the presence of Russian military forces in Eastern Ukraine and several times insisted on the abolition of European sanctions against Russia.
Further, President Zeman’s image as Russia’s key ally is frequently used in pro-Kremlin sources both in Russia and in the Czech Republic. He has close ties with Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman and ex-president of Russian Railways who is still under US sanctions as a result of the annexation of Crimea. Martin Nejedlý, Zeman’s informal external advisor, who spent most of the 1990s doing business in Russia, was in charge of financing Zeman’s political campaign – the sources of which are still unclear.
Moreover, Andrej Babiš, the incumbent Czech prime minister, is a billionaire media tycoon and the fourth-richest man in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes. He founded Agrofert Group, a firm now under EU investigation, and owns two of the largest Czech newspapers, Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny. In 2017, although he won the parliamentary election, he had difficulties forming a government due to a range of scandals: opposition parties refusing to cooperate with him because of fraud allegations, conflicts of interest, corruption reports and rumours about his purported role in the communist secret service.
Andrej Babiš has been accused of fraud valued at €2 million involving EU subsidies designated for SME by concealing his ownership of a farm and conference center called the “Stork’s Nest.” Several weeks ago, Czech prosecutors decided, somewhat suspiciously, to drop charges against Babiš and his family, and a 4-year investigation was promptly halted.
What prompted Czech prosecutors to drop the criminal case now? What was the real motivation behind the move? Speculation and gossip grows afoul with shadow games played by the pro-Russian Czech government.
Among Babiš‘ numerous conflicts of interest is his involvement in the Czech coal mining company OKD. The OKD, the largest hard coal mining company in the Czech Republic, has been through a strange and confusing back and forth between state ownership and privatisation that has been rumoured to have benefited both Babiš and Zeman financially.
A recent investigation into the OKD’s privatization placed blame in the hands of previous politicians and businessmen while exonerating PM Babiš and President Zeman. Before the company was re-bought by the state, it achieved substantial gains under private ownership between 2008 and 2017.
Some have argued that Babiš has been able to utilise nationalist, anti-European sentiment to use Czech billionaire and US citizen Zdeněk Bakala as a scapegoat for the whole affair. The affair has since expanded beyond the Czech courts. Pavol Krúpa, billionaire ally of Babiš and Zeman and ex-shareholder of the OKD, recently lost his bid to block parent-company NWR from controlling assets.
Krupa has argued that Bakala cheated investors and miners of the OKD company and blamed Bakala for promising the failed sale of OKD apartments to its tenants (miners).
Bakala, who made his fortune buying mines during the privatization period after the Soviet dissolution, advancing the OKD to the Prague and London Stock Exchanges via Dutch company New World Resources (NWR) in 2008. In 2016, however, the OKD company declared bankruptcy and was siphoned off to the pro-Russian government of Zeman and Babiš (then finance minister), who took possession of the mining company from private investors. Given the circumstances of OKD’s insolvency, there is reason to believe that it was forced. Insolvency minister Lee Louda has rumored ties to Babiš. Louda helped transition the mining company to become (once again) a state-owned enterprise. In 2016, the OKD filed a lawsuit against the ex-co-owner of NWR to return the dividends paid to NWR. However, a 2019 London Court ruled in favor of NWR, a decision that the Czech parliamentary commission has supported.
The Czech Parliament initiated an investigation into the privatization of the OKD after the election of PM Babiš, publishing its findings after more than two and a half years. The commission, which itself has been accused of conflicts of interest, placed blame on both previous administrations and businessmen involved while refraining from mentioning the current administration. The commission has decided to forward its findings to the state prosecutor – a Babiš ally – who will decide whether or not to file charges.
It is unclear whether the state prosecutor will bring charges against former politicians like Bohuslav Sobotka or businessmen like Zdeněk Bakala. Unclear too, is if and when the miners, investors, and taxpayers will be compensated for the damage done to them in this protracted scandal. For now, their only hope lies in international hearings about the OKD case, including those held in British Courts, where truly unbiased and legal trials are possible.
Russia’s hand in Czech media
The story of OKD is an example of the still interrelated relationship between post-Soviet governments, the media, and businesses. The media has played an important role in this affair. Czech media is polluted with pro-Kremlin news outlets like “RT,” “Sputnik,” “Parlamentní listy,” and “Aeronet” which support the incumbent Czech government and parliament. Of course, the pro-Russian media deny their connection to the Kremlin.
Recently, the head of the Czech Security Information Service (BIS) reported and dismantled a Russian espionage cell involved in several cyberattacks allegedly managed by FSB and financed from Russia and the Russian embassy in Prague. The incident provides strong evidence that Russia continues campaigns against liberalism and European democracies.
Czech Facebook is flooded with trolls who have pro-Russian political views. For example, Ondřej Höppner, a journalist and the owner of the online news website – hoppner.cz, writes consistently with a pro-Russian and pro-Babiš bias. Other examples include Zdeněk Klímek, a well-known orator for the Soviet Union and communism, and Jan Klán, a socialist and Marxist with more than 4 thousand followers.
There is also evidence that Russia has conducted social media campaigns on Twitter. Using open sources, including TweetDeck and consumer-insights company Crimson Hexagon, the total mentions in Russian language tweets originating in the Czech Republic have been two times lower compared to 2014. But this is directly correlated to a growing number of pro-Russian tweets in the Czech language itself, suggesting simply that Russian campaigns are now being run in the Czech dialogue.
Challenging the Propaganda Machine
Upholding the tenets of democracy such as accessing free, unbiased media in such a context is difficult. Still, the Czech Republic is one of the only countries in the EU to have established a special unit to deal specifically with disinformation. The Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats within the Ministry of Internal Affairs was created in 2016. The unit’s aims is to tackle hybrid threats, political terrorism and fight against fake news and disinformation. The fact that this unit must contend with the highest politicians in their own government no doubt makes the unit’s operations difficult, but its existence is nevertheless promising.
However, creating a government unit is not enough to counteract digital media threats in the country. The main actors able to counter disinformation and fake news in the Czech Republic are NGOs and independent media. Created in 2005, the European Values Think-Tank promotes freedoms, human dignity, democracy and – with the help of a special program, Kremlin Watch – targets the Russian influence and disinformation operations in the country.
Increasingly, the Czech Republic needs its own citizens to combat Russian disinformation, identify fake news and distinguish between original thought and motivated campaigns. For example, several non-profit organizations together with journalists and students from Masaryk University in Brno established a joint educational project for high schools on how to unmask fake news and disinformation with a game called “Fake scape.” The idea of the game is to give high school students tips on how to detect fake news.
It is quite simple: pro-Russian media outlets deliver news in the Czech Republic pursuant of their own goals – to depict Russia to the Czech people as a good alternative to the European Union and to reconstruct political and economic relationships with the Czech government. Do Czechs want to see their country regress to its Soviet past and drown in political corruption like in the case of the OKD, or do they want to see the country in the EU with a strong economy with functional democratic institutions? It is up to the Czech people on a daily basis in the way they consume information and in 2023 when they vote in the next presidential elections.