Zeman and Putin Headed Towards a Split
Recently, in an interview for The Wall Street Journal Milosh Zeman, the President of the Czech Republic expressed the opinion that the “Islamist[sic] State” is riskier for European security than Russia. Although Zeman refused to attend any events in Moscow on May 9 marking the end of the Second World War, he pointed out that sanctions against Russia are ineffective in solving the crisis in Ukraine.
At first glance it seems that Greece and the Czech Republic are Putin’s only allies in the European Union. However, results of an Ipsos poll paint a different picture. For instance, 63% of Czechs don’t share the opinion of Zeman’s support for Russia and 71% reject Putin’s policies. More than 60% of Czechs view Russia as a threat to the Baltic and they support deeper relations with NATO. There seems to be a controversy between the official position of Zeman and a majority of Czechs. Why doesn’t Zeman take into account the opinions of the Czechs as his Hungarian soul mate, Victor Orban, does? The Ukrainian experience shows that ignoring political minority’s interests by the government might create unexpected social clashes.
There is no point in judging the loyalty of Zeman toward Putin and in particular, the Kremlin. It is likely that the “friendship of Zeman and Putin” is provoked by economic factors.
Long before the “North Stream” pipeline was constructed, the Czech Republic had been one of the top-importers of Russian natural gas. Since 2013 the importance of the Czech Republic as a partner of Russia in the field of gas transit became more significant following the construction of the “GAZELLE” pipeline through its territory, with 30 billion cubic meters capacity.
This pipeline is the next transit corridor after the German “OPAL” – the land part of “North Stream.” The “GAZELLE” can serve for further export of Russian natural gas to France and Southern Germany. President Zeman and his supporters who don’t support sanctions against Russia are a guaranty for the Kremlin to continue to export natural gas to European recipients.
Even if an embargo upon the export of Russian gas is enacted by Poland, the Baltic states consider Russian aggression in Ukraine to be a potential threat for national security. It will be possible only if Iran starts to procure natural gas for the EU before the “Power of Siberia” pipeline to China is constructed. Iran has a chance to take a share of Russian gas sales on the European market. President Zeman is also important for Russia because traditionally the majority of the former heads of the Czech Republic, including V. Gavel, were supporters of close relations with the United States within NATO. About 10 years ago, the Czech Republic was ready to deploy the U.S. missile defense system to deter Russia’s expansion. Additionally, by the end of 2012 the total Czech investment in the Russian economy amounted to $1.3 billion USD. Every year, through the revenue raised by Russian tourists, the Czech economy receives about $500 million USD.
It’s likely that M. Zeman’s anti-sanctions rhetoric against the EU is affected by his intention to protect the interests of some Czech business elites that have close links with Russia in the industrial and service sectors. However, it is not a reason for the Czech Republic to parrot Russian information policy in the EU. Political elites change despite historical problems in bilateral relations on the governmental and informal levels. This is proved by the anti-Russian position of the majority of Czechs. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europeans have been anxious about the possibility of the restoration of Russian interests within their borders.
It is unlikely that the idea of a “Russian world,” spread by the Kremlin is popular in the Czech Republic, because mutual interests of both states are determined by business ties. According to results of the Ipsos poll, Czechs don’t see the future of their state within the Kremlin’s foreign policy.