Will the Czech elections see Prague turn its back on Russia and China?

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The Czech Republic’s ties with China and Russia are tipped to either remain as they are -- a mixture of caution and dented optimism -- or get considerably worse after the upcoming general election on October 8.

And there is little expectation of improvement in the relations that have frayed considerably over the past twelve months.

Much depends on the composition of the next coalition government, which is looking increasingly hard to predict.

Some analysts speculate that the Central European state could be heading towards a constitutional crisis.

A brief history of Czech relations with China and Russia

Relations with China and Russia, which were shunned after the end of communism in 1989, went through a brief period of resurgence in the middle of the last decade as the newly elected president, Milos Zeman, sought to alter the Czech establishment’s traditional attachments to the United States, European Union and NATO.

After his presidential victory in 2013, Zeman became the loudest proponent of opening up to the East, motivated by China’s global economic rise and Russia's return as a geopolitical entity in Europe. He found some support from across the political spectrum.

In 2012, then-Prime Minister Petr Necas, from the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), had mocked the country’s traditional values-driven foreign policy as “just a trend” and appealed for economic concerns to trump squeamishness over China or Russia’s human rights record. Zeman also found some support in the coalition government that took power in 2013, led by his former party, the Social Democrats (CSSD).

In 2015, Zeman boasted that the Czech Republic could be China’s “gateway” to Europe, a comment made when in Beijing as the only European head of state in antecedence for a military parade to mark the end of the Second World War.

Around the same time, Zeman was also one of the few European premiers who visited a similar ceremonial event in Moscow, where he spoke in favour of renewed relations with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Zeman had previously defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Some inward investment began to flow from China. CEFC China Energy, one of China’s largest privately-owned firms, snapped up several well-known Czech brands, including the country’s historic football team, Slavia Prague. CEFC founder, Ye Jianming, was named an advisor to Zeman in 2017 and appointed some of the president’s associates, such as former defence minister Jaroslav Tvrdik, as executives on CEFC-owned entities.

Ye’s business empire crumbled after he was arrested for corruption in Beijing in 2018. Another Chinese firm, the state-owned CITIC Group, moved in to buy up its Czech investments.

But the promised billions of investment from China never materialised. Estimates vary, but it is believed that only around €1 billion worth of Chinese capital has flowed into the Czech Republic, a trifling figure compared with the billions of euros China had poured into its Central European neighbour Hungary.

Even Zeman threatened in January 2020 to boycott an upcoming meeting of the “17+1” forum, a China-led dialogue with Central and Eastern European states, over the lack of investment from Beijing.

“I don’t think the Chinese side has done what it promised,” the Czech President commented, although he later reversed his decision.

The opening up to Russia and China was never official Czech policy. The coalition government that took charge in 2018, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ populist ANO party, was agnostic about the idea though expressed support if it brought economic benefits.

Instead, it was led by a coterie of President Zeman, who is supposed to hold mere ceremonial powers, well-connected former politicians and the country’s business tycoons.

But this coalition inspired a backlash from the Czech security establishment, whose affiliations have long been to the United States and NATO, as well as from opposition politicians who argued that warming relations with Beijing and Moscow was a repudiation of the country’s historic liberal-inspired foreign agenda.

The breaking point over China came in the summer of last year when the president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, paid a visit to Taiwan, which the Beijing government claims still belongs to the People’s Republic. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reacted furiously and threatened to punish the Czech Republic, which only seemed to galvanise the country’s anti-Beijing voices.

President Zeman, increasingly isolated, cut off talks with Vystrcil, the third most senior political official, and escalated his long-running feud with the Czech intelligence agency (BIS), which warned against allowing Chinese and Russian firms to invest in the country’s strategic assets.

The coalition government, the occupier of the middle ground between the country’s pro-east and pro-west factions, appeared to take the side of the latter when in February this year it disqualified a Chinese state-owned firm from the pre-qualification tender for the planned €7.5 billion expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, although a Russian firm will still be allowed to take part.

The Czech government has also stepped up its associations with Taiwan, including donating a symbolic 30,000 COVID-19 vaccines to the contested island in July.

At the same time, attempts to reconnect Czech relations with Russia, considered by many Czechs as a former imperial aggressor because of the Soviet Union’s past domination of Central Europe, also appeared to grind to a halt.

Relations deteriorated considerably in April of this year when Prime Minister Babis accused two Russian intelligence agents of being behind the major explosions at a munition depot in the southeast of the Czech Republic in 2014. The same pair, Czech intelligence said, carried out the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain.

The Czech Republic’s accusation was followed by the expulsion of diplomats by both countries and warnings of retaliation from Moscow.

How could the election change things?

Because of these events, it would now be difficult to get any political momentum behind more positive relations with Moscow and Beijing, said Ivana Karaskova, of the Association for International Affairs in Prague.

“The overall sentiment in the Czech Republic’s policy circles, excluding the extreme political parties, is cautious,” she added.

According to a survey published earlier this year by Sinophone Borderlands, a project run by Palacky University Olomouc, some 29% of Czech respondents held “very negative” and 27% “negative” views of China.

Of all the political parties, supporters of the far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) and far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) had the most positive views of China, the survey found. The two parties’ leaders themselves are also among the most positive about building relations with Beijing and Moscow.

Much depends on the outcome of next month’s general election, which is set to take place on October 8. Analysts reckon the Czech Republic could be heading towards either a major post-election stalemate or even a constitutional crisis.

The ballot looks set to be dominated by the current ruling party, Babis’ ANO, and two new coalitions formed by the largest opposition parties, none of which will likely control enough seats in parliament to go it alone, according to the latest opinion polls.

President Zeman has also intimated that he doesn’t like the new alliances and wants to allow the biggest single party to try to form the next government - and possibly allow it to remain in power even if parliament doesn’t give it a vote of confidence.

According to the latest opinion polls, Babis’ ANO party is widely tipped to take first place and he is expected to have a first crack at forming a minority government, although it remains unclear with whom since ANO’s current coalition partner, the CSSD, could fail to even win seats in parliament next month.

If ANO is able to form a government, perhaps with the support of other smaller parties, then relations with Russia and China will remain as they are now, said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and a director of New York University´s Prague campus.

According to Karaskova, of the Association for International Affairs, because Babis has no interest in foreign policy he may again offer the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a coalition partner. Since 2017 that cabinet post has been controlled by the CSSD, the junior coalition partner.

The Social Democrats’ views on Russia and China are mixed. Many of the party’s former grandees, including President Zeman, are among the most passionate advocates of an Eastwards-looking foreign policy.

And a report by the now-named MapInfluenCE, a project run by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, has argued that links between the Chinese Communist Party and the CSSD are “personally guaranteed” by Jan Hamacek, the current CSSD leader and Minister of Interior.

But CSSD member Tomas Petricek, who served as foreign minister from 2018 until April this year, frequently warned about risks posed by Russia and China, and some analysts speculated that his dismissal was due to his pro-Western stance.

On the other hand, the expected post-election frenzy might instead see the Czech Republic’s two new opposition coalitions try to form a government, in which case the country would take a much more hardline position on China and Russia, Pehe said.

The SPOLU alliance was formed earlier this year by the centre-right ODS, the current largest opposition party, and the smaller Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and TOP 09. The progressive Pirate Party, currently the country’s second-largest opposition outfit, formed a separate electoral pact with the Mayors and Independents party (STAN).

While there’s much daylight between the two coalitions on domestic politics, they have notably taken strong stances against Chinese and Russian influence in the country and both advocate for a liberal, westwards-looking foreign policy.

The Czech senate president who visited Taiwan last year, which precipitated much of the current antagonism with Beijing, is a senior member of ODS. Pirate member Zdenek Hrib has pursued openly anti-Beijing and anti-Moscow policies since becoming mayor of Prague in 2018, including replacing the Czech capital’s sister-city relationship with Beijing for one with Taipei.

In the earlier-mentioned Sinophone Borderlands survey of public opinion, the most negative views on China were held by supporters of centrist TOP-09, with around 80% holding negative opinions, followed by ODS and STAN. More than two-thirds of supporters of the Pirates Party held negative views on China.

The SPOLU alliance’s campaign website states that it would pursue “unambiguous orientation to the West,” although it makes no specific mention of China. The Czech Republic faces “hostile action from undemocratic regimes,” meaning Russia and China, asserts the manifesto of the Pirates and Mayors alliance. Similar to SPLOU, it argues for a Western-orientated foreign policy that more closely aligns the Czech Republic to the EU and NATO.

But even in the unlikely scenario that an opposition alliance takes power after next month’s elections, the country’s foreign policy agenda is likely to become increasingly tribal, with the government pulling one way and a coterie led by President Zeman still pushing the other.

After all, Zeman is going to stay in office until the next presidential election in 2023, noted Richard Q. Turcsanyi, a programme director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies at Palacky University Olomouc.

“Although not a head of the government, Zeman is very influential,” he added.

And the Czech president shows no signs of giving up his friendships in China. Following a phone call between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping in July, it was announced that Zeman will visit Beijing next year, his sixth visit as president.

Perhaps one of the most important tasks of the next Czech government will be to refashion how the country’s foreign policy agenda is set, disentangling the many vested interests that have fractured the agenda in recent years.

As the manifesto of the Pirates and Mayors alliance puts it: “the discrepancy in foreign policy between the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister and other actors is harmful.”

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