Expelling diplomats won’t solve Russia’s problem in Central Europe
These are turbulent times in the Czech Republic. Just as the country seemed ready to buy Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine last month, the eruption of the country’s biggest dispute with Moscow since the fall of communism has put an end to such a “ shift to the East ” .
Today there are fears about the extent of Russian influence throughout Czech society, on issues ranging from vaccines to foreign investment.
On April 17, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš called an emergency press conference to announce that “unequivocal evidence” connects Russian secret agents to the massive explosion of a weapons depot near the Moravian village of Vrbětice in 2014.
The explosion killed two workers at the site, and has been described by Czech politicians as a act of “state terrorism”. The attack was assigned to the same agents of the GRU 29155 also believed to be responsible for the poisoning of Salisbury, UK, in 2018.
Following the revelations, 81 Russian Embassy staff in Prague, we were told to leave the country.
The expulsion of diplomats known to be linked to foreign intelligence services seemed to confirm long-standing fears that the embassy had acted as a hub for Russian covert operations – and other countries in the region are believed to be facing to similar problems.
According to Pavel Havlíček, researcher at the Czech Association for International Affairs, “the Russian embassy in Prague is excessively large – but others in central Europe are too.” Evidence of Russian covert activity here should be a wake-up call for the entire region. . ”
Although the Four of Visegrád (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) history of regrouping To combat the perceived violations of national sovereignty by Brussels, organizing a joint response to Russia’s hostile activity is proving surprisingly difficult.
Hungary refused to expel Russian diplomats because of the Vrbětice affair, and insisted on a watered down Visegrád Four declaration of support for the Czech Republic.
As Emil Aslan, Research Director of the Institute of International Affairs in Prague, says: “The divisions over Russia are likely to grow deeper. Poland and the Czech Republic are likely to lean towards the EU and NATO, but Hungary, under Orbán’s government, will continue with its more pro-Russian stance. ”
Many locals fear that when it comes to hostile Eastern influences, intelligence activities are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Havlíček, the pro-Kremlin affiliation of various radical paramilitary organizations is a major source of concern throughout Central Europe.
“There are fears that paramilitary groups in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are collaborating with the East against the state,” he said. “The infiltration of society runs much deeper than that of oversized embassies.”
A number of paramilitary groups formed across central Europe after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In the Czech Republic, the so-called group of reservists of the Czechoslovak army for peace has Links to pro-Kremlin separatists in Ukraine, and with other similar organizations, is marked by a fiercely anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-globalization ideology.
In Slovakia, the notorious Slovak conscript group has ties to the Kremlin-affiliated Night Wolves motorcycle gang in Russia.
These paramilitary organizations are trying, together with far-right political parties, to destabilize affiliation to western organizations while advocating pan-Slavic and pro-Russian sentiments.
Infiltration by anti-Western forces is also believed to be linked to an integrated Russian economic presence, which is now viewed with a growing sense of mistrust.
“Entrepreneurs” or agents?
Jiři Pehe, former member of the Czech political cabinet and current director of New York University in Prague, notes alleged links between non-transparent business transactions and money laundering activities in Russia, saying “a large number Russian ‘entrepreneurs’ operating in the Czech Republic are suspected of representing the interests of the Russian state.
Pehe says the threat to internal security will only be resolved through a complete crackdown on these economic and societal forces. “If we want to talk about sovereignty in the Czech Republic, expelling some Russian officials from the embassy does not go far enough.”
There are already signs that a counter-offensive is launched against Moscow’s economic influence, with Russian bidder Rosatom defined to be excluded an upcoming 6 billion euro nuclear power development project.
Yet as the Czech Republic tries to extricate itself from Eastern influence – including a sudden U-turn on possible acquisition of Sputnik V – it is becoming increasingly clear that a serious response will have to take into account a much wider range of political and social factors, responsible for a steady increase in Russia’s influence in the country for several years.
And when it comes to securing sovereignty in Central Europe, there is an elephant in the room.
As in other countries in the region, the Czechs weigh security concerns regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project compared to the promised economic benefits.
“The security and political implications of Nord Stream 2 are clear,” says Havlíček. “But the Czech Republic would be a beneficiary, so perceptions are balanced. There is a paradox: we are opening the doors to Russian influence, while simultaneously attempting diplomatic actions against Moscow.”
At a recent show of solidarity with the Czech Republic, MEPs in Brussels adopted a non-binding resolution who, alongside the expulsion of Russian diplomats across the EU, called for a shutdown of Nord Stream 2.
The disintegration of relations between Prague and Moscow has highlighted the disturbing extent of Russian influence in Czech politics and society. The expulsion of diplomats linked to secret activities is a first corrective measure, putting an end to the country’s recent slide towards the East.
But Russian influence in the Czech Republic and other central European countries is a long-term problem – and many now fear that it is too late to remove the more deeply-rooted malignant Russian forces from society.