As populist leaders and movements are coming to power from Ankara to Warsaw, the U.S. is taking notice — and central Europe is no exception. While Poland and its leaders remain staunchly anti-Russian, in the Czech Republic the situation is quite different.
Czech President Milos Zeman, the ANO 2011 ruling party, and finance minister Andrej Babiš have ties that bind them to Russia. They are pro-Russia and pro-Putin in their interests and behaviors.
Why should the United States, its security establishment, and the State Department care about this current matter? The answer is this: The current and potential future leadership of the Czech Republic threatens and endangers U.S. interests and the NATO defense agenda in the region. The Kremlin may be using Czech leaders as tools to influence the current political situation in their country, and Czech leaders are accepting Russia's and Putin’s influence with open arms.
For example, the Daily Caller reports that President Zeman:
... has expressed pro-Putin and anti-European feelings over the last few years. According to The New York Times, Zeman has supported Putin’s intervention in Syria and called for an end to sanctions against Russia. He also called for a referendum to exit NATO in 2016.
According to Reuters, Zeman stated that he personally supports the country remaining in both the European Union (E.U.) and NATO, but said on Czech Radio that he "will do everything for [Czechs] to have a referendum and be able to express themselves” on membership in both organizations.
Recently Zeman, who counts Vladimir Yakunin, a retired Russian KGB general and the former head of Russian Railways, among his friends, also called for an end to Russian sanctions. Clearly, Russia is trying to weaken Western influence in central and eastern Europe through the Czech Republic leaders, to neutralize and damage a country that is a NATO and E.U. member.
The Russian influence is not limited to the Czech Republic's current president. Let’s take a look at finance minister Andrej Babiš. The wealthy businessman owns companies that consume Russian gas. Like President Zeman, he has voiced sympathetic views towards Russia, while calling for Western sanctions on Russia to be dropped.
Babiš, who is accused of being a former agent of the Czechoslovak security services and possibly the KGB, has engaged in Russian-style corporate raiding and, despite a police investigation into his illegal activities, is still likely to be elected prime minister next month. Recently, the Czech parliament stripped the billionaire of his immunity, meaning that police can bring him up on fraud charges.
Both Zeman and Babiš surrounded themselves with shady businessmen connected to Russia and China, who may be the conduits for Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence in the heart of Europe. Such activities are deeply disturbing, as they cast the rule of law in the Czech Republic in a very dim light. Legal prosecutions are politicized, as Zeman's and Babiš’s political adversaries are targeted.
With elections coming up soon, Europe, and especially the United States as NATO leader, must pay close attention to the Czech Republic’s political leaders’ strategic connections. The United States should start taking proactive steps to protect its interests in central Europe, as the security situation with Russia gets worse every day. America and its allies must watch what occurs in the Czech Republic to address potential threats and prevent similar developments elsewhere.
The corrupt practices of Zeman and Babiš cannot be ignored. It’s time that we focused on Russia’s effort to restore the Soviet sphere of influence in central Europe, starting with the Czech Republic, its president, and its soon-to-be elected prime minister.