Is the Czech Republic the next Hungary? It's question increasingly in some political circles. But it's not a question being asked out loud by Western diplomats in Prague, at least not yet.
What would be it mean the next Hungary? Basically, it would mean turning away from NATO and the EU and embracing the Russian way of doing things, including the centralization of power, the cultivation of a crop of oligarchs and the rejection of Western values. The U.S. government has responded to Hungary by placing a travel ban on six of its officials, including the head of the country’s tax authority. They are suspected by the U.S.of corruption, but no details have been given. This follows the same model used by the U.S. in imposing sanctions on Vladimír Putin’s friends, and it sends a clear message to others. If you oppose U.S. policy on Russia, Ukraine, etc., you risk being targeted. This suggests that the U.S. gathers evidence of criminal activity through its routine intelligence activities and keeps the information ready for when it might come in handy.
The U.S. is able to use its spy agencies, its eavesdropping capabilities, its control over all dollar-denominated transactions, and its on-the-ground informants, including anti-corruption NGOs, to identify possible targets. Rarely does it make public use of such information, and it’s impossible to say to what degree the information is used in private as leverage.
There is already speculation in the Czech press about who might be targeted if the U.S. changed its position on the CR. Jan Macháček wrote in Respekt that the U.S. intelligence services undoubtedly are well-informed about the influence on Czech politics of financial groups active in Russia and China, meaning primarily PPF and J&T. Because of his pro-Putin stance, Václav Klaus and those around him might be a possible target, Macháček added. And we have written repeatedly about the willingness of Czech officials to allow opaque offshore companies to take stakes in the energy, financial and media sectors. Surely the U.S. spy agencies know who the beneficial owners are and what their connection to ČEZ is. They also undoubtedly know PM Bohuslav Sobotka’s sources of outside income.
Publicly, the U.S. is taking a cautious stance. On the international level, Victoria Nuland of the U.S. State Dept. makes comments that could be interpreted to mean the CR, such as this one in Berlin: “We must also ensure that inside our own space we are defending democracy by making sure that our own governments are clean, are transparent, are open. I speak of this less in Berlin, but particularly in Central Europe, where the cancer of corruption threatens to undercut the democratic gains that have been made over 25 years and to open a wormhole for nefarious outside influences, to undercut the democratic system, checks and balances, free media, space for civil society.” If asked directly, she would probably deny having Prague in mind.
In his speech at AMO last week, U.S. Amb. Andrew Schapiro spoke about the “special relationship” with the CR and stressed that actions, and not words, are what matter. However, he also said that the relationship is at a crossroads, that the Czech people are ahead of their government in terms of seeing Russia as a threat, and that we shouldn’t believe anyone [Zeman, Klaus] who say that the sanctions aren’t having an impact.
His message was a veiled one: The CR is straying from the path through some of its comments, but it has not (yet) crossed over the line. The U.S. is hopeful that gentle guidance will bring the Czechs back into the fold. Schapiro made no open threats, so there is no immediate risk that the U.S. will publicly use its intelligence sources against any Czech officials.
James de Candole argues in an excellent analysis that the Americans are driving the Czechs into the arms of the Russians by supporting Temelín, just as they drove the Czechs into Communist arms in 1948. What Candole overlooks is the possibility that opposing Temelín would push the Czechs even more toward the Russians. Today’s Czech politicians don’t want the U.S. telling them what to do.
The only current Czech politician Schapiro praised – or even mentioned – was Lubomír Zaorálek. He might very well be the main thing preventing the CR from becoming the next Hungary.
Autor: Erik Best