Normative aspect: D
Final mark: D+
Although the Czech government has consistently maintained the common European position in relation to Russia, which is based on the Minsk peace process and downstream economic sanctions, it did not support this stance convincingly or particularly advocate it in public. President Miloš Zeman and several high-ranking representatives from opposition and government parties alike criticised the sanction mechanisms introduced by the EU in response to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Russian support of the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine. By championing a more accommodating approach towards Russia, they undermined the official line and contributed to the ambiguity of Czech foreign policy. The only noticeable sign of efforts to take a proactive approach was the decision to set up the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats in response to the Russian disinformation campaign.
Relations between the West and Russia remained extremely taut on account of Russia’s continuing interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs and the escalating conflict in Syria, where the Russian army was extensively engaged throughout the year. Czech foreign policy was once again inconsistent and patchy in its approach to Russia last year.
Officially, the Czech Republic held true to its support of the EU sanction mechanism all last year and did not diverge from European-wide consensus. On home ground, however, the government was not always able to convincingly defend its position and did not counter the destructive actions of the President and Members of Parliament. Instead of emphasizing the security argument, which had been the motivation for introducing the sanctions, government representatives highlighted the need to avert potential economic losses for the Czech Republic. In this way, they opened the gates to criticism of the sanction mechanism.
Much of the ambiguity of the Czech Republic’s position was inflicted by President Zeman. By overstating the negative repercussions of the sanctions for the Czech economy, justifying the annexation of Crimea, and maintaining glowing relations with Russian politicians and diplomats, the President repeatedly undermined the governmental line. In view of Russia’s actions in Syria, calls for the West and Russia to unite their forces in the fight against international terrorism were also misguided. Milan Štěch, the President of the Senate, took a similar position, repeatedly questioning (for example, in a letter to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel) the effectiveness of the EU’s sanction mechanisms, basing his argumentation on misleading economic indicators.
The government’s hypocritical stance on sanctions was also illustrated by the fact that, despite Russia’s continued aggressive politics, the economic dimension was once again the centrepoint of bilateral relations in 2016. The Czech Republic remained active in economic diplomacy through its diplomatic missions and implemented a number of projects in support of exports to Russia. This preoccupation with the Russian market stands in particular contrast to associated Eastern Partnership countries, which, despite their economic interdependence with the EU, are still relegated to the fringes of Czech economic diplomacy.
The Czech Republic responded to Russia’s disinformation campaign by setting up the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats at the Ministry of the Interior. Although this is a positive sign indicating that the state is interested in this matter, in the absence of additional awareness-raising activities among the general public, the engagement of the civil sector, and active efforts by politicians themselves to mount resistance to propaganda, the new institution will not be enough to battle the disinformation challenge.