What You Need To Know:
✅ Czechia is the residence center for Russian Security Services in East-Central Europe;
✅ In his book "Putin’s Agents," Czech journalist Ondřej Kundra uncovers how the Kremlin succeeded in establishing such a presence, and what the Czech authorities are doing to counter it;
✅ “In each party, I would say, you find some politicians, some of them are pro-European but some of are more pro-Kremlin,”-Ondřej Kundra, Czech Journalist;
✅ “The Kremlin is trying to use my country as a Trojan horse within the European Union,” – Ondřej Kundra.
✅ Two upcoming elections could decide the fate of Czechia and its future direction and policies;
✅ Jozeph Pazderka, a Czech journalist, fears the rise of populism in his country, and the influence it could have on Czech politics and society;
✅ “Democracy dies when we don't care about it. The open space is filled with violence, populist things, if you don't fill them with good, positive things. And that’s the situation we are in,” – Jozeph Pazderka, a Czech journalist;
✅ The fear of the unknown, instilled by politicians, is what gets the people worried: “That’s paradoxically the biggest challenge for the Czech people to see the real people, real stories, real faces and not to be so radical.”
Hromadske journalists spoke to Czech journalists Ondřej Kundra and Josef Pazderka in May 2017, in Kyiv.
Czechia is the residence center for Russian Security Services in East-Central Europe. Once home to the largest Soviet Embassy that successfully fought against the Prague Spring democratic movement in the 1960s, the country’s capital now has one of the largest Russian Embassies in the European Union. In his book "Putin’s Agents", Czech journalist Ondřej Kundra uncovers how the Kremlin succeeded in establishing such a presence, and what the Czech authorities are doing to counter it.
Faced with an increasingly powerful Russian disinformation campaign, Kundra explains that the Czech government is trying to counter it. However, it might not be enough: “If you look at the capacity of the Czech counterintelligence service, in the department which is focused on Russian activities and a Russian influence in my country, the number of employees is 60 or 70. If you look at the capacity of the Russian Embassy—120 employees— then the Czech Secret Service doesn’t have a chance to do enough.”
Another problem is the mixed emotions within political parties: “In each party, I would say, you find some politicians, some of them are pro-European but some of are more pro-Kremlin,” says Kundra. Even the country’s pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman, has expressed that he is against Russian sanctions.
“The Kremlin is trying to use my country as a Trojan horse within the European Union,” he concludes.
In Kyiv, Hromadske's Zhanna Bezpiatchuk spoke to Czech journalist Ondřej Kundra.
Why, as you mentioned in your book, has Czechia become the residence center for Russian Security Services, in Central and Eastern Europe?
Ondřej Kundra: There are many reasons. One, I would say it’s a historical reason because if you look at the size of the Soviet Embassy in Prague and now the Russian Embassy in Prague is one of the biggest ones with the European Union and in Europe. It has got 120 employees and if you look at it in a historical way, at the end of the '60s when we had the democratic movement, which we called the Prague Spring in my country, one of the decisions which was made by the chief of KGB on how to fight against the democratic movement was to make something Russians call rezidentura which is like a dirty nest full of agents in the Soviet Embassy. And actually it was the first rezidentura in the Eastern and Central Bloc countries. And they were successful because in the fight against the democratic opposition, they won. So one of the reasons is historical, because until that time, they stayed in my country and they had a lot of contacts and a long tradition. The other reason, I would say, is the Russians like my country because it’s a safe place; it’s a nice place so it’s also nice to be there.
Why did the Czech government and the Russian Security Services allow this?
Ondřej Kundra: I think they are trying to do something against it, especially in the last two years when the disinformation campaign is so strong. On the governmental level it was said that: "We as a state need to fight against the disinformation campaign." A decision was made under the Interior Minister that they will establish a new department which will be focused especially on fighting against disinformation. But on the other hand, I agree with you that we still don’t do enough against it. If you look at the capacity of the Czech counterintelligence service, at the department which is focused on Russian activities and a Russian influence in my country, the number of employees is 60 or 70. If you look at the capacity of the Russian Embassy, and you know as I said that there is 120 employees, then the Czech Secret Service doesn’t have a chance to do enough. It’s a problem of the decision by the government that not all of the politicians agree and think that this problem is strong and that we need to do something against it.
Which political parties?
Ondřej Kundra: In each party, I would say, you find some politicians, some of them are pro-European but some of are more pro-Kremlin, especially you can find those politicians within the ruling main party, the Social Democrats. But also if you look at the Czech president Zeman, he is very much pro-Russian. For example, on Rhode's Island at the "Dialogue of Civilization", which is a conference run by Vladimir Yakunin, a guy from the inner circle of Vladimir Putin, the visit of the Czech President was paid by the Russian state. At the same time, the Czech President had his speech and he was talking in Russian against the sanctions. So some of the politicians like him are doing this dirty and nasty policy.
What do you see as trends that now dominate other activities of the Russian Security Services, taking into consideration the events of the last three years in the European Union and for example in Ukraine?
Ondřej Kundra: I would say the activities of the Russian Secret Services within my country are still very strong. I mentioned the size of the Russian Embassy in Prague so it’s still very big. There are some discussions between politicians to cut it down a little bit but only a few politicians are talking about it. But this new trend is that the government decides to fight against the disinformation campaign, but still they are at the beginning of this process. And I would say that at the same time, the Kremlin is trying to use my country as a Trojan horse within the European Union. If you look for example on the sanctions against Russia, because of the war against Ukraine and Crimea, so for example, the Kremlin is trying to persuade some of the Czech politicians to open this question on the European Union level in the way that we will be the country which will suggest on the European Union level to stop the sanctions.
Did you get any reactions or response from Russia? For example from the Russian Embassy in Czechia.
Ondřej Kundra: Not from the Russian Embassy and it’s more because of my normal work for my magazine because I’m covering this issue also in my magazine. So I had the reaction that they publish my address where I’m living and they’ve written on one pro-Russian website: "This bastard is living here, everyone can visit him." A couple of times the Russian trolls wrote me that I need to be killed and those kinds of trends.
Czechia's Pro-Russian president Milos Zeman recently appointed Ivan Pilny as the country’s finance minister, just months before a general election. In January, the president, at times referred to as an ardent Kremlin sympathizer, is also up for reelection. In a country of 11 million people, these two elections could decide the fate of Czechia and its future direction and policies.
Jozeph Pazderka, a Czech journalist, fears the rise of populism in his country, and the influence it could have on Czech politics and society. “We are members of the European Union and I think in larger terms, the elections and the changes in every country influence the mood within the European Union.”
While the current Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka upholds democratic values, polls show that his support is declining. “Democracy dies when we don't care about it. The open space is filled with violence, populist things, if you don't fill them with good, positive things. And that’s the situation we are in,” says Pazderka.
The Czech journalist, who spent a lot of time in Ukraine, also discusses the fear of Eastern European and Muslim migrants in his country. “There are very few refugees and very little immigration in Czechia,” he says. He explains that the fear of the unknown, instilled by politicians, is what gets the people worried. “That’s paradoxically the biggest challenge for the Czech people to see the real people, real stories, real faces and not to be so radical.”
Hromadske’s Liuda Kornievych spoke to Josef Pazderka, a Czech journalist, in Kyiv.
So what about internal politics? Does Czech society really support this anti-democratic sentiment? Within the next year there will be two elections – Parliamentary in October and Presidential in January. They could be pivotal to Czechia's direction.
Josef Pazderka: I think the elections will be in October and this government will be one of the few Czech governments that run the whole period of four years. But there is a political crisis. I think it's already the start of the election campaign so we are not quite surprised that it happened. I don't think that small Czechia—11 million people— has any huge significance for Europe, for the European Union. But we are members of the European Union and I think in larger terms, the elections and the changes in every country influence the mood within the European Union. My biggest fear is that this big rise of populism, nationalism and xenophobia will influence the Czechs politics and Czech society more and there will be some radicals gaining strength.
What can you say about the President Zeman and the Minister of finances and the ties to the Kremlin? How can this influence Czech politics?
Josef Pazderka: It's a question of President Zeman. Yes, there is a suspicion and he acts as someone who seems to be very highly influenced by the Kremlin. I have no precise information whether it's because of money being paid to his associates or whether it's a combination of his rivalries with the other people, with Havel and with many others. But it's a pretty sad story and we are not very happy about this happening.
And what are these people's views on partnership with Ukraine and other partners in Eastern Europe?
Josef Pazderka: I think, in general, Ukraine has been described by these people as a burden, as something we don't need. It's an additional burden; we have our own internal problems. Europe has a problem with immigration, with other things. They don’t care about Ukraine because it's an additional burden. That's the message of these people, of these populists, while people like us are trying to argue that Ukraine is a part of Europe. And by helping Ukraine, we can also help ourselves. It's a question of security, stability, and prosperity.
Are people dissatisfied with democracy and do they need authoritarian leaders because, for example, the Prime Minister upholds democratic values, but polls are falling?
Josef Pazderka: I think it's more general problem within Europe; we became more rich, we think that democracy and open space doesn't need special nurturing, or any special activity. And that’s wrong because democracy dies when we don't care about it, the open space is filled with violence, populist things, if you don't fill them with good, positive things. And that’s the situation we are in. Now we realize that we have to take about this open, democratic space. Otherwise, we will lose to the populists or xenophobia. And it's a pretty dangerous tendency but I still think we have it in our hands. It deserves attention, it deserves activity and if we don't invest in it we're going to lose.
And how did Czech society react to Zeman’s proposition to liquidate all the journalists because there are too many of them? What does it mean?
Josef Pazderka: President Zeman and his spokesperson say it was a joke, it didn't mean anything. But making such a bad joke in the presence of Vladimir Putin is a clear signal that something is wrong. Unfortunately, there is a significant group of presidential supporters who simply don't care. They say it was a bad joke, it was a good joke, we don't care. They are clearly focused on domestic issues or some of the core issues that Zeman repeats: fear of immigration, fear of European Union, fear of economic instability, whatever. And they don't care for anything else.
And how important for Czech society is the question of migrants? Do they consider them as a threat and if so, why?
Josef Pazderka: It’s quite a funny situation because there are very few refugees and very little immigration in Czechia. There are several thousand, maybe tens of thousands of Ukrainians. They have quite a positive image. But there are no Muslims, no real refugees. There were some refugees, even Muslims, in the 90s but we don't have them. And there's a big paradox that when you don't see real people, you're more inclined to fear some surreal, unreal element that someone describes. And I think that’s paradoxically the biggest challenge for the Czech people to see the real people, real stories, real faces and not to be so radical. Unfortunately, some politicians see this as a very very big trump card and they played it quite often.
What can you say about how Czech society perceives Muslim and Slavic, for example, migrants? Are there any differences?
Josef Pazderka: Of course there's a difference. I think Islam, for many reasons, has a simply more negative view in Czechia and in Europe in general. It's very difficult to explain to the people that there is a clear difference between radicals and Islam as a religion. People don't understand it and when they don't see a real Muslim, obviously they don't differentiate. But as far as immigration is concerned, in general, I think it's more positive. People see that the economy needs more people, increased workforce. I think in general it's more about ignorance about not taking care of all these people, simply hating them or seeing them as a threat.
You've been following the situation in Ukraine. What changes do you see and what perspectives?
Josef Pazderka: I've been following Ukraine since the very onset of the Maidan. I was not only in Kyiv but also in Crimea and then Donbas. I see this huge positive wave coming through the society that seemed to be very apathetic. I see this energy continuing but also I see the struggles that people are facing. And my biggest fear is that society loses this momentum for reforms, that the majority of people return to this passive mode, to ignorance and will let the oligarchs and people to do what they want. That's my biggest fear. I know that the Revolution started almost three years ago and my feeling is that, somehow, it continues and it has to move forward. If it loses the strength and energy I think the main values and main points of Maidan will be lost. And that's my biggest fear.