With the second round of Czech presidential elections on the horizon, suspicion is growing over the funding behind incumbent President Milos Zeman’s campaign.The Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny is conducting an investigation into how the “Friends of Milos Zeman” club — a group of his closest allies and supporters — donated around 400 thousand dollars to the pro-Kremlin candidate. However, one question remains open: where did this money originate.
Zeman’s connections to Moscow are no secret. As Veronika Vichova, an analyst at the European Values think tank’s Kremlin Watch Program, told Hromadske, Zeman surrounds himself with people linked to Russian business, and the Czech president remains one of President Putin’s strongest allies in Central Europe, so “they definitely want to keep Mr. Zeman in.”
Zeman’s behavior during campaign season has also added to that suspicion. The incumbent has said that he is not running a campaign and has refused media appearances. But posters, billboards and smear campaigns against his opponent Jiří Drahoš emerged even before the first round of the elections.
It is still possible that the investigation and the questions surrounding Zeman’s campaign may not significantly affect the overall results of the January 26-27 election.
“There are people who are probably going to vote for him no matter what because there are people who do not mind his inclinations towards the East,” Vichova says. “But I believe it might have an influence on the people who are still undecided.”
At the moment, members of the Friends of Milos Zeman club are refusing to comment on the source of the money, “so we'll see where the investigative journalists will get with this reporting,” says Vichova.
Hromadske spoke to Veronika Vichova via Skype to discuss the latest twist in Czechia’s complicated election saga.
My first question will be about this investigation that Czech journalists are doing about this hidden scheme to finance pro-Kremlin candidate Zeman. Can you explain this a bit more? What are the key points of this investigation? How much money did Zeman receive and what are the Kremlin links?
I think the main points have been visible already during the previous term of President Zeman. He surrounds himself with people with connections to Russian business. One such examples is Mr. Nejedly, who works as an economic aid but he does not have an official position at the Prague castle and he doesn't have a security clearance. However, he used work at Russia, he used to work for the energy company Lukoil and, a few months ago, he was fined for selling oil from strategic reserves. Lukoil paid for his fine in order for him to stay near the President and he has a huge informal influence on him. Another such example is Mr. Mynar, who is the Chancellor, or Chief of Staff of our President and he is the chief of the club of Friends of Milos Zeman, which gave the President around eight-nine million crowns for his campaign, he says he doesn't lead it, but the club refuses to disclose where [they got] the money.
Regarding the campaign: where did all the money go? Zeman says he did not campaign, but other experts say that he spent around 34 million crowns on the campaign.
Yes, he says he didn't lead a campaign, he didn't go to TV debates with other candidates, he refused to appear in any media where they asked him tougher questions. But, on the other hand, there was a solid number of billboards all over the Republic promoting his campaign, and, even now, between the first and second round of the elections, there are billboards and posters saying that Zeman is the only one who can save us from the waves and floods of refugees. And there have also been smear campaigns on the other candidates, but we, of course, are not sure if Zeman is in any way connected to them.
This whole investigation, this whole situation, is seen in the Czech Republic. What do people think about it? What do people know? How does this affect the whole election campaign?
Well, how many people will be influenced by these investigations is yet to be seen, but, the truth is, in the Czech Republic, there is traditionally a huge number of people, who are undecided and only decide who to vote for a day or two before the elections. And also, there is a lot of people who voted for candidates, who didn't get to the second round and these are the votes that the current candidates are fighting for. So we are hoping that we are going to find out where Zeman got his money. But the members of the club Friends of Milos Zeman are being frequently asked about this and they refuse to say, or they say they do not know. So we'll see where the investigative journalists will get with this reporting.
Can you briefly explain a bit more about this Friends of Zeman club? What is that? Which people are in this club?
These people are often members of the party, which Zeman was the leader of before he became President. There are just a lot of members who are not connected to the political party as well. One of the members is, for example, senator Veleba, who has appearing in the media and who has been asked about the money, but he also stated that he doesn't know where it came from. But these people generally support Mr. Zeman in any of his political activities, they have a social media account, where they promote materials in his support etc.
Finally, what can you say about the wider sense of this whole investigation? What influence it will have in the wider context? What is Russia's interest in that?
Well, the Russian interest is pretty clear because Mr. Zeman is one of the strongest allies they have in Central Europe, at least in a very high position, and the people he surrounds himself with are lobbying for Russian business to be active in the Czech Republic. So they definitely want to keep Mr. Zeman in his position. Concerning the influence it will have on society: there are people who are probably going to vote for him no matter what because there are people who do not mind his inclinations towards the East, but, I believe it might have an influence on the people, who, as I mentioned, are still undecided and are going to choose their candidate maybe even Friday, or during the day of the elections.
/Interview by Liuda Kornievich
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko