De-Russification and 'Liberal Authoritarianism': The Czech Choice

The Ukrainian crisis has had multiple impacts on the international order but also on the relations between Russia and the European Union. The Czech Republic as one of the member states of both the EU and NATO plays a specific role in the recent development for it has been used as a “laboratory” of the de-Russification project. The process underwent several stages delimited by three major affairs in the last three consecutive years. The country´s example demonstrates a longer-term anti-Russian strategy which makes it a relevant study case to be explored.

After February 24, 2022, the Czech liberal democracy changed. The political elites have accelerated internal transformation towards “liberal authoritarianism” which is typical of enforcement of ideological consensus based on “liberal values”, weakening of the democratic principle, the partial restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms, and de-Russification internally, together with firm alignment with Brussels and Washington externally. The actions have been unprecedented in many respects. Up to three tens of “disinformation” media have been blocked despite the non-legal character of such a measure. The alternative views and opinions challenging the official interpretation of the Ukrainian crisis have been proclaimed criminal under “certain conditions” while these have not been specified, which undermines the basic principles of rule of law. We are, therefore, witnesses of a paradoxical situation when the instigation to hatred against the Russians, calling for a coup in Russia or repression against the Czech “dissent” are tolerated, whereas statements regarding Russia's self-defence or the existence of the US biological laboratories in Ukraine might be criminalised. The social atmosphere has become irrational and paranoid. The political elites have used the upheaval to the final crackdown against Russian influence, de-Russification of the economy, education, research, and other spheres of life, and finally sever the ties with the “archenemy”.

The present actions build upon several preparatory steps that occurred over the last years, particularly since the beginning of 2020. Certain tensions between the Czech and Russian sides were not an exception in the past but the situation started to deteriorate considerably after 2014. An increasing number of social domains have been made a matter of national security starting from energy, telecommunication and economy as a whole, and ending with research or education. Securitisation and politicisation have permeated the society, coinciding with the move towards strategic autonomy as defined by the EU authorities. Under contemporary conditions, this transformation entails the deepening of Euro-Atlanticism and related Russophobia. Not a few local provocations were staged including the removal of Marshal Konev's statue, the unveiling of a memorial to the Russian Liberation Army or the renaming of streets in Prague two years ago.

The first major affair erupted in April 2020 when the liberal press published a story that the Kremlin sent out a spy under diplomatic cover to assassinate local politicians connected with the abovementioned provocations. The “espionage affair”  disturbed the public and activated domestic anti-Russian circles that called for a reduction of the diplomatic staff of the Russian embassy, termination of bilateral agreements and exclusion of the Russian companies from participation in strategic contracts. Even though the narrative was spread by many Western media as well as Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, the first phase of the anti-Russian campaign in the Czech Republic was dampened. Nevertheless, it revealed some of the main goals of the anti-Russian actors and prepared the Czech public for more serious actions in the future.

Almost exactly a year later, in April 2021, political and security authorities shocked society with the revelation of an alleged “terrorist act” committed by Russian intelligence officers in a Moravian village of Vrbětice in 2014. The subsequent campaign was unprecedented in terms of effects on the bilateral relations which were reduced to the absolute minimum. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Prague, not the Baltics or Poland that became a pioneer of Russophobia in the Euro-Atlantic camp. The Czech Republic together with the US was declared the only “unfriendly state” by Russia. Some sociologists called the events a “cold putsch” within which the non-elected actors resorted to media and intelligence manipulations to push through political interests aimed against the sovereigntist aspirations of a part of the political elite. The “Russiagate” proved successful for the “architects”. The Russian side was excluded from the strategic tender on the expansion of the Dukovany power plant, the cabinet's plan to import the vaccine Sputnik V and to organise the US-Russian presidential summit were cancelled, Russia's diplomatic staff was cut by dozens and the bilateral relations fell below the freezing point.

The Russiagate came after the sudden tragic passing of the wealthiest Czech businessman Petr Kellner who died a month before in Alaska. It is speculative to assess his real influence on Czech politics, but it is beyond any doubt that Kellner was contributing to the pragmatic, multivector foreign policy for the simple reason that his long-term business plan was intertwined with China and Russia. Kellner's economic empire at least hindered the radicalism of liberal elites, offsetting the activities of a network of NGOs which have been one of the key instruments of foreign influence in the country. Another obstacle was eliminated after the parliamentary election in October 2021 when the tactic of the united front against the common enemy – Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and his movement – was successfully employed (whereas it has totally failed in Hungary recently). The pragmatic-leaning government was replaced by liberal forces faithful to the protection of liberal democracy and Euro-Atlanticism. Liberal elites thus managed to consolidate positions in the political, security, economic, media, non-profit as well as academic domains while pushing sovereigntist actors including President Miloš Zeman to the margins. These prerequisites and the power constellation that arose last year made the comprehensive realisation of the de-Russification project viable.

The Czech liberals have joined Poland's hawkish Eastern policy, assisting both Polish regional ambitions related to the revival of the inter-war Intermarium, and the general US strategy to contain “autocracies” and reverse the move towards global polycentrism and “pluriversum”. The hegemonic Western discourse based on universalist, dualist and moralist Weltanschauung is, however, hardly compatible with real pluralism or peaceful coexistence. The experiences of the last weeks show that the Czech liberal democratic elites have opted for a specific kind of “liberal authoritarianism” and resistance to pioneers. of a new era of international relations – China, Russia, and other countries of the “Rest”. Whereas the Czech Republic has chosen the withering past, Russia has chosen the future.

The author is an analyst of the China-CEE Institute, established by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Budapest.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.