2 Russia's influence in Central Europe unlikely to shift Slovakia and Czech Republic's pro-NATO and pro-EU direction
Key PointsIn March, Czech president Milos Zeman - unlike his Western European counterparts - confirmed his participation in the commemoration marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on 9 May in the Russian capital Moscow. In the same month, several Czech activist groups announced a protest against a US military convoy passing through the Czech Republic on 30-31 March.Russia is seeking to increase its influence in the Czech Republic and Slovakia through maintaining their dependency on Russian gas supplies, spreading pro-Russian propaganda through social media, and providing funds and training to extremist groups.Despite Russia's attempt to increase its influence and maintain a strong grip on Central Europe, the future of the Czech Republic lies firmly in their memberships and commitment towards the European Union and NATO.[/list]EVENTRussia has recently attempted to strengthen its influence in the post-communist countries of Central Europe and to create disunity in international organisations such as the European Union and NATO. Concerns have emerged that the erstwhile Western political orientation of the Central European countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, may be under threat.
Russia has tried to make use of the Central European region's heavy dependence on its energy as a means to gain political influence. Slovakia's economy had been particularly dependent on Russia's oil, gas and uranium supply. For two weeks in January 2009, Slovakia's gas supply was completely shut down, forcing various industries to close down or limit production. In 2014, Russia limited gas supply to Central Europe again, raising concerns that the move was to warn countries that had started supplying Ukraine with Russian gas via reverse flow.
The region has responded by diversifying gas supplies, with Slovakia now being able to purchase gas on the spot market in Austria and use reverse-flow gas from the Czech Republic, above all. Slovakia, in particular, is a strong supporter of the EU Energy Union, which aims to boost the bloc's negotiating power with Russia and lower the Kremlin's leverage in the region's energy sector. The vice-president of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union is Slovak diplomat Maros Sefcovic.
PropagandaIn February 2015, Slovak activist Juraj Smatana published a list of 42 websites spreading pro-Russian propaganda in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Key characteristics of these websites include high levels of professionalism and strict anonymity. These websites are not new, but the intensity and quantity of propaganda they publish have increased after Crimea's annexation. Their main aim seems to be promoting the annexation's legitimisation and supporting the separatists' attempts in Ukraine.
These websites have an indirect impact on the security environment in the region. In Slovakia, a civic organisation Pán Obcan (Mr Citizen) had prompted male citizens to resist military service. The organisation stated that the Russia-Ukraine conflict threatened to spread to Slovakia, which would in turn be likely to prompt Slovak officials to reinstate military conscription (Slovakia abolished conscription in 2005). As a result, in February this year, the Slovak Ministry of Defence registered notifications from around 12,000 people refusing to enter military service in case of war.
Links between Czech and Slovak extremists groups and Russian organisationsCentral European combatants currently fighting in the conflict in Ukraine have been open in their adulation towards Russia. Most of those involved in fighting originate from extremist groups that promote pan-Slavic and anti-EU/anti-NATO ideology. They also have direct links with Russian extremist organisations: the leader of the Slovak organisation Slovak Recruits (Slovenskí branci) has claimed the group received combat training from the Russian nationalistic group National Union (Narodnyi Sobor).
In 2008. the Czech Security Information Service (Bezpecnostní informacní sluñba: BIS) reported a marked increase in the activities of Russian intelligence in connection with the planned US radar installation on the Czech territory. BIS then stated that organisations and individuals protesting against the United States' radar project received funds from Russian sources. One of such opposing organisations, No to Military Bases (Ne základnám), had received sponsorship in form of the free use of 10 billboards from a company called BigBoard, which is active in Russia and Belarus. In Slovakia, the anti-capitalist group Resistance (Vzdor), which strongly opposes Slovakia's NATO membership, received a similar sponsorship for its billboard campaign in 2015.
In March 2015, the No to Military Bases called on the Czech citizens to obstruct the US military convoy passing through the country on 30-31 March. The convoy was returning from military exercises in the Baltics to its base in Germany, passing through Poland and the Czech Republic. The group encouraged blocking the Czech-Polish borders and attacking the convoys with Molotov cocktails. In addition, the Czech Senate party leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Cech a Moravy: KSCM) labelled the convoy anti-constitutional. The event however passed without incident and the small groups of pro-Russian activists were largely outnumbered by thousands of pro-EU and pro-NATO supporters, many reportedly carrying EU and Ukrainian flags. Czech defence minister Martin Stropnický has stated that "massive [pro-Russian] propaganda on social networks and elsewhere produced something opposite than intended".
FORECASTThe Czech Republic and Slovakia have demonstrated a softer approach towards Russia during the latter's ongoing conflict with Ukraine compared to their Baltic and Polish counterparts. This was demonstrated by Slovakia's only reluctant support for the EU sanctions against Russia, and Zeman's planned participation in the 9 May commemorations in Moscow.
Still, Russia's attempts to maintain influence in the Central Europe have produced only limited results as exemplified by the region's military equipment supply and energy supply diversification. The Czech Republic and Slovakia remain committed towards their NATO and EU memberships: both countries have intensified their participation in various NATO-led military operations in the Eastern Europe, while both also officially back the EU sanctions against Russia. Several factors have also limited spreading the pro-Russian ideology in the region, not least increasing quality of life and personal freedoms - including the freedom to travel and work in the Western Europe and the US - which liberal democracy provided since the fall of the communist regime.