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Does Russia interfere in Czech, Austrian and Hungarian elections?

European Values, Political Capital and DoW present a study “Does Russia interfere in Czech, Austrian and Hungarian elections?”. In it, we come to the conclusion, that Czech Republic is expected to be the most intense battleground for Russian meddling efforts, especially during the presidential election. We bring you the executive summary and also the full PDF.

Summary for Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary

  • The French and the German elections clearly proved two things about Russian efforts to meddle in foreign elections. First, there were obvious attempts at interference in both cases. Second, these efforts can easily be repulsed if there is a political will to do so.
  • The main difference between the Kremlin’s opportunities to meddle with elections in the West and the East is the regionally distinct modus operandi of Russian influence. While the West proved to be a breeding ground for state of the art information warfare utilizing “bots,” the East has a multitude of local mainstream political, economic and disinformation actors in the pockets of the Kremlin.
  • The deterioration of American – Russian, as well as American – European relations further encourage and stimulate Russian presencen the “power vacuum” left by the United States, and possibly help turn the tide in Russia’s favour at least in Europe.
  • In all three countries, the Kremlin clearly has its own preferred candidates who all have a different kind of relationship with Moscow. Given the fact that in Austria and Hungary proRussian forces are highly likely to become members of the future government (Fidesz in Hungary, FPÖ in Austria), the Czech Republic is expected to be the most intense battleground for Russian meddling efforts, especially during the presidential election.
  • The stakes are high considering the fact that Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria are in the vicinity of Ukraine, and they have an important role in the region’s and Ukraine’s stability. The three countries under review demonstrate different levels of vulnerability when it comes to Russia’s global and local strategy: Hungary being the most, while the Czech Republic the least susceptible to Russian influence.
  • The Kremlin has strategic goals in each country’s election in order to turn the tide in Europe and successfully create an Eastern Bloc of “Putinverstehers” in the midst of the European Union causing an even greater rift in Trans-Atlantic relations:
    • Sustain the political “status quo” in Hungary represented by the PM Viktor Orbánled government after 2018 by supporting the Hungarian government’s anti-NGO, anti-opposition, anti-Brussels and anti-migration agenda via official and unofficial Kremlin mouthpieces;
      • Stop the Czech governmental efforts to repulse Russian influence and support proPutin political players such as current Czech President Milos Zeman by directly attacking his main challengers, Jiří Drahoš and Michal Horáček;
      • Propel the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, one of the most pro-Kremlin forces on the European far-right, into a government position by aligning Austrian and German pro-Russian political players, NGO-s and media, and amplify voices aimed to abolish the sanctions regime.

Czech scenario assessment

File:Zeman M 6.JPG

David Sedlecký, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Major Russian meddling in the October parliamentary elections is not expected by the wider expert community for two reasons:

  • First, Russia does not have a preferred party it could support to get enter the governing coalition: the chances for Kremlin-linked Communist Party or the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy are rather slim as they are considerably ostracized for their policies and standings.
  • Second, if a major interference in the October parliamentary election happened, it would most probably endanger the major Russian objective, that is helping President Zeman stay in office for his second presidential term (2018-2023), because the public’s awareness of the interference would probably hold over to the presidential campaign in the fall of 2017.
  • As we have seen in Western elections, an effective way of supporting the Kremlin-preferred candidate is to directly attack his/her main opponent.That is why we can expect efforts discrediting and disseminating disinformation on Zeman’s key challengers – Jiří Drahoš and Michal Horáček in the presidential election in January 2018. If any of those two challengers won, it is expected that they would openly confront the pro-Kremlin community in the Czech Republic, as they are both highly critical of Zeman’s actions. Kremlin-inspired Czech disinformation efforts are almost completely united behind President Zeman and will probably play the role of creator and offer a platform to massive disinformation and smear campaigns against Zeman’s challengers.
  • Bot activities are probably not going to be used massively as Twitter has limited political and social impact in Czech politics, most of the action is done on Facebook, which makes it harder for automated bots and fake profiles to operate on a large scale.