In September 2022, the European Values Center for Security Policy launched a new Atlas of Influence, which maps how Czech parliamentarians and the government help or hinder the spread of Russian and Chinese influence in the Czech Republic.
As the Czech counterintelligence agency BIS has been warning for years, the activities of Russian and Chinese state power directly threaten the security and other key interests of the state, which also impact the safety and quality of life of Czech citizens, including the stability of the entire Czech democratic system. The Atlas of Influence shows what role Czech MPs play in the matter of Russian and Chinese influence – whether they actively fight against it or prefer to dig for foreign interests.
The results of our analysis have uncovered a number of remarkable trends in the behavior of politicians as well as entire parties in the area under observation, which should not be missed by informed voters.
1) Putin is more interesting to Czech politicians than Xi Jinping
The security threat coming from Russia is more prominent in the Czech public debate than the creeping danger from China. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the revelation of information about the involvement of Russian GRU military intelligence officers in the explosion in Vrbětice, and especially the February invasion of Ukraine, have all played a significant role in this. The number of cases and events related to China’s involvement that have resonated so strongly in the Czech public space is minimal. In recent years, for example, we can talk about the trip of the Senate President Miloš Vystrčil to Taiwan. This is also the reason why Russia and its hostile influence is a topic of discussion and voting in the Chamber of Deputies (42 relevant votes from 2014 to September 2022) significantly more often than China (10 votes in the same period). This fact may pose a significant risk in the future, as the real threat trend, according to annual Western intelligence reports, is just the opposite – in the volume and ambition of influence operations for the coming years, Beijing clearly wins over Moscow.
2) The public pressure to condemn Russian military aggression against Ukraine has reached even the Kremlin’s traditional allies, but not permanently
Although a good number of SPD MPs have long expressed pro-Kremlin views, the public pressure generated in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s military attack on Ukraine has forced even these politicians to change their coats, at least for a few months. This trend was most evident in the parliamentary votes concerning Russia and its interests, in which the SPD MPs, who had until then almost always voted in the negative or abstained (including in the Vrbětice case), suddenly decided to vote unanimously in favor and thus help the Chamber of Deputies to unequivocally condemn the Russian aggression.
This behavior, expressed in particular by voting in favor of Russia and its interests (e.g. agreeing to abandon two post-Soviet banks), lasted until the beginning of September, when the Chamber of Deputies voted on the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. With the notable exception of Jaroslav Bašta, whom the SPD had chosen as its presidential candidate, the SPD parliamentary caucus decided just then to return to its traditional pro-Russian positions and to vote either reluctantly or directly against strengthening the northern wing of the North Atlantic Alliance.
A similar trend in changing their votes on matters relating to Russia can be observed among the vast majority of MPs from the ANO movement, however, this came after the revelation of Russian guilt in the explosion of the munitions depots in Vrbětice in April 2021. Although it cannot be said that the majority of ANO MPs deliberately wanted to assist the Kremlin, many of them chose to abstain in votes concerning Russia until the Vrbětice case, which nevertheless often helped to prevent the adoption of positions or laws that would have constituted a defense against Kremlin influence. It was only the public exposure of Russian involvement in the explosion of the ammunition depots that helped almost the entire parliamentary caucus to start voting against Russian interests. The rest then joined in after the Russian invasion in February.
3) The fight against Russian and Chinese influence has long been taken seriously only by the current ruling parties
Although the Security Information Service has been explicitly warning about Russian and Chinese influence for more than a decade, of the current parliamentary parties, only the parties of the current governing coalition can be seen to be making efforts to counter these influences. This has been the case since 2014, when the level of Russian and Chinese influence increased significantly (in the case of the Pirates, since 2017, when they first entered the House of Commons).
The best performers in the effort to limit the Russian and Chinese influence were TOP 09 and the Pirates, who never got involved in any of the Russian or Chinese cases, clearly voted against their interests, and came up with measures on their own initiative to limit the influence of the Kremlin and the Communist Party of China, for example, the long-term effort to establish a Permanent Commission on Hybrid Threats or to propose and enforce the Czech version of the so-called “Magnitsky Act”, which would allow for the sanctioning of Russian and Chinese officials who violate human rights.
The MPs for KDU-ČSL and STAN also did very well, with only minimal involvement in cases in which they helped spread foreign influence. In these individual cases, these were politicians who had also held executive positions in the past. From 2014 to 2017, KDU-ČSL MPs were part of Bohuslav Sobotka’s government, which promoted the development of Czech-Chinese relations, and Marian Jurečka met with communist leaders in China. STAN, on the other hand, has long had a strong position in the regional leadership and MP Josef Bernard (STAN), as governor of the Pilsen region, received representatives of the People’s Republic of China and opened doors to the academic and business spheres, which China often exploits for espionage purposes, through political patronage.
4) The Communist Party of China may have a comfortable constitutional majority in the Chamber of Deputies
As trend #1 already suggests, the issue of Chinese influence is not nearly as popular in the Chamber of Deputies as the Kremlin’s influence, which every deputy has voiced at least through voting. On the other hand, fewer than 80 MPs have made their position on China clear, and 28 of them have at least in the past sided with its interests.
The Chinese Communist Party could thus, with a little exaggeration, win over more than 120 hitherto undecided MPs to its side and thus control the future direction of the country through an imaginary constitutional majority. Given China’s growing power, this trend poses a significant potential threat in the future, as it is currently impossible to gauge how these MPs would stand up to significant pressure and influence operations from China.
One reason explaining this ambivalence towards Beijing may be that four of the five parties in the current ruling five-party coalition have a number of newly elected MPs who were previously active, for example, only at the local level, where issues relating to China and its influence by the nature of their focus at the time eluded them.
5) Several Chinese links to ODS spoil the otherwise almost clean reputation of the five-coalition
As much as the above-described ambivalence of MPs towards China, which in no small part also applies to the ruling five-coalition, may pose a problem in the future, at present most government MPs have a clean slate on the issue of Chinese influence. That is to say, they either speak out publicly and vote against China’s interests, or they are disengaged and have never spoken publicly about China or had any contact with it.
The most exceptions, however, are in the ODS, which has only two MPs whose scale of influence shows their involvement in favor of China (Jan Skopeček, Rudolf Salvetr), but overall significantly more civil democratic MPs have been involved in Chinese affairs. However, their activities in favor of China were not as serious or were balanced by other activities that suppressed Chinese influence in the Czech Republic.
These include Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Finance Minister Zbyněk Stanjura, who defended Jan Skopeček after he organized a pro-China seminar in the Chamber of Deputies with the help of an agency commissioned by the PPF group to improve China’s image in the Czech Republic. However, both Fiala and Stanjura later spoke out against Chinese influence several times.
In any case, it is important in the future that the entire party leadership become aware of this trend and put more pressure on individual members to take the same principled stance towards all authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of Chinese subversion could otherwise become the norm.
6) Preach water and drink wine: Some MPs’ votes do not match their actions outside the House and TV cameras
As the Atlas of Influence analysis has shown, public voting is not a reliable indicator demonstrating their relationship with Russia or China for some MPs, particularly from the SPD and ANO. Thus, while these MPs vote against the interests of Moscow and Beijing in many cases, or at least abstain from such votes, they engage in significantly different ways outside the TV cameras and public attention.
For example, the SPD chairman Tomio Okamura, who has voted against China’s interests in the Czech Republic on several occasions, but has also been involved in several cases related to China’s interest in entering the Czech Republic’s critical infrastructure (the Dukovany nuclear power plant), which clearly show which side Okamura is on. The former chairman of the Chamber of Deputies for ANO, Radek Vondráček, is also linked to a record number of Chinese cases, and he ranked the worst among MPs in the matter of the spread of Chinese influence. His voting record in the Chamber of Deputies does not quite reflect this.
The explanation offered here, therefore, is that votes in the Chamber of Deputies, which are public and where the choices of each individual member of parliament are traceable, make even MPs with a positive relationship to Beijing or Moscow more likely to vote against the influence of foreign powers, whereas if MPs do not feel pressure to be publicly accountable, they are more inclined to help Russian or Chinese interests. This points to the need for greater attention and deeper transparency about the behavior of politicians outside parliament.
7) Russia and China’s parliamentary supporters are recruited from inter-parliamentary friendship groups
Among the most paradoxical trends is probably the fact that the Chamber of Deputies, through its inter-parliamentary groups, is producing Russia and China allies among its own members to some extent. Indeed, almost all MPs who have joined one or the other of these groups have helped Russia or China in some way sooner or later.
In many cases, of course, it is impossible to know how close the MEPs have been to Moscow or Beijing, but it is clear that these groups have certainly facilitated opportunities to reach out to these regimes and start helping their interests. As the testimonies of now former deputies from the Communist Party of the Czechoslovak Republic, who were widely associated in these two groups, reveal, their members meet in an organized manner with members of the diplomatic corps of these countries, including intelligence officers.
This trend of “recruitment” may be typical for ANO deputies, who are often undecided on international issues and do not make their views very clear. In her 5 years as an MP, Monika Oborná has only expressed her views on Russia through her vote, which, as the previous trend has shown, is not always indicative. However, after joining the inter-parliamentary Friends of Russia group in 2017, she decided to travel to St. Petersburg in October 2019 with three other MPs to meet with Rosatom executives. At that time, Rosatom was making a very significant bid for the contract to complete the Dukovany nuclear power plant, which the then-ruling ANO government had helped it to do in a very significant and long-lasting way.
A similar trend can be traced in the case of ANO MP Karel Rais, who does not make his attitudes towards Russia or China very public, but after his involvement in both groups, Rais travelled to both Moscow and Beijing and chose Jiří Nestával, who has close ties to both regimes, as his assistant.
Of course, both groups also include long-time public supporters of Russia and China, such as Jaroslav Foldyna and Radim Fiala. It is they who can then help to bring newly arrived and often undecided MPs closer to the representatives of these authoritarian regimes, as they have long-standing contacts with them.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Viktor Vojtko (STAN), the head of the Permanent Delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, probably realized this risk and the dangerous potential of the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Friends of Russia, and so this group is, at least officially, non-existent in this election period. The Chinese one, however, does exist and continues to pose a risk.
Recommendations for the future:
- It is in the interest of the Czech Republic and its security that more MPs be more transparent and vocal about their position on authoritarian states in the future.
- The Atlas of Influence is also an instrument designed to facilitate citizens’ decision-making in elections and should be used as such, as it offers useful information on individual candidates for future elections in the area of the security of the country.
- It is important that the leadership of the various political parties exert more influence on their members to be more decisive and vocal, especially in their stance on China.
- The results of our research highlighted the need for further investigation into the causes and non-public activities of politicians in the area of Chinese and Russian influence.
- The media should use their influence more and report on these activities more regularly, as strong public pressure generally has a positive impact on politicians’ behavior.
- The Chamber of Deputies’ bodies should do more to monitor the activities of inter-parliamentary groups of friends, particularly China (and Russia if it resumes existence) and other authoritarian states, as these groups can serve to mediate dangerous influence activities by these states.
- The Chamber of Deputies’ bodies should demand greater transparency on individual MPs’ foreign trips abroad, especially to authoritarian countries. Members who choose to take part in such trips should clearly declare the purpose and program of their trips and indicate on their return whether any changes have been made to the program. At present, in many cases it is very difficult to trace whether the planned trips took place and what the intention and program were.
The Atlas of Russian and Chinese Influence in the Czech Republic, produced by the European Values Center for Security Policy, is a complete overview of all available information on whether and how the MPs and the Government of the Czech Republic, elected in October 2021, have facilitated or hindered the spread of Russian and Chinese influence in the Czech Republic, from 2014 to the present. The Atlas of Influence project monitors a total of 206 politicians from 7 political parties through the Chamber of Deputies and the government. The time period analyzed starts in 2014 and ends in September 2022 and includes votes in the Chamber of Deputies related to decisions that affect the interests of authoritarian countries in the Czech Republic (e.g. the vote on the tender for the completion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant and on allowing participation of entities from China and Russia), and cases related to the spread of Russian or Chinese influence, such as the use of Huawei technology by Czech ministries, etc.