#CzechRepublic ripe for Russian influence

| May 9, 2019

For all the countless problems that have emerged from the seemingly endless Brexit process, the sharing of future national intelligence has often flown under the radar. For the sake of our national security, this issue must no longer be overlooked.

When the defining political issue of our generation, in or out, is finally put to bed, we must be wise to the fact that intelligence-sharing with the EU will present new difficulties. They will require careful navigation, not least because of the European states within the bloc that are vulnerable to Russia’s influence.

Even before the imminent disruption of Britain formally leaving the EU, Europe was already beginning to crack.

The Kremlin has long pursued a strategy of isolating and influencing susceptible politicians in central and eastern Europe, turning them against the EU and weakening the unity of the bloc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Europe’s far-right, in the form of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Austrian Freedom Party, already appear to be lost causes.

As a result of these ties with Russia, British and Dutch spy agencies have heavily restricted the level of intelligence they share with Austria as the Freedom Party controls the BVT, Austria’s main intelligence agency.

However, the Russian web extends far further. The European Parliament elections, now almost upon us, have provided a tantalizing opportunity for Putin to capitalize on widespread anti-EU sentiment.

The Czech Republic, a typical liberal, progressive Western democracy, is now worryingly teetering on the precipice. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has exhibited characteristics that would make him vulnerable to Russian influence and persuasion, while President Milos Zeman is a vocal, long-term supporter of Russia.

Assuming the UK shares intelligence with the EU indiscriminately in the future, what is stopping unpredictable leaders like Babiš from passing information to the Kremlin and thereby completely undermining our national security?

It does not take a massive stretch of the imagination to picture a scenario like this playing out. To fully appreciate the concern surrounding Babiš’ heightened future geopolitical role, it is first important to examine his chequered past.

Turning the clock back somewhat, Babiš was a registered informer during the Cold War for communist Czechoslovakia’s secret police, a notable ally of the KGB. His historically grounded ties to Russia continue to rise to the surface today. Last year, Babiš reportedly abducted his own son to prevent him from giving evidence in a fraud case. The chosen location? Russian-held Crimea. Andrej Babiš Jnr has described being forcibly detained by two Russians and taken to a mental hospital.

Babiš’ close association with President Zeman, a man branded ‘the most influential Kremlin ally in Central Europe’, does nothing to quash any rumours. The fact that Zeman’s support strengthens the political fortunes of the power hungry Babiš and his party ANO, renders his alignment with Russia unimportant. Putin has been granted a seat at the table and his stranglehold over the Czech Republic will only tighten.

Babiš, a billionaire industrialist believed to be worth more than $3.7bn, continues to be driven by personal wealth whilst in office. He has been the subject of multiple corruption and conflict of interest investigations by both Czech and European authorities who believe that he has used his political power to support his business.

He seemingly offers no explicit political agenda, and instead pursues what one Czech analyst calls ‘oligarchic populism’, which in practice reveals Babiš is more interested in business than in any alignment with the EU’s core values. Again, we see further explicit vulnerability to Russian influence.

To draw the debate back home, the UK must be wary about sharing information and intelligence with countries in the EU like Czech Republic, now a glaring security threat. Whilst it is still live, politicians should act quickly and make provisions for these vulnerabilities in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

If Babiš succumbs to Moscow’s influence, and there is a strong argument he already has, the EU would have another blocking vote to counter on issues of EU security, especially those pertinent to Russia. Already an uphill task, as those tackling the spread of disinformation before the EU elections could attest, Europe would find itself impotent to the Kremlin’s malign influence.

The UK must make a concerted effort to identify these vulnerable states and ensure that our intelligence services do not work with them on sensitive issues relating to Russia.

A lack of immediate action would play into Putin’s hands and help create inexorable divisions in a continent already under immense strain.

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Category: A Frontpage, Opinion, Politics

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