World 25.1.2018 04:38 am

Czech ‘Russiagate’ haunts presidential runoff race

Czech ‘Russiagate’ haunts presidential runoff race

Pro-Russian incumbent Czech President Milos Zeman goes into a presidential election runoff against liberal rival Jiri Drahos with the country’s own “Russiagate” dogging the campaign.

Polls predict an extremely tight race on January 26-27 after a first round that saw Zeman score 38.56 percent of the vote to 26.6 percent for Drahos.

“For Vladimir Putin’s regime, NATO is the biggest enemy and we are part of NATO,” Drahos, former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), said earlier this week.

“It’s logical that Russian secret services and related organisations are very much involved in the campaign,” he added, alluding to allegations that Russia meddled in recent elections in the United States, France and Germany.

The 73-year-old Zeman, a former communist, retorted: “It’s an insult to Czech citizens, to accuse them of being manipulated by foreign intelligence. It’s as if you suggested they were incapacitated.”

Some experts give credence to Drahos’s claims.

“I wouldn’t rule out (Russian intelligence services) FSB, SVR, GRU might take part in such activities, and they are really good at this,” independent security expert Andor Sandor, who is also a former Czech military intelligence chief, told AFP.

– ‘Kremlin’s Trojan Horse’? –

The Prague-based European Values think-tank has dubbed Zeman the “Kremlin’s Trojan Horse” and accused him of spreading Moscow’s “narratives internationally and domestically”.

“Zeman is the most ardent sympathiser of disinformation webpages, which he considers trustworthy,” it said.

“A symbiosis developed between the president and the disinformation community in the last few years. The former legitimises the latter, which in turn supports him during election campaigns.”

Disinformation has been rife in the current campaign, dominated by the topic of Muslim migration.

Both Zeman and Drahos have rejected the European Union’s controversial quota system for distributing asylum-seekers around the bloc, launched in 2015.

Of the 2,600 migrants alloted under the plan, the Czech Republic has so far only received 12.

But while Zeman has called Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis an “organised invasion” and Muslims “impossible to integrate”, Drahos said the country was strong enough to handle all the migrants alloted by the EU on the condition they be fully screened to eliminate security concerns.

Some 54 percent of Czechs believe that refugees pose a security threat, according to a December survey by the CAS.

Some have sharply criticised Drahos’s relative openness to refugees.

Petr Hampl, the former deputy head of the Czech “Anti-Islam bloc”, told Czech media recently that “a vote for Jiri Drahos is a vote for the genocide of the Czech nation”.

– ‘Swine’ –

Strewn across the country, Zeman’s campaign billboards read: “Stop immigrants and Drahos. This country is ours! Vote Zeman!”

Drahos has also had to deny and fight off allegations by pro-Zeman media of being a paedophile and former communist secret police agent.

Meanwhile Zeman, who suffers from diabetic neuropathy and has to walk with a cane, has faced needling remarks about his health.

Zeman “has cancer with multiple metastases,” Svatopluk Bartik, a councillor in the second Czech city of Brno, wrote on Facebook in November, giving Zeman “3-7 months” to live but without providing any proof for his claims.

Zeman’s doctors denied the rumour and his office filed slander charges against Bartik, while the president himself called the councillor “a swine”.

Frantisek Vrabel, head of the Prague-based Semantic Visions risk assessment company, says Russian propaganda and interests are very present in the Czech Republic.

“They don’t need to use pro-Russian news sites in the Czech Republic on a massive scale,” he told AFP.

“The negative news about Mr Drahos comes directly from the Prague Castle,” Zeman’s presidential seat, said Vrabel, whose company monitors 4,000 news sites in the Czech Republic and 600,000 worldwide.

“If you carefully analyse the media output and stances taken by Zeman’s office and compare them with the official Czech foreign policy, you will undoubtedly conclude that their (Zeman’s office) activity is in accord with Russian interests,” he added.

 

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