Status: 11/22/2021 10:37 a.m.
Czech President Zeman has often attracted attention with his pro-Russian positions. Research by an international network of journalists shows that there is more to this than just sympathy.
In May 2003, Milos Zeman seemed to be at the end of his career. Not even the MPs from his own Social Democratic Party voted for him in the second round of the presidential election. After eight years as party leader and four years as prime minister, he took the necessary steps and said goodbye to politics.
But his political ambitions were not dead. And someone was found who was ready to support him because it fit into his agenda: Vladimir Jakunin. In Berlin he is known as the “Railway Worker” because from 2005 to 2015 he was President of the Russian State Railway Company.
But Yakunin was and is more: once a KGB agent, a friend of Vladimir Putin, today a businessman with an ultra-conservative view of the world and political goals in Western Europe – a “pioneer of Russian influence”, as Russian political expert Alexander Morozov calls him. Research by an international investigative network, in which the Czech research platform Voxpot was involved, among others, shows extensive connections to Western Europe.
Appearances at conferences
A connection with Zeman was established when Jakunin traveled to Prague in 2002 in his former role as Russia’s Deputy Railway Minister – looking for a spare parts supplier for Czech locomotives used by Russian railways. On this occasion he got to know Jakunin, reports the Czech businessman Zdenek Zbytek in an interview with Voxpot.
The 69-year-old Zbytek graduated from the Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces in Moscow during the Soviet era. He has been doing business in post-Soviet space since the fall of the USSR. His office in Prague is in a house belonging to the Russian embassy, as he said himself.
He made sure that Zeman received an invitation to the “Rhodes Forum” in Greece in 2003, according to Zbytek. This annual event was organized by Yakunin’s international initiative “Dialogue of Civilizations”. According to Zbytek, he introduced Jakunin and Zeman. The following May, Zbytek’s business association “Club Russia” and Yakunin’s organization “Center for National Glory of Russia” organized a business conference in Prague for which they were looking for a prominent speaker.
Prominent and rhetorical
Zeman was the right man for it: “Wherever Mr. Zeman appeared, he spoke without a sheet of paper on any subject. He spoke very good Russian and good English. So he was a star, whether in Odessa, Vienna, Rhodes or in Břevnov Monastery in Prague “, Zbytek listed places where Zeman performed.
At the Rhodes Forum 2007 the decision was made that Zeman should run again as a presidential candidate. This was confirmed by the Czech banker Jan Struz, who was also there at the time: you were the initiators of the civil rights party that Zeman put up as a candidate for the presidential election campaign in 2013.
Zeman was surrounded by other people with good contacts in Russia, including the author Alexej Kelin. The latter told Voxpot that it was bitterness over the lost presidential election in 2003 that opened up Zeman for an orientation towards Russia. Yakunin, on the other hand, is a shrewd psychologist. He realized that a vengeful old man was the right person for him. “So they financed his election campaign, invited experts who planned the election campaign professionally and in terms of time.”
Who financed the election campaign?
However, Zbytek denied campaign support from Russia, as did Zeman’s economic advisor and former campaign organizer Martin Nejedly. As a businessman, Nejedly ran Lukoil Aviation Czech in the 2000s, which he founded in agreement with the Russian oil company Lukoil and which supplied airlines in the Czech Republic with kerosene.
According to Nejedly, neither Russian money nor a Russian agency was involved in the election campaign. That has been investigated several times. But how the election campaign for 2013 and those after it was financed is still not entirely clear. At the time, Zeman stated that he wanted to collect many small donations of up to 4000 crowns. In fact, the majority of the campaign budget consisted of donations of more than 100,000 crowns. A research by the media platform Künstne.cz revealed that some of the donors indicated had not given any money. The actual source of money therefore remained unknown.
Appearances in the sense of Russia
Zeman’s positions as President of a country that is historically shaped by the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 by the Soviet Union and the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 are remarkable. As Prime Minister, Zeman led the Czech Republic into NATO and the EU.
As president, however – contrary to the knowledge of NATO and the Czech secret services – he denied the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. In 2016, he ruled out Russia having to return the annexed Crimean peninsula to Ukraine, again in contradiction to the then government of the Czech Republic. Accordingly, he called for the sanctions against Russia to be lifted.
In April 2021, he expressed doubts when the security authorities presented evidence that the Russian military intelligence service GRU could be behind explosions in a weapons and ammunition depot. His words drove thousands of people to protest on the streets. They accused him of spreading Russian disinformation. He is a security risk for the Czech Republic.
Domestically, he repeatedly caused friction, most recently after the parliamentary elections in early October. Finally, a month later, although this was partly due to a stay in hospital, he commissioned Petr Fiala, leader of an opposition alliance and avowed supporter of the EU, to form a government.
He favored the previous head of government Andrej Babis. He now wishes him a new role: Should he have to step down from the presidency himself, he would like Babis to be his successor. That, Babis told the public, Zeman had told him.
Collaboration: Paul Toetzke and Vojtech Bohac (Voxpot)