A Failed Balancing Act: How the Pro-Russian Far-Right Dominated the Migration Debate in the Czech Republic
Non-Resident Junior Fellow, Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Think-Tank
Czech Republic: just one example of a wider problem
Czech Republic: just one example of a wider problem
Since 2015, the continued influx of migrants and refugees into Europe has raised serious doubts about the unity, direction and competing moralities within the European Union. The EU’s attempts to mitigate the crisis with a quota system and other solutions have proven widely unsuccessful as well as unpopular. Asylum seekers and migrants come predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan from the East, Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia from the South, as well as others. Since incomers are mostly Muslims (with a minority of Christians), the debate surrounding the migrant crisis has overwhelmingly focused on the Muslim majority. There are legitimate political arguments against accepting immigrants and refugees on the European quota basis, and in the Czech Republic they are being expressed by conservative parties, like the Civic Democratic Party or the Christian Democratic Party, which share traditional concerns about immigration and Islam. However, there are also pro-Russian and far-right movements, including the parliamentary party SPD (The Party of Direct Democracy), which has used the topic as an opportunity to provoke hysteria amongst the demographic groups most vulnerable towards disinformation.
It has long been known that Russia’s long-term geopolitical interest is the weakening and potential dissolution of the European Union and NATO, both of which strengthen Russia’s geopolitical rivals in the West. This is usually done by identifying the pre-existing divisions within society and then amplifying those issues with disinformation so that the debate becomes unreasonable at best, destructive at the worst. Since the Czech people have had concerns about immigration as well as Islam and are also traditionally sceptical towards the European Union, the Kremlin and its proxies in the Czech Republic have been attempting to intensify the urgency of the “Muslim threat” and connect it directly with the EU, aiming to boost Euroscepticism in the Czech Republic.
Anti-immigration narratives: is the far-right supporting Russia?
As mentioned already, the Czech Republic was among the most vocal states opposing the acceptance of Muslim refugees and migrants under the EU resettlement scheme and ended up accepting only 12 out of the 2,691 that were allocated. The radical narrative imposed by the far-right has portrayed all Muslims as terrorists in disguise as well as fundamentally culturally, socially and morally unable to integrate into Czech society without causing it irreparable damage. The vast majority of domestic political actors have been strongly opposed to accepting migrants of Muslim-origin. The actors who took the side of asylum seekers were, almost exclusively, civic organizations, charities and refugee assisting organizations.
To name some of the most radical examples, the Freedom and Direct-Democracy (SPD) party leader Tomio Okamura has been especially vocal. Among other things, he has called for walking dogs and pigs near mosques (which is, at the very least, intimidation) and advised against eating at Muslim-owned restaurants and kebab shops, as they supposedly help fund radical Islam and, “Every kebab we buy is another step towards burqas”.
Another example comes from Adam Bartoš, who leads the National Democracy (Národní demokracie, ND) movement and has been accused by the Czech Police of crimes against humanity. His take on the migration issue and the EU membership has been clouted in anti-semitic conspiracy theories and said migration problem has been blamed on Jewish control of the world and Freemasons. Bartoš has also openly endorsed Russia’s actions in Ukraine and sees Russia as the protector of Christian culture in Europe.
Many of the anti-migration politicians noted here are also affiliated with the pro-Russian Institute of Slavic Strategic Studies, which has also been supported by the leader of the SPD party Tomio Okamura. It hosts conferences and even discussions in the Czech Parliament aiming to dispel what it sees as “myths” about Russia and to promote the Russian worldview in Czech policy-making circles. Finally, and most notably, President Miloš Zeman has also frequently expressed pro-Russian views and personally sees Vladimir Putin as a defender of conservative, Christian Europe.
All of this has been coupled by an increase in the so-called “alternative” news sources such as Parlamentni Listy, which have enjoyed a rise in popularity and legitimacy through largely fake or at least highly partisan news stories, as trust in traditional outlets has decreased. For instance, Parlamentni Listy has reported on refugees regularly raping women in Sweden, and on Germans “fleeing” Africans and Arabs in their own country, all of which is seen as “Islam’s conquest of Europe”. Alternatively, outlets have divulged outright conspiracy theories about the EU/US/Israel or Illuminati conspiring to destroy European states, otherwise known as the Kalergi Plan.
The weakening of the European Union and NATO has been proven to be Russia’s long-term strategic goal. Also, many of the most vocal advocates against migration are publicly affiliated with pro-Russian institutions such as the Institute for Slavic Studies. Finally, they have expressed other opinions (such as support for Russian actions in Ukraine) which benefit Russia’s image. This clearly illustrates the well-established ideological links between the Kremlin and European far-right actors, including Czech ones.
The narratives described above are clearly intended to weaken the cohesion of Czech society and amplify rifts between the left and the right, pro- and anti-immigration camps. It is done by spreading panic about refugees and migrants, with the aim to translate that panic into an anti-EU sentiment, as the EU’s common policies are seen as the reason the Czech Republic needs to accept immigrants in the first place. As the actors behind this disinformative content are also pro-Kremlin, it is clear that the Czech migration debate is yet another target of Russian foreign interference into internal affairs, with the aim to undermine the cohesion of the European Union whilst promoting Euroscepticism in the Czech Republic.
A failure for liberals, a victory for Euro-sceptics
Public opinion surveys have shown that the Czech public lacks basic understanding of the EU resettlement program. In particular, Czechs are not well informed about the conditions of the program (such as deportation if crimes are committed). Czechs see refugees as a civilizational threat, hidden terrorists, as “unadaptable barbarians” and as lazy, unthankful and calculating. This view clearly illustrates the failure of society as a whole, and of journalists and think-tanks specifically to provide wide-reaching and accessible narratives that humanize Muslim migrants and explain the related European policies.
On the other side, a note also needs to be made about the more liberal camp’s failure to rationally address concerns about migration without defaulting to labelling all conservative opinions as racist and Nazi. While there certainly is an element of that in some members of the anti-immigration camp (as has been explained above), the failure to engage with legitimate concerns has arguably pushed the public to trust more far-right sources that validate their pre-existing concerns.
The overall situation has therefore unfolded as follows: the debate has been dominated by right-wing forces, many of which peddle unproven conspiracies, and are credibly affiliated with Russia at least to some extent. They have been opposed by a much smaller “liberal camp”, whose strategies have failed to address the concerns of ordinary Czechs, instead resorting to name-calling. This situation clearly illustrates the difficulties of effectively countering Russia’s interference into domestic affairs through disinformation and the use of highly emotive and polarizing issues.
This problem is also showcased in recent shifts in the Czech political landscape. In the Fall 2017 Czech Parliamentary Elections, the far-right and populist parties strengthened their positions significantly, with Tomio Okamura’s SPD gaining 10% of the seats. Most parties currently elected have a strong anti-immigration stance, and migration issues have occupied an important part of the national debate ever since. In 2018, the Republic re-elected President Miloš Zeman, who has both openly advocated against migration and called for a National Referendum on the Czech EU membership, similar to the one that triggered Brexit in the UK. While Euroscepticism does not threaten the Czech membership in the bloc at the moment, the threat of the rise of anti-Europe sentiments (fuelled at least partially by people feeling a lack of control over their country’s migration policies) weakens Europe as a whole and the Czech Republic in particular.
This story therefore illustrates a need for a political balancing act. On the one side, it would be wrong (not to mention counter-productive) to constrain legitimate conservative opinions and doubts about migration. On the other, malicious far-right groups should not be allowed to further Russia’s political aims by dominating debates about particular policies to argue against the larger benefits of the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU and NATO.
The task of balancing falls on all levels of society. Political parties need to come up with fact-based solutions that would appeal to conservative voters, particularly young and “first-time” voters and older voters, both of who are more susceptible to disinformation. As with all anti-disinformation programs, education and critical thinking skills are also key. In an overwhelmingly white and atheist country such as the Czech Republic, most people have had no personal experience with people from other races and religions, and therefore lack personal insight on Islamic migration, leaving them to rely on the often-scandalizing media representations. Thus, media has a lot of influence on how migrants are perceived, and an underfunded and uneducated media sector can do a lot of damage. As the Czech media is underfunded, it is under pressure to “churn out” stories and can default to the easiest and most familiar, scandalizing setting. An increase in public media budgets, combined with an emphasis on journalistic integrity and education on migration, could therefore go a long way.
Another key branch of these efforts is exposing Russia’s interests in furthering anti-Western and anti-EU narratives, and repeatedly stressing who stands to benefit most from widespread Euroscepticism. A better understanding of strategic realities could potentially reduce the emotional affect that migration has on the general population and allow people to see this one issue in context. Realistically, the benefits of EU membership far outweigh the costs. However, the benefits are of little use if the people are being made to feel under threat, and this feeling can easily undermine any proportional understanding of the migration issue.