Babis’s victory would be the end of Czech support for Ukraine? About the importance of the current Czech presidential elections
Petr Pavel is a strongly pro-Western and anti-Russian politician. Unfortunately, the current campaign has seen a disturbing change in the message of Andrej Babiš – he is running as an anti-war candidate. Babiš was inspired by last year’s parliamentary campaign of Orban, his personal friend. While support for Ukraine remains high, overall support for sending arms has fallen. The Czech public is a quite Eurosceptic, and the operational consensus in European politics is that Czechia must not support EU initiatives that could harm its economy. The V4 will continue to be important inside EU deals. Czech experts, Roman Jochem (Občanský institut) and Ondřej Šmigol (Echo24), talk to Michal Wojtylo (Jagiellonian Club).
What are the plans and views in the area of foreign and security policy of the candidates in the current presidential elections in the Czech Republic – general Petr Pavel and Andrej Babiš? Let’s start with the frontrunner, Pavel.
R.J.: The situation with general Pavel is much simpler and clearer than with Andrej Babiš. He is strongly pro-Western Atlanticist, he supports our government’s policy of support for Ukraine and he would continue to do so as the President. He would be strongly anti-Russian.
O.Š.: Pavel started in the army in the Communist times so that is one of the arguments against him. However, after the return to democracy, his service was quite exemplary – he made it to the chief of the general staff and was one of the military commanders in NATO. Pavel can be considered a mainstream, pro-Western politician.
What about the former prime minister, Babiš?
R.J.: Babiš was the prime minister from 2017 to 2021. He was never pro-Russian and his business interests are in the West – mainly in Germany, Slovakia and Hungary. He probably lost some money in an investment in China in the ‘90 so he was not eager to be pro-Chinese either. During his prime ministership we expelled almost all Russian so-called diplomats (in fact, agents of intelligence services). Babiš even decided to buy American helicopters for the Czech army, not the European ones, in order to strengthen the transatlantic link. He speaks fluently French, German and acceptably English. Also, he needs subsidies from the EU for his agricultural chemical business.
However, there has come a change in this campaign – Andrej Babiš runs as an anti-war candidate. If he is elected President and would be faithful to that message, the implication would be that we should stop actively support Ukraine. That would be a dramatic change in the Czech foreign and security policy. He probably was inspired by Orban’s last year’s parliamentary campaign, who is, by the way, his personal friend.
I doubt he means it seriously. It might be just an attempt to lure anti-government voters who are sceptical of our support for Ukraine, and after the election, he would continue the current pro-Western foreign policy. However, even if that is the case, it is not a promising signal sent from his campaign.
O.Š.:Babiš was always first a businessman, and his business interest lie in the West, unlike Zeman whose circle of advisors had business links in the East, in Russia and China. Babiš always had them in the West so he never was really much pro-Russian. But at the same time, I would not say he is a convinced pro-Western politician. Babiš would mostly do what he thinks will gain him the most popularity. His recent theme on the billboard was saying – I am a diplomat, not a soldier, I will not drag the Czech Republic into war. In the campaign, he is approaching a more neutralist stance because he thinks that is a way he can win. Babiš has been even seeking his peace plan for Ukraine. He said that if he becomes President, he will organize a peace summit between the Ukrainians and the Russians.
However, he also sends signals to the pro-West voters recently meeting with French officials, including Emmanuel Macron. He wants to show that not only Pavel has contacts in the West and that he can be trusted on EU forum.
Looking at the friendship of Orban and Babiš, if the former prime minister is elected is he going to rejuvenate the Visegrad Group and cooperation with Hungary?
R.J.: No matter who wins V4 will have importance inside the EU deal makings and negotiations. Czech Republic and central Europe have our own common interests which are not identical with western European countries. I think that especially on economic issues we will stick together in the V4.
If Babiš becomes the President ties with Hungary would be stronger, especially the personal ones with Orban. Babiš is a very person-oriented politician. He has good relations with Orban and on the other hand, he has very good relations with Macron and France. He lived in Switzerland, he is a perfect French speaker, he owns a restaurant and a castle on the French riviera. Babiš would try to balance between Macron and Orban.
General Pavel because of the number one security and foreign policy issue on his agenda – the Russian aggression – would not be sympathetic to Hungarian foreign policy and would see no reason to be kind to Hungary.
O.Š.:I do not think anyone understands Hungary. Victor Orban and the Fides party are used as a bogeyman, as an example of authoritarianism, of what can happen if Babiš would gain power. We could see that in the election campaign when Pavel went to Hungary to meet with the anti-Orban opposition. But on the other hand, there are people in the ODS who say that we have to keep working with Hungary, which means criticizing Hungary, when we do not agree with them like in the case of Ukraine, but also we should not isolate Hungary in the EU where Orban can be a quite useful ally.
What do you think will be the future of relations between Warsaw and Czechia? Does public opinion in Czech in any way notice the conflict between Brussels and Poland?
R.J.: Pavel would join the government’s strongly polish friendly foreign policy, especially concerning the events in the east. Babiš sees Polish agriculture as a competitor to his own company, so I would not say that he would be anti-Polish, but he would be mildly hostile for business reasons to close relations with Poland.
O.Š.: The Polish fight around recovery funds in the Czech Republic is non-existent in the media. On the government level, I think the Czech government, at least ODS and prime minister Fiala, has very good relations with his Polish counterparts. It is great that we found a compromise agreement on the Turow mine issue which I think was mainly thanks to prime minister Fila and his team who had a much more constructive approach than Babiš who tried to play with this topic for internal political gains.
Election campaign is always a festival of wishes. What are the actual tools of the President in Czech Republic when you look at the Constitution and practice in the past? What is the actual importance of the President to influence the mentioned issues?
O.Š.: President’s powers are actually quite weak. The only real power that he has total control of is the naming of the board of the central bank. He can veto laws but the lower chamber of the parliament can override it by a simple majority. However, a President can have quite a lot of an informal influence. When he talks, it always gets noticed in the media.
R.J.: Constitutional powers of the Czech President are quite limited. However, the informal influence of all Czech presidents has been enormous, much stronger than just the plain text of the Constitution would suggest. President is the one who nominates all ambassadors abroad which he can use as a tool for blackmail in the negotiations with the government. Also, the President during his visits abroad could create a certain perception.
For example, former President Zeman tried to steer the course towards more pro-Russian and pro-Chinese orientation until the Russian aggression in Ukraine. His former public pronouncements on China and Russia raised doubts among EU allies whether Czechia was still a fully pro-Western country with the legacy of Václav Havel, even though the actual policy of our government has not changed.
Let’s go from politics to the general mood and dominant public perception in the Czech Republic. Is there a continuous popularity of supporting Ukraine?
O.Š.: Generally, the support for sending weapons to Ukraine fell. There was a poll two weeks back that showed the highest drop in the EU, but also that is because the support was very high at the beginning. However, the general support for Ukraine is still very high. I do not think the government is going to change its stance. All the key ministers and the prime minister, Fiala, are very pro-Ukrainian.
R.J.: All parts of the governing coalition support aid to Ukraine. The consensus both in the political elites as pro-Ukrainian as was a year ago. However, public opinion is becoming a little bit bored by the Ukrainian issue. They were happy to help Ukrainian refugees. Now, some people claim that we help too much and that the money should go directly to the Czech people. The general consensus among the public is that it was a brutal, completely unjustified Russian aggression, so there is no sympathy for Russia at all. The only question is how long should we support Ukraine, and how extended the support should be?
What is the Czech attitude to EU and its step-by-step federalization?
R.J.: There is not a single position shared by all members of our government. The party of the prime minister, ODS, is in the ECR group in the European Parliament together with Law and Justice (PiS). They call themselves a Euro realistic. They are not keen on federalization on getting rid of unanimity condition on certain decision-making. Other members, Christian democrats and the Pirates are a part of either the European People Party, or the liberals and they are keener on ever closer union and federalization.
Operative consensus is, that we must not support anything which would damage the Czech economy, that is the consensus. Babiš is transactional – his party has joined the liberal group, which is one of the most euro federalists but he does not care about that. He is pragmatic and he would support anything if he is promised a better deal for his company.
O.Š.: Czech society as a whole is a quite Eurosceptic – it is against adopting euro and it is suspicions about Brussels, even though we have much better relations with the EU than Poland. However, in the Czech government it is a bit different because you have on the one side, the ODS, which is partly an Eurosceptic party, suspicions of federalisation, but on the other side, you have the Pirate Party, which is traditionally pro-EU. You have this tension in the government and, so far, I think it was more pro-EU than maybe ODS would like because Fiala is trying to appease his coalition partners by giving them more say in the European policy.
In the first round, there was a race inside the anti-Babiš block, between Petr Pavel and Danuše Nerudová. Why did Pavel win this contest? Are there any wider conclusion that we can take out from this rivalry?
R.J.: There is one main difference – Nerudová was strongly euro federalist. She did not show it clearly in the campaign in order not to diminish her appeal. I do not think Pavel has any opinions on this issue but he seems to me to be closer to the prime minister Fiala that we should not be overenthusiastic about an EU federalized state.
Nerudová was more left progressive in their signals, which was attractive to young people from large cities, but it limited her appeal in the more conservative countryside. For general Pavel political ideologies do not play any role. Secondly, Nerudová was harmed by a scandal that took place when she was the President of Mendel University in Brno. People from Austria and Germany paid for titles and diplomas to get them in a very short period of time. Also, she was harmed by the accusation that her husband, who is an attorney at law, and his private company got a very good deal with the university when she was the President. She was not able to respond quickly enough to the accusations.
The accusations against general Pavel – that he was a Communist party member, and served in Communist military intelligence – were raised a lot sooner. He admitted it, said that he had to do that to be a professional soldier and underlined that he did everything correctly in the last 33 years. He quickly acknowledged the mistake. Nerudová was silent at first and later her explanations were not convincing enough. Additionally, the timing of her scandal was worse, as it broke just before the voting.
O.Š.: In policy terms, I do not think they are much different, but I certainly think that Pavel’s military background gave him more authority when he spoke about security questions. Nerudová spoke up on economic issues as an economist. But I think the main reasons why she lost are the scandals. We can speculate why his past with the Communist party did not hurt him so much. I think that is because it is old news – that the first time when it broke it is was almost a year back.
Polls showed that the actual core supporters of Pavel and Nerudová were very small and people basically did not care which one of them will face Babiš. I think most people chose Pavel because at the time he seemed like a stronger candidate with more support, a better bet to defeat Babiš in the second round.
Who do we think will be the President?
R.J.: Petr Pavel is an undisputed frontrunner, I think he will win.
O.Š.: Probably Pavel will win, that is the outcome that everybody expects.