Czech presidential hopeful wary of Russian meddling before run-off

Jiri Drahos hit by lurid fake news as he challenges Kremlin-friendly Milos Zeman

Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos: has  faced a string of unfounded allegations on fake news sites and social media, including that he is a paedophile, collaborated with the communist-era secret police, and wants to flood the Czech Republic with refugees. Photograph:  Martin Divisek/EPA

Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos: has faced a string of unfounded allegations on fake news sites and social media, including that he is a paedophile, collaborated with the communist-era secret police, and wants to flood the Czech Republic with refugees. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

 

Czech presidential challenger Jiri Drahos has been warned to expect dirty tricks and fake news attacks ahead of this month’s run-off with incumbent Milos Zeman, whom he suspects Russia’s secret services want to see re-elected.

A liberal scientist and strong supporter of the EU and Nato, Prof Drahos trailed the Eurosceptic Mr Zeman in the first round last weekend, but he has a good chance of uniting opposition voters and winning the decider on January 26th-27th.

The populist Mr Zeman has courted the far right, called for a referendum on Czech membership of the EU and Nato, and strengthened ties with Russia through repeated visits and criticism of western sanctions on Moscow.

“I still think Russia is interested in our elections,” Prof Drahos told Czech radio.

“The Russian secret services are interested in Milos Zeman being re-elected. I cannot prove it, but the BIS [Czech domestic intelligence agency] acknowledged this in its annual report.”

In its most recent report, for 2016, the BIS said Moscow used “hybrid” influence and intelligence activities to interfere in Czech domestic matters and undermine Nato and the EU.

Late last year, however, the BIS said it had no specific information that foreign agents were meddling in Czech elections.

Nonetheless, Mr Zeman’s critics are deeply suspicious of his pro-Kremlin comments and his choice of senior aides and preferred media.

His chief economic adviser Martin Nejedly worked in Moscow and then ran a subsidiary of Russian oil firm Lukoil until 2015, when it collapsed leaving him with a €1.06 million liability to the Czech state; Lukoil picked up the tab after Mr Zeman warned that it could cost the aide his job in Prague Castle.

Neither Mr Nejedly nor Vratislav Mynar – the head of the president’s office – has received full security clearance, raising doubts about their suitability for such sensitive positions.

Alternative news

While deriding major liberal media, Mr Zeman and his spokesman Jiri Ovcacek favour alternative outlets that often peddle conspiracy theories and xenophobic and pro-Russian stories, including the popular Parlamentni listy.

“For the next 14 days, we can expect tonnes of dirt to be poured over [Prof Drahos] from the castle. Ovcacek, Mynar and Nejedly don’t want to leave power,” Jiri Pospisil, leader of the centre-right Top09 party, said on Twitter after the first round of voting.

Prof Drahos has already faced a string of unfounded allegations on fake news sites and social media, including that he is a paedophile, collaborated with the communist-era secret police, and wants to flood the Czech Republic with refugees.

Accusing Mr Zeman of being “a Trojan Horse” for the Kremlin, the European Values think tank in Prague predicted an “intensive disinformation campaign directed against Professor Drahos in the last two weeks prior to the second round.”

Ondrej Kundra, a leading Czech journalist who has investigated Russian influence in Prague Castle and elsewhere in the country, said Mr Zeman was useful to Moscow’s efforts to “destroy EU unity”.

“They want to make chaos in society and divide society,” he said “and that’s exactly what Zeman is doing.”