The Czech Republic has launched a special government unit to counter terrorism and "hybrid" threats such as fake news and propaganda, despite criticism from president Milos Zeman, who is known for his warm relations with Russia.
Moscow’s secret operations abroad are under intense scrutiny amid accusations that it meddled in November’s US presidential election and that Kremlin-backed hackers have infiltrated sensitive computer systems in the US and elsewhere.
The Czech Republic will hold parliamentary elections this year and a presidential vote next January and, like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, Czech officials fear Russia could seek to influence their outcome.
In its most recent annual report, the Czech domestic intelligence agency (BIS) said Russia was using puppet organisations and propaganda in the Czech Republic to stoke extremism and fuel anger towards the West.
The BIS concluded that these activities “pose a threat to the Czech Republic, EU and Nato” and that the “infrastructure created for achieving these goals . . . can be used to destabilise or manipulate Czech society or political environment at any time, if Russia wishes to do so”.
The new interior ministry department says it aims to tackle “a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security”.
Even before officially starting work on January 1st, however, the 20-person unit came under attack from Mr Zeman.
“We don’t need censorship. We don’t need an ideological police. We don’t need a new department of press and information if we are to continue to live in a free and democratic society,” he said in his Christmas message to Czechs.
Mr Zeman is one of the few EU leaders to have visited Russia since it seized Crimea in 2014 and fomented a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed about 10,000 people and displaced well over one million.
He has called for an end to western sanctions against Russia, while lambasting the EU over German-led plans to distribute refugees around the bloc, something he says will only aid the spread of Islamist terrorism.
Several people in Mr Zeman's close circle also have strong ties to Russia, foremost among them Martin Nejedly, his chief economic adviser and a key figure in his campaign when he became president in 2013.
Mr Nejedly is believed to have spent about a decade in Russia starting in the 1990s, before returning to the Czech Republic and founding a subsidiary of Lukoil, the largest privately owned Russian oil company.
When the firm collapsed, Mr Nejedly was ordered to pay 27.7 million koruna (€1.03 million) to the Czech state. Ultimately, Lukoil paid a fine that Mr Zeman had warned could cost the adviser his job in Prague Castle.
No security clearance
Neither Mr Nejedly nor Vratislav Mynar, the head of the president's office, have received full security clearance, raising doubts about their suitability for such positions, said Jakub Janda, deputy director of a Prague think tank called European Values.
“For Zeman it’s not about money, but it might be for people like Nejedly,” Mr Janda said of the pro-Russian feeling in Prague Castle.
“Because of his position on Russia and other things, Zeman rarely gets invited to the West. He feels insulted by this, and as a kind of revenge he moves closer to Russia, where he gets great media coverage and is made to feel like a major leader.”
Mr Janda told The Irish Times that Russia now had about 140 accredited diplomats at its embassy in Prague and consulates in Brno and Karlovy Vary – far more staff than the US, China, Germany or other major states keep in the Czech Republic.
In its 2015 report, the BIS said “a large number” of these supposed diplomats were actually Russian intelligence agents, whose covert presence “clearly signals activities threatening the security and other interests of the Czech Republic”.
Prague's new Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats has sought to assuage the concerns over its powers that were raised by Mr Zeman.
The unit states that it “will not force the ‘truth’ on anyone, or censor media content . . . will not spread any kind of propaganda” and “will not have a button for ‘switching off the internet’”.