Ivan Preobrazhensky: From Russia’s Perspective, Central Europe Does Not Exist

Russian influence in Central Europe is proportional to the influence of Central Europe in the EU and NATO. Today, Russia’s investment in this region is minimal, says political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: When did you leave Russia and move to the Czech Republic?

IVAN PREOBRAZHENSKY: With the annexation of the Crimea. Previously, I had divided my life between two countries, my family was already living in Prague, but in 2014 I left Russia. My decision was not only political. The economic crisis in Russia began even before the annexation, the ratings of the regime were falling and the annexation of the Crimea was supposed to boost them. It was clear that the economic situation would not improve after the annexation: sanctions were soon imposed on Russia, which responded with counter-sanctions, and there was the specter of armed conflict on a larger scale.

Do you know more people who have moved abroad, including to Central Europe?

While in 2014 a noticeable, although not huge, number of people emigrated, in the following years there were more of them and today there is a large wave of emigration. This could not happen overnight, and in Russia it takes some time to complete the formalities necessary for emigration to the European Union.

Who is leaving?

People who cannot find their place in Russia after the annexation: those who have been involved in social, cultural or political projects, have run mid-size businesses and are today unnecessary or feel pressured by the regime. Many of them took part in the protests of 2011-2012 or did not agree to the annexation of the Crimea. These people have a feeling, sometimes subjective, sometimes objective, that they can no longer develop in Russia. This is, of course, a different model of emigration than the one we know from the times of the Soviet Union. Today’s emigrants do not break their ties with their relatives, they belong to the Russian information space, they are interested in the issues taking place there.

We hear a lot that Russian immigrants in the Czech Republic often have pro-Kremlin views.

That depends on what kind of emigration we are talking about. Such views are held by many Russians who came to the Czech Republic in the 1990s and 2000s. There are a lot of apolitical people among them. They hear from relatives in their home country that the situation in Russia is not so bad. This is a mechanism described by sociologists long ago: those who decide not to emigrate do not speak badly about their country. On the other hand, those who left after 2014 have a different attitude, they are more critical of Vladimir Putin. I leave aside Russian students, whose numbers have been growing rapidly in recent years.

Do you see the Kremlin trying to improve its image and use soft power in the Czech Republic?

The Russian regime does not go for that kind of thing. Traditional forms of promotion of Russian culture remain the same: the matrioshka, balalaika, ballet, Russian classical music concerts or visits of such people as the neo-Stalinist writer Nikolai Starikov. The halls are full, but it is usually the Czechs who fill them up.

Today’s emigrants do not break their ties with their relatives, they belong to the Russian information space, they are interested in the issues taking place there.

A lot of work is also done by those Russians who blend in well with the Czech elite—unlike in the three other Visegrad countries. In the Czech Republic they join various closed clubs, societies, golf clubs and hockey clubs—in Russia the latter play the role of Masonic lodges. I think that Russia influences the Czech Republic mostly in this way. In any case, the Czech authorities are pursuing a pro-Russian policy. Recently, the magazine Reflex published a caricature in which Miloš Zeman speaks to his press spokesman: “In a few days our guys are playing hockey with the Czechs, you need to arrange some bottles.” Russia is a reference point for Eurosceptic and anti-liberal Czechs. China is too different.

Russia is an attractive alternative?

Yes, especially to Germany, which for the Czechs is the main economic and cultural partner, but with which they also have many historical scores to settle. You can always say to Brussels and Berlin: “If you keep pushing us, we can go east, to the other big brother.” People with a pro-Russian attitude are now in the mainstream of Czech public life.

Russia probably helped its allied parties during the parliamentary elections in 2017 and helped Zeman during the presidential elections a year later—nobody succeeded in proving this, which does not mean, however, that there was no such support. There is no doubt about the aid granted by companies that are closely related to Russian capital. It is sometimes confusing, because the Czechs allow dual citizenship and many people have both Russian and Czech citizenship.

Traditional forms of promotion of Russian culture remain the same: the matrioshka, balalaika, ballet, Russian classical music concerts.

Such persons control, for example, many anti-European and pro-Semitic websites, and Zeman supports nationalist populists and Eurosceptics.

So those who want to support Russia do not have to say openly that the Kremlin is good. It is enough for them to criticize the European Union and the liberals and promote Moscow’s agenda.

Yes, they are the first to voice grudges against the EU. The Russians are working with them, imposing their point of view. In May, a Czech member of the Communist Party, whom the ruling coalition wanted to appoint as the head of the committee for control of the security services and police, went to the Donetsk People’s Republic and met with its “leaders”. And I assure you, he didn’t go there through Kiev. There are at least three such people among the communist MPs.

Pro-Russian people are on every major ballot, and there are even more of them among smaller groupings. Zeman is one of those European leaders whom Russia praises the most. The Russian regime is not as effusive even towards Viktor Orbán, because he is not as unequivocally pro-Russian. Through politicians such as Zeman, Russia is inserting its ideas into the European debate: the Czech president, for example, continues to emphasize that the Russian status of Crimea must be recognized somehow.

How did the Kremlin’s attitude towards the Visegrad countries change after 1991?

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia itself was more or less democratic and saw Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Poland, along with the post-Soviet republics, as partners. Economic ties quickly loosened, although Rosatom, for example, kept working with the Czech Republic, and Gazprom with Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. On the other hand, political relations were strong until 1994-1995, when imperial leanings began to be rescinded in the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin. The regime is one thing, however, and security services and diplomacy are another.

In Moscow, officials did not change, only their managers did. Alexei Gromov is one example: he worked as a Soviet diplomat and later as a Russian diplomat in Karlovy Vary, Prague and Bratislava, while today he is the first deputy head of the administration of Vladimir Putin and oversees Russian television. He is still interested in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and speaks the local languages.

The shape of Russian policy towards the Visegrad countries at the time depended on Russian capabilities. Central Europe was long forgotten in the Kremlin and this state of affairs lasted until the late 1990s. At that time, marginal politicians in Russia and in the Visegrad countries created informal ties—for example, Czech communists and Russian Eurasians, who even in Russia at that time were still regarded almost as extremists.

People with pro-Russian attitude are now in the mainstream of Czech public life. Russia probably helped its allied parties during the parliamentary elections in 2017 and helped Zeman during the presidential elections.

Then Putin came to power in 1999.

Yes, but a year earlier Yevgeny Primakov became head of government, and with him, the conservative line began to reign in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From that moment on, Russia begins to see Central Europe as an instrument of influence on the whole of Europe.

This coincides with the gradual accession of four Central European countries to NATO and the EU: they gain voting rights and influence in these institutions. Nevertheless, Russia still talks separately with France and Germany and wants to maintain bilateral relations in Europe.

What does the annexation of the Crimea change in this respect?

A lot. The traditional economic presence of Russian capital in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary has been significantly reduced by sanctions. At the same time, Moscow felt that it needed modern technologies, which the West would no longer provide and which it could obtain from Central European countries.

Furthermore, the Kremlin wanted a guarantee that, in the event of a threatening conflict with NATO, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest would not support an attack on Russia. The same applies to EU sanctions: maybe good relations with Prague or Budapest will not lead to the withdrawal of the sanctions, but at least they will enable Russia to smuggle this idea in as a subject of European debate. That is what is happening: Austria and Italy are doing that on the EU arena.

Zeman is one of those European leaders whom Russia praises the most. The Russian regime is not as effusive even towards Viktor Orbán, because he is not as unequivocally pro-Russian.

So for Russia, Central Europe is a weak link of the EU and NATO, through which they can be influenced? Is it using the democratic system of these organizations in this way?

Let me put it this way: Russian influence in Central Europe is proportional to the influence of Central Europe in the EU and NATO. If the Visegrad countries are given more say, the presence of Russia will be strengthened. Today, Russia’s investment in the region is minimal. The Russian regime is pleased when Zeman announces that he does not rule out holding a referendum on leaving the European Union, but at the same time Moscow wants Central European countries to remain in Western structures.

Because we are still thinking in Cold War terms, it seems to us that NATO or the EU members are in a different political and military bloc than Russia. Meanwhile, the examples of Turkey and Hungary show that despite the formal affiliations you can stand apart and harm the organization in which you continue to linger in.

Russia is counting on a fundamental change in the balance of power. When Moscow decided to annex the Crimea, it was certain that NATO would not be able to agree within its own ranks to provide military assistance to Ukraine. The Russians hope that this would also happen in the event of a conflict between Moscow and a NATO member. Russia buys European politicians, uses soft power, tinkers with elections using political technology specialists, gives money to companies or organizations cooperating with it, with it and works via the Internet. The ultimate goal of all these procedures is the disintegration of the current bloc system.

So, it is a kind of completion of the Cold War: thirty years ago, the Eastern Bloc collapsed and now Russia, unable to rebuild its own camp, is destroying the Western bloc. Certainly. We talk a lot about the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, but the Polish government is favorably perceived by the Kremlin, although this is harder to notice. They told me in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they wanted right-wingers to always rule in Poland, because the liberals need to be talked to and they want a stronger EU.

This is the situation we have been talking about using the example of the Czech Republic. In Poland, the right-wing that supports Russia is a narrow fringe. And Law and Justice are anti-Russian, but it has a policy that works in Russia’s favor: it is anti-European, anti-Berlin. You don’t have to love Putin to do what he loves.

Yes, Russia always acts pragmatically. It will always support those who promote its interests, even if they have a negative attitude towards Russia. Moscow always makes a choice based on what is on the table at the moment. Russian foreign policy is flexible. In Hungary, for example, the ultra-right Jobbik was strongly supported some time ago, but when the Kremlin realized that this party could not come to power, it ended the support.

Do you perceive a particular interest on the part of Russia in a specific Visegrad country?

Keeping in mind that Russia is not particularly interested in this region compared to France or Germany, we can definitely say that the Czech Republic is the center of Moscow’s interest in Central Europe today. It has a president who is very sympathetic to Russia and whose associates do business with Russian companies.

In addition, there is the Eurosceptic Prime Minister, who cannot have good relations with Brussels because it blames him for the corruption and embezzlement of European funds. However, the tables may turn. Washington has recently started recalling that Central Europe exists and returning actively to the region, with meetings at the highest level. And for the Czech Prime minister Andrej Babiš, Trump is an even better alternative to Brussels than Putin.

This may be an even stronger alternative than George W. Bush used to be. By the end of the year, it will be decided whether the ruling coalition in the Czech Republic will reorient itself towards the USA. If it does, it would put a damper on Prague-Moscow relations.

The shape of Russian policy towards the Visegrad countries at the time depended on Russian capabilities. Central Europe was long forgotten in the Kremlin and this state of affairs lasted until the late 1990s.

How do Russians perceive the Visegrad countries—as part of the West? The symbolic boundaries have changed somewhat over the last few years. There are post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Belarus, but this category does not include the Baltic States. They are already part of Eastern Europe together with the Visegrad countries or Romania. But without Balkans and Bulgaria.

Russian influence in Central Europe is proportional to the influence of Central Europe in the EU and NATO. If the Visegrad countries are given more say, the presence of Russia will be strengthened.

Bulgaria is seen as part of the Balkans?

No, as a post-Soviet country. Bulgaria is very “Russian”: many Russians live there, many have real estate, and a language similar to Russian is spoken there. The Russians would rather go to Bulgaria than the Czech Republic.

Bulgaria is the only country that wanted to join the USSR, but it was denied access.

Kuritsa nie ptitsa, Bulgaria nie zagranitsa [A hen is not a bird, Bulgaria is not a foreign country.]

I thought this saying was about Poland.

Many countries used to be described in this way, but it is still used in the context of Bulgaria. Some also see the Czech Republic as a post-Soviet country, but most understand that it is Eastern Europe.

Does Central Europe exist for the Russians?

What the Russians see is Western Europe (maybe without Spain and Portugal), Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet area and the Balkans. They generally do not recognize such a concept as Central Europe.


Ivan Preobrazhensky

is a political analyst, PhD of Political Sciences. He is the coordinator of the «Moscow political club» and European observer for the independent news agency “Rosbalt” and Deutsche Welle columnist.

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