Anti-establishment “protest parties” are the backbone of Putin’s divisive strategy within NATO. Fringe parties may receive most of the attention, but protest parties that have suddenly been elected to govern allied countries deserve closer scrutiny. Let’s begin with ANO, the second-largest party coalition member of the Czech Republic, which according to an intelligence dossier “has been identified by Russian agents as an entry-point” into Europe.
The ANO Party sprang up in 2011 as the creation of Andrej Babis, the controversial oligarch with a fascinating personal background that includes alleged ties to the KGB. Running on a platform to fight corruption and run the country like a business, ANO took second place to the Social Democrats, yet negotiated control of the powerful Ministries of Finance, Defense and Justice, all of which affect Czech policy toward NATO. Czech President Milos Zeman, Russia’s most visible ally in the Czech Republic, has announced strong support for ANO’s Party Chairman, Mr. Babis, saying that if the coalition government falls he will appoint Babis as interim Prime Minister.
A good metric of Russian influence on European parties is to observe the degree of their alignment with Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. A look at ANO’s record is instructive.
Invasion of Ukraine
After NATO condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, an ANO MP, Stanislav Berkovec, went to occupied Crimea to be an election observer. He reported that the people of Crimea and Donetsk – including Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians — were happy with the Russian occupation, and that most people in neighboring countries wanted also to be part of Russia, because it gave them “a guarantee of a better future.”
Chairman Babis himself, asked to condemn Russia’s occupation of Crimea, instead condemned the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU to pressure Russia to withdraw, calling them “nonsense,” and against the economic interests of Europe. Asked whether he considered the occupation illegal, he could say only, “What is true or not true, who knows?” He said further that focusing on the Russian invasion was missing the point: “Islamic state, terrorism and unmanaged migration represent a greater threat for Europe than a conflict or cold war with Russia.”
Rescuing Russian Operatives
Other ANO Ministers also have taken positions in line with Russian foreign policy objectives. Just this year, Justice Minister Robert Pelikan refused a U.S. extradition request for Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah terrorist and arms dealer with top-level Russian connections, instead releasing him. This denied the U.S. government the intelligence bonanza such a figure would be sure to give up during interrogation and probable life-long incarceration. Ukrainian analysts report that Fayyad’s FSB connection was Dmitri Salamatin, an alleged Russian intelligence officer who was installed by Moscow as Ukrainian Minister of Defense during the Yanukovich regime.
The ANO Defense Minister, Martin Stropnicky, arranged a hasty investigation of the affair, claiming within days that the Military Intelligence unit that handled the matter had done no wrong. Fayyad’s release caused serious damage to U.S.-Czech relations, according to State Department and Embassy statements, thus accomplishing one of Putin’s primary foreign policy goals. This issue highlighted the role of the most dangerous officials in the system, political appointees with control over intelligence operations and access to NATO’s most sensitive secrets, such as Jan Beroun, the Director of the Military Intelligence unit. Stropnicky unashamedly later tried to promote Beroun to General, but was rebuffed by the Czech Government. Czech media speculated that the refusal was due to Beroun’s actions in the Ali Fayyad matter.
Defense Minister Stropnicky also distinguished himself by comparing stationing NATO troops in the Czech Republic to the 1968 Soviet occupation of Prague, and has opposed Czech cooperation with NATO exercises. During his tenure, the Defense Ministry has failed to upgrade Czech defense armaments. In fact, although the government has authorized and appropriated a budget to purchase NATO-standard armored vehicles, the ANO-controlled Defense and Finance Ministries still have not purchased a single vehicle.
At the GLOBSEC 2016 conference, while most NATO Defense Ministers were calling for united action to counter Russian aggression, Stropnicky spoke against isolating Russia, and even called for Russia to be included in the security solution.
Babis shares Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia’s rightful role in the world. For example, rather than express concern about Russian interference in the Middle East, the ANO Party leader stated bluntly, “Syria cannot be solved without Russia.”
Vladimir Putin rejects the idea of a unipolar world dominated by U.S. power. He sees American policy as the root of the world’s problems, and Russia as the necessary counterbalance. He made this clear with his seminal Munich 2007 speech, and continues this drumbeat today.
Elaborating on Russian influence with an eerie similarity to Putin’s 2015 UN General Assembly speech, Babis told an interviewer that the massive influx of refugees was caused by American foreign policy, that exporting democracy doesn’t work, that sanctions against Russia are ineffective and prolonged because of the cluelessness of the EU, and that Putin is at the height of popularity in Russia.
One ANO member that stands out from his party by supporting the West is European Parliament MP Telicka. However given the relative powerlessness of the European Parliament, Telicka’s position gives him little influence. Thus an observer must ask: is Telicka an accidental misfit, or is his pro-Western rhetoric meant just to provide cover for ANO’s alignment with Putin’s vision?
Whose Side Are They On?
Asserting Russian importance, undermining sanctions against Russia, denying the annexation of Crimea, refusing to meet NATO commitments, comparing NATO troops to Soviet occupation, opposing NATO troop deployment, releasing a terrorist with Russian connections: Whose side does it sound like the ANO party is on?