Affordable, safe Prague attractive to post-Soviet middle classes, says political scientist Emil Aslan

Emil Aslan, photo: Czech Television

Emil Aslan was born in Armenia, lived in Moscow and in his late teens moved to Prague, where today he is associate professor in Russian and East European Studies at Charles University’s Institute of International Relations. So I thought he’d be the ideal person to ask about ex-Soviet communities in the Czech capital, the city’s reported attraction to the Russian intelligence services, and relations between the two states. But when we met, I first asked Aslan what had led his family to relocate from Moscow to Prague, which they had been visiting for some years.

Emil Aslan,  photo: Czech Television
“In ’97 my family decided to move to Prague for good, because of various reasons.

“Probably one of the reasons was that we were people from the Caucasus, Caucasians, so to speak, and there were problems because of the war in Chechnya – the attitude of the local population toward people from the Caucasus and so on…”

So it became dangerous to live in Moscow for you?

“It was dangerous. It was very xenophobic. We were having some trouble with my brother, who is 10 years younger than I.

“He was having problems. I was having problems. We were fighting all day.

“I was a student and I had probably had more street fights than lectures at the university in Moscow.

“So it was getting dangerous from my parents perspective. This was one of the reasons.

“The second was that they just wanted for us to be living in a normal country. To attend university and just enjoy our lives. Which I think was a nice choice.”

Did you ever feel any prejudice from Czechs? Some Czech people are at least a little suspicious of people from the East.

“Yes. Back in the ‘90s it was very enunciated, it was very strong. These negative attitudes were toward people from the Soviet Union.

“I myself, alongside my friends, a couple of times heard myself being called Russian, Rusáci [Rusák is a derogatory Czech term for Russian], and something like that.

“But it didn’t really annoy me because I wasn’t and I still am not an ethnic Russian. So I was like, OK, nothing’s happening.

“I think nowadays this negative attitude toward Russians has faded away. You have new enemies, you have a new threat, in the form of Muslims, the Middle East, Arabs. So it’s not an issue any more in this country.”

“I personally wouldn’t say [it’s a problem], probably because I can compare my life in this country to my life in Moscow.

Photo: European Commission
“Sometimes I’ve felt some tension but, you know, Czech people don’t really articulate aggression.

“It can be tense, something is in the air, you feel that a person may not like you very much – but nothing is said, nothing is done. So it’s OK. I have no problem with that.”

Prague seems to be popular with many people from the former Soviet Union. Why is that?

“Some of the middle class in the post-Soviet Union want the same as my parents wanted for me. They want their kids to move to a safe location, to get some nice degree and to live their lives – to enjoy their lives.

“Then there is the rich stratum, and they tend to travel to the United Kingdom, to buy apartments in London, you know, Chelsea…”

And send their kids to Eton or whatever.

“Yes. But those coming from the middle class I think prefer Prague because it’s not that expensive.

“You can afford a nice apartment in a nice place in Prague. It would cost less than an apartment in Moscow, probably.

“Nowadays it may be different, because of the falling rouble. But five years ago it was quite different.

“So, yes, it’s a cheap place relatively, especially for somebody coming from St. Petersburg, Moscow and so on; from Kazakhstan and all these oil-rich countries.

“And for public figures or businessmen, because of security risks – someone can kidnap your kid… it’s good to have your family in a nice, safe place in Europe. That might be one of the reasons.”

Is there much interaction between the different communities from different countries of the former Soviet Union here in Prague?

“I think yes. I think the Russian speaking communities tended to keep together, at least back in the ‘90s, when I was much in contact with them.

“Nowadays it might be different because you have so many Ukrainians here.

“I think Ukrainians, specifically following the Crimea crisis, the Donbass war, might have some antagonism toward the Russians.

Photo: Giorgio Comai,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“I have not heard of any clashes. But as much as I can judge talking to people, this might be the case. Ukrainians and Russians might to some extent have grown apart, parted ways.

“When it comes to people from the Caucasus or Central Asia – you have a lot of people from Kazakhstan here – they are quite numerous so they stick together.

“I am not sure whether they stick to the Russians. But I think probably to an extent this would work as well.

“But the main idea is that the more people from various republics you have, the more they to stick together with their ethnic own.”

Russia is one of your areas of expertise. I was reading recently that there are believed to be a relatively high number of Russian spies in Prague. This is going, for example, by the fact there is a relatively high number of people working at the Russian embassy in Prague compared to in embassies in other comparable European cities. Why do you think Prague is so interesting to Moscow?

“This is a bridge to the West, definitely. If you want to move further to the West, it’s good be established in the city and in the Czech Republic in general. This is one reason.

“The second is that there are lots of people, former security… agents and so on. There is some kind of pro-Russian public segment in Czech society, which is stronger than in Poland. Because of historical reasons, probably.

“Even 1968 didn’t really change that. So yes, you have some kind of breeding ground, you have some kind of positive local attitudes.

“I think that specifically following the Ukraine crisis, with the confrontation between the West and the East, so to speak, many Czech people started seeing Russia as some kind of anti-mainstream.

“These anti-mainstream attitudes, supported by Sputnik and all these propaganda websites, I think contribute a great deal to this popular perception of Russia.

“And as far as I know, having talked to a guy from the Czech security services, these Russian agents, Russian spies, have lots of people in this country, lots of contacts. So, yes, it’s historical.”

Czechoslovakia was on the outer edge of the Soviet world. Today does Russia still want to see the Czech Republic as part of its sphere of influence?

Vladimir Putin | Photo: Archive of World Economic Forum,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“I don’t think the Czech Republic is a big deal to the Russians for the time being.

“I think there is some segment of Russian nationalist feeling that still sees Prague and Warsaw as an old Russian city, so to speak.

“But this is not the mainstream attitude of the Russian intellectual and political elite.

“I think the Russians want to be established first in the near abroad, from their perspective, and then to move westwards.”

I saw headlines recently claiming that Putin is out to undermine Angela Merkel on the back of the refugee crisis with a view to undermining the European Union. Do you have any sense that Russia is trying to influence politics in this country?

“I think yes and no. I’m not willing to say something and be trapped. Because there is some speculation that the Russians have been supporting some anti-mainstream parties in this country, or some anti-mainstream movements.

“But I lack proof. So this may be the case.

“But I think that the Russians are much more interested in supporting anti-mainstream, anti-establishment, anti-systemic organisations and parties in Western Europe.

“Like in France with Marie Le Pen and UKIP in the United Kingdom and all this kind of stuff.”

Because they want to undermine the EU in general?

“Yes. If you want to undermine the EU in general, you have to focus on the core of the EU, which is the UK, France, probably Germany. By the way, Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany, is also a big deal.

“But the Czech Republic is not deciding the fate of the EU. So you can have something at stake here, you can have the Czech Republic as a kind of base for your operations in Western Europe, but you don’t really have to focus too much on this tiny little country in the middle of Europe.”

If the Czech Republic isn’t so important to Moscow, why does it seem to be running these disinformation websites like Sputnik, which you mentioned? Why bother?

Photo: European Commission
“Well, the Czech Republic isn’t deciding the fate of the EU. But still it’s an important country.

“On the other hand, you don’t invest too much money into all this infrastructure. Because you have Sputnik and all this stuff run in different languages – why not translate it into Czech as well?

“Why not have a couple of guys either in Prague at the Russian Embassy or in St. Petersburg or Moscow writing some op-eds aimed at the Czech Republic? This doesn’t require much investments – it can be done at relatively low cost.”

What about Czech foreign policy toward Russia – is it in some sense a little schizophrenic in that you have President Zeman, who seems to be more pro-Russian than the government, which is more mainstream, I would say?

“This is the case. It’s very schizophrenic. I’m not happy about that, because it reduces – to put it mildly – the reliability of the Czech Republic as partners in the West.

“The minister of foreign affairs says A and the president says B, even though he should have nothing to say on foreign policy matters.

“So then you have the Czech Republic being not taken too seriously in the West or on the international scene. This is not a good thing.”

As somebody who moved here in the ‘90s, how do you view the change in the country’s direction?

“If we’re talking about the social and economic situation, then I’m happy about these changes.

“Because even though Czech people usually don’t boast money, being rich and so on, I see that people have more things at their disposal.

“They’re happier. They can live the lives that they wanted to live, that they wanted their children to live.

“I spent a year in the US 10 years ago, in 2006. I came back in 2007 and I saw that even in one single year the change was dramatic. You saw people dressed better, with nicer cars.

“So yes, in socio-economic terms, it’s getting better.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“But in political terms or foreign policy-related matters, I’m not happy about Zeman. He has his agenda, so to speak. I have some very bad feelings about what he’s doing.

“I’m also not happy about the repercussions of the refugee crisis in this country. The way it’s perceived of, the way it’s being sold sometimes by the media.

“But I see that it’s not that bad. It might have been worse.”