Czech Republic among least vulnerable to Russian and Chinese influence, regional study shows

Kremlin, Moscow

The Czech Republic is one of the least vulnerable countries when it comes to Russian and Chinese malign activities in the Central European and Western Balkan regions, according to a newly published Vulnerability Index, produced by the Bratislava-based security think-tank GLOBSEC. To find out more about the vulnerabilities that countries in the region face and why the Czech Republic is doing better than most, I spoke to Dominika Hajdu, the head of GLOBSEC’s Centre for Democracy & Resilience and one of the authors of the study.

“The Vulnerability Index is a multi-method research activity, which is based on a range of different sources and evaluates each country on a scale of 0 to 100 from the perspective of their vulnerability towards foreign malign influence. For us that means namely Russia and China.

“The countries that we assessed are from Central Europe and the Western Balkans region. Out of these, the Czech Republic and Romania are the most resilient. The most vulnerable is Serbia.

“There is actually a common factor which is present both in the Czech Republic and in Romania. It is their lack of pro-Russian sentiment.”

“Also, the most vulnerable countries are mostly those that have closer bilateral relations with Russia and have societies that are more pro-Russian and favourable to a pro-Russian narrative.”

Why do you think that the Czech Republic came out of your study as one of the most resilient countries together with Romania?

“There is actually a common factor which is present both in the Czech Republic and in Romania. It is their lack of pro-Russian sentiment.

“The Czech Republic is rather special in this sense, because compared to the other Slavic countries that we analysed – Slovakia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia [and Serbia] – there is no mention of a pan-Slavic narrative. This narrative, which means that Russia is perceived as a sort of “Big Brother” of the small nations in Central Europe, is completely absent from the mind set of Czechs, which is definitely helping.

“Moreover, the Czech Republic has a very resilient public administration. By this I mean that your elections are well protected from foreign influence in the sense of structural and legislative measures.

Photo: F8_f16,  Pixabay,  CC0

“Furthermore, the security documents of the Czech Republic both reflect new security threats and also openly communicate and name the threats coming from Russia or China. This is the case, for example, in your intelligence services’ reports, something that is not so common in the rest of the countries that we analysed.”

And what sort of vulnerabilities are we talking about? What is the Czech Republic more protected against than states such as Serbia and Montenegro?

“The threats are coming from different directions of course. Within the Vulnerability Index we analysed socio-political dimensions. That means that we analysed public attitudes, the political landscape, public administration, the informational landscape and the civic and academic space. So we mostly analysed what is commonly referred to as “sharp power”. That means efforts to manipulate minds, divert society from trusting their institutions and wider Euro-Atlantic structures in order to polarise society and sow doubt in democracy.

“From this perspective, key threats are coming for example in the information space, where information manipulation campaigns can thrive.

“Security documents of the Czech Republic both reflect new security threats and also openly communicate and name the threats coming from Russia or China.

“In the academic space [we can see influence] for example through institutes. In all countries within this region, China is establishing its Confucius Institutes at universities, which are there to promote Chinese culture, way of life, and its regime.

“Then of course there can be political corruption which is coming from actors close to Russia or China. For example, relations with journalists are a common feature that Russia and China are using to influence.”

Out of the vulnerabilities that you just named, where did the Czech Republic have the worst score?

“One of the vulnerabilities that Kremlin or other actors can exploit, especially in the future, is Czech Euroscepticism. Czechs are pragmatic, so I do not think that some information campaigns could actually lead to a Czexit. However, campaigns sowing further doubts about the EU in order to further undermine trust in the union might be accepted, so this is one of the vulnerabilities.

“Furthermore, although Czechs are scoring best in the region, corruption is still present in the country and minds prone to corruption within the state are of course vulnerable to foreign influence.

“The key findings show that Russia and China are using the voids and the gaps that are present in the region in terms of communication and investment.”

“Last but not least, a strong area of vulnerability, not just within the region but across the entire European space, is the information space. On social media, disinformation is free to thrive and manipulate people without the authorities being able to do much. That presents a huge vulnerability.”

The results of your study are interesting in comparison with another study, conducted by Czech think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO) which was published earlier this month. It found that the sample group of Czech civil servants, businesspeople, politicians, analysts and journalists that made up their respondents were more concerned with potential security threats from Chinese activities than their Visegrad Group neighbours. Where do you think this scepticism of China comes from?

“Absolutely. This also drives the Czech Republic’s resilience. The sole awareness of these threats being present is a good sign from our perspective.

“One of the factors is that both Russia and China are relatively present within the country. [Earlier this year it came to light that] there was the Vrbětice attack [a munitions dump explosion in 2014 which Czech intelligence tracked to Russian agents], or the issue with Taiwan. All of these issues which are very much present in the public debate are contributing to the awareness raising and resilience building within the country.

Dominika Hajdu | Photo: GLOBSEC

“This is something that we too observed in our study. We interviewed 355 experts across the region, around 70 of whom were in the Czech Republic. They confirmed to us that Czech society, experts and civil servants alike are among the most aware of foreign malign influence in the region.”

What do you think the takeaways from this study are for key Czech and Central European allies within NATO and the EU?

“One of the key recommendations that I would give them is to be more present in the region. The key findings show that Russia and China are using the voids and the gaps that are present in the region in terms of communication and investment. I would definitely suggest for key Czech and the wider region’s Western allies to be more present in the region both financially and from the communications perspective. That means to have more representatives there and to do more communications activities in the region.

“We could see during the COVID-19 pandemic that for example China was doing very well with its mask and vaccine diplomacy.”

“We could see during the COVID-19 pandemic that for example China was doing very well with its mask and vaccine diplomacy. They were sending their masks to Central European countries with a pompous PR campaign around it. While Western countries are doing much more to help, there is simply a lack of communication and PR around it.

“I would also say that situational awareness to hybrid threats for civil servants is key. On the case of the Czech Republic, we can see that this sort of awareness is actually raising the resilience of the country. More training and interaction between regional civil servants and those of their Western allies would really help and benefit countries in Central Europe. It would help them become more resilient to Russian and Chinese influence attempts.”