Doors Wide Shut

2019-12-04

In the frames of the „Mapping the characteristics and methods of Russian, Chinese and Turkish authoritarian influence in the V3” project carried out in cooperation between Political Capital, Slovak political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov and the Prague Security Studies Institute we asked how authoritarian influence is present in the three states under review (Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia) and how it affects their policy decisions. We also researched how authoritarian influence affects the three states’ relationship with their allies. In the frames of this study, we interviewed local experts on Russia, China and Turkey and monitored how authoritarian regimes are depicted in connection to important events in the Czech, Hungarian and Slovak media space.

You can read our main conclusions and policy recommendations below. The full study is available from here (.pdf, 3,353 KB. The text of the study was updated on 6 December 2019.).

Executive summary

  • The Central and Eastern European region is particularly vulnerable to the political influence of authoritarian regimes because their democracies are less established, institutions are weaker and local governments themselves employ populist narratives to maintain their popularity. Influencing local states can be important for Russia, China and Turkey for two reasons: (1) they can use friendly political actors to disrupt the unity of the Western community and influence certain policies; and (2) they happily acknowledge the coming to power of illiberal regimes, helping them relativize their own political systems.
  • The strength and extent of authoritarian influence in the V3 (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic) depends on various factors, including their respective governments’ openness to it.
    • Russia is the one out of the three authoritarian states analysed in this study that has a vested interest in weakening European integration. Russian influence often employs sharp power tools, such as active measures implemented by Russian intelligence agencies, in the region to support its anti-NATO and anti-EU foreign policy agenda through local pro-Russian actors.
    • China’s relationship is often conflictual with the EU, but it views Europe as one of the pillars in a multipolar world order and its main interest is having a flourishing EU as its economic partner. China thus focuses on soft power, namely cultural-educational activities, but it sometimes turns to other influencing tools to prevent any local political actors from stepping over certain red lines for Beijing. One such tool is the “carrot and stick” approach, meaning that China prefers or sells the perception that it prefers to invest in countries that do not follow policies against Beijing’s interests.
    • Turkey is the closest to the West institutionally. Consequently, Ankara’s activities in the region are generally restricted to the cultural level, but Turkey can improve its political and economic clout as well if it is invited by local governments to do so, which is clearly visible in the case of Hungary.
  • The ways authoritarian influence materialises in the V3 can differ from country to country.
    • Authoritarian regimes have the easiest task in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s openly pro-Eastern foreign policy, seeking to become a “bridgehead” between the East and West, leaves the door wide open to authoritarian influence over the country. Budapest often hinders EU-level decisions voluntarily in the hope of improving economic relations with third countries and encouraging Russian, Chinese and Turkish investments into the economy to finance pro-government oligarchs. The concrete threats to Hungary and its allies include the establishment of the HQ of the Kremlin-backed International Investment Bank (IIB) in Budapest, which could serve as a Russian intelligence hub working in the Western Balkans to hinder EU and NATO efforts in the region, or the opening of the first Turkic Council Office in Hungary, which could intensify lobbying efforts by Turkic states to influence Budapest’s decisions in the Western institutional system.
    • In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, authoritarian regimes also have their supporters in political and economic life, including Czech President Milos Zeman and Slovak Parliament Speaker Andrej Danko, but their effect on their respective countries’ foreign policy agenda is restricted. Thus, in these countries, authoritarian regimes – mainly Russia and China – are active in the party political (e.g., courting anti-West political forces), economic (e.g., perceived “carrot and stick” approach in investment projects), intelligence (e.g., activities of their embassies) and cultural domains (e.g., educational cooperation) to achieve their goals.
  • As far as V3 vulnerabilities to authoritarian influence are concerned, there are common and divergent traits in the three countries.
    • In the case of Russia, energy dependence, inefficiency to solve societal problems that can be exploited by external actors, information sharing between local officials and the Kremlin, and the pro-Russian views of some layers of the local populations can be considered common vulnerabilities. Budapest’s decision to open the door to Russian influence to help bilateral relations could constitute a risk to Western institutions as a whole, while the Russian Embassy in Prague can continue functioning as a hub for Russian intelligence operations. Slovak paramilitary movements are a backdoor for Russia to infiltrate a NATO country.
    • Regarding China, the main threats are the lack of information on China in the region and local government’s too high expectations on what economic benefits cooperation with Beijing might bring. The Budapest-Belgrade railway investment is a good example in Hungary, as it will not be profitable to the Hungarian economy, but it will be a valuable source of income for pro-government oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros. The promised Chinese investment projects barely materialised in Slovakia, while in 2018 the flagship of Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, CEFC, was affected by financial troubles and declared bankruptcy. Cordial relations between Czech businessman Petr Kellner and the Chinese government might constitute a risk as well.
    • Turkey is less of a threat due to its limited financial capabilities and the fact that it is a NATO member and an EU candidate country. Only Hungary is showing systemic vulnerabilities to Turkey, mainly the close personal and nepotistic ties of the Hungarian PM and Turkish governmental and pro-government actors. This relationship allowed Ankara to influence EU policies, for instance in the case of its offensive in Northern Syria.
  • Local pro-Kremlin portals are all highly active in spreading pro-Russian narratives to the local populations, and most of them support pro-China positions as well, although there are exceptions in the latter case, such as the Czech Aeronet. Hungary is also a special case in disinformation: the majority of pro-Russian disinformation and narratives predominantly assessing the role of China on the international level positively are spread by government-controlled portals, which makes Russian and China-backed manipulative campaigns unnecessary in the country. Independent media make important contributions to the public discourse and local resilience by providing a balance to arguments in favour of authoritarian regimes.
  • Our research shows that once a pro-Eastern government is in power in a Western country, Eastern authoritarian regimes have a relatively clear path to influence the decisions of Western institutions. This indicated by the Hungarian government’s activities offering political advantages to Russia (e.g., rhetorically hindering potential efforts to implement additional sanctions against Moscow), China (e.g., vetoing initiatives condemning Beijing) and Turkey (e.g., delaying the approval of a statement condemning Turkey for its offensive in Northern Syria) on the international and domestic scene. Pro-Eastern cabinets in the West have proven to be willing to sacrifice their Western ties to gain perceived benefits from authoritarian partners. This realisation might encourage Russia, and possibly other authoritarian regimes, to maintain or even increase their support for pro-East actors throughout Europe and North America.

Policy recommendations

  • EU institutions and pro-Western actors must continue pushing for introducing qualified majority voting (QMV) in EU foreign policy matters, as it would considerably weaken the lobbying power of authoritarian third countries in EU level decision-making through their connections with individual member states. The arguments for introducing QMV should be founded on the need for a stronger role for Europe in world affairs, as too often Europe is left as a spectator to international events due to the necessity of unanimity in decision making. For instance, it could not effectively step up against the Turkish offensive in Northern Syria, where Turkey-backed forces reportedly committed war crimes.
  • In lieu of QMV in foreign policy decisions, EU member states that are willing to coordinate their responses to international events should issue joint statements and take joint action as fast as possible in case the Council cannot reach a unanimous decision. Moreover, the European Parliament should continue issuing resolutions on world affairs as swiftly as possible and be the voice of the EU on the international scene until (and after) the introduction of reforms to EU foreign policy decision-making.
  • Disinformation and biased reporting remain considerable issues in EU member states in general and in the three states under review in particular. The European Union must significantly intensify its efforts in countering disinformation, improving the quality of journalism, and upholding the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in Europe (including not only EU member states but candidate countries as well). Funding for the East Stratcom Task Force should be increased and its mandate broadened considerably. Improving media literacy could be a long-term solution to disinformation.
  • EU communication should be vocal about the successes of EU cohesion policy and emphasise the advantages of EU subsidies (e.g., non-refundable support, EU oversight on spending) compared to investment projects financed by authoritarian states (e.g., loans, no EU oversight). This could help discredit pro-Eastern forces’ arguments concerning the perceived advantages of investments of authoritarian states into the local economy instead over EU membership.
  • Western allies must clearly condemn the measures of EU/NATO member states who turn towards authoritarian regimes, and cooperation with them should be kept to a minimal level with strong pressure placed on them to reverse course. Raising the cost states cooperating widely with authoritarian states incur within their alliance system could serve as a factor discouraging potentially the rouge states themselves but at least others from taking such a path. Regimes that claim to be trying to balance between the East and West should be put in situation where they have to clearly chose what side they are on as often as possible.
  • Pro-Western political forces in the European Union should stick to value-based communications on geopolitical affairs, but also realise that wide layers of the local populations are not necessary interested in foreign policy. However, effective communication on these issues is possible if pro-Western forces can show the effects of authoritarian influence and that of relations with such countries on the daily lives of ordinary citizens; e.g., the financial repercussions of deals with authoritarian leaders, low quality of services (e.g. the quality of trains running on Subway Line 3 in Hungary), and dangers of investments financed/led by authoritarian states (e.g. the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant by Rosatom).

The full study is available from here (.pdf, 3,353 KB).

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