Larger than life – Who is afraid of the Big Bad Russia? - Czech country report
The present study takes a novel approach to the understanding of Russian soft and sharp power in the Czech Republic. Our analysis is part of a regional project, led by Political Capital Institute and funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which explores the vulnerability and resilience to everyday Russian hostile influence in Central Eastern Europe (CEE), focusing on the horizontal, online “grassroots” communication between citizens. An explicit aim of the research was to leave behind the “elitist,” top-down approach of analyses on hybrid warfare and investigate ordinary conversations taking place day-by-day between citizens by mapping 1.17 million spontaneous online conversations related to Russia in the Czech Republic and more than 3 million online messages in the three countries under revision (Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic).
- Our data revealed that 65% of Czech grassroots communications reflect anti-Russian sentiments, a fact which is consistent with opinion polls showing that Russia is not a role model for the Czech population.
- The segments of passionate supporters of Russia remain quite fragmented (there is a pan-Slavic nostalgia associated with the Communist Party, and – in contrast – there are anti-Muslim activists with ties to right-wing radicals admiring Russian strength), and are positioned on the periphery of the public debate. This, however, does not mean that the Czech population is pro-Western.
- Feelings of geopolitical inferiority, social passivity and disinterest (indicated by the fact that only half of the population would actively support membership in the European Union in the case of a referendum) pose by far the greatest threat to securing the Czech Republic’s “place” in the West.
- Czech resilience to Russian soft and sharp power can be explained by several factors:
- Czech mainstream media (led by public television Czech News) occupies a strong position in the information space, and (with some rare exceptions) provides critical, but objective, coverage of Russia-related events.
- Even though the alternative media space, in which pro-Russian narratives are resonating, is not completely insignificant (see the example of the vibrant Facebook page of Sputnik CZ in chapter 2.2), in most cases it remains separated from the mainstream media.
- The Czech debate regarding Russian malign influence (namely disinformation) remains quite vivid, which limits the opportunities of pro-Russian actors to establish themselves in the public sphere. In contrast, it should be noted that this debate is at the same time likely to enlarge the segment of people who are “Scared of Russia,” which in some cases might complicate the rational debate and solution to the problem.
- The remembrance of the invasion by the Soviet army in 1968 remains an important part of Czech public consciousness, which prompts a significant part of the population to perceive Russia as the “Aggressor” of not only old times, but also in recent cases (such as the conflict in Ukraine).
- General knowledge about Russia is very low, the group of individuals shaping public opinion about Russia is quite small (56,100 unique users), and the public debate is limited to stereotypes that are in most cases rather unsympathetic (concerning Russian aggressiveness, and social, economic and cultural backwardness), which make it very difficult for Russian soft or sharp power tools to operate in the Czech context.
- Given these findings, the threats posed by Russian propaganda in the Czech public space should not be overstated. Even more important than trying to tackle these narratives (that are in fact traditional for Czech society) is trying to come up with a rhetoric that will overcome the Czech feeling of inferiority, and engage more of the Czech society and the political elite with its partners in the West. The only shallow attachment to, and accidental entry into, this cultural sphere is the problem that should concern us the most.
The complete country report is available here (pdf, 1,169 KB).