Russian Disinformation Narratives in Czech Republic in January 2023: policy brief within Kremlin Watchers Movement project

Russian Disinformation Narratives in Czech Republic in January 2023: policy brief within Kremlin Watchers Movement project

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / IuliiaVerstaBO
22 February 2023
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Russian disinformation is actively spreading in the Czech Republic in various ways. This analytical note focuses on the “Proposal for Peace” by the Czech politician Matěj Stropnický’. Stropnický’ proposal justifies Russian aggression and, in most points, repeats the narratives of Russian propaganda. In addition, analysts are focusing on chain e-mails to influence voters, the possibility of transferring Russian assets to Ukraine, and disinformation about Russia, which will later appear in the Czech media.

This report was published by the Kremlin Watchers Movement team in January 2023. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers.

Kremlin Watchers Movement is a project which is running for almost 3 years now within the effort to fight Russian malign influence and disinformation in Europe. Gathered authors, junior analysts are producing content about Russian malign influence and disinformation on social media, informing not only expert society but also wide population about latest events in this field. 

Chain emails and disinformation in the Czech presidential elections

With the upcoming presidential elections in January 2023, targeted chain emails are being sent to key audiences. These are spreading hoaxes and emotionally blackmailing one of the presidential candidates. Most of the emails, sent predominantly to Czech seniors, are threatening “war” if Petr Pavel is elected the president. They claim he would “send Czech army to fight in Ukraine” or even “Czech civilians”.

According to analyst František Vrabel, chain emails are targeting hundreds of thousands of people. In the interview for Echo24 he points out a crucial feature of the chain email disinformation system: the ability to quickly change the narrative and shape it according to the current needs of disinformation scene. For example, at the beginning of the campaigns, chain emails strongly favored Jaroslav Bašta (SPD), who promised to “dismiss the government”, despite not having the authority to do so as a president. However, Bašta’s preferences turned out to be low and with his chance of qualifying to the second round of the presidential elections being zero, chain emails started to gradually favor Andrej Babiš. Since Andrej Babiš is currently also a deputy in opposition to Fiala’s government, he is taking advantage of framing his opponent as “pro-government”, enabling him to attract the anti-government electorate as well. This anti-government sentiment is reflected in chain emails, and more importantly, chain emails reflect what is currently circulating on disinformation websites and pro-Kremlin social media groups. Therefore, it is an issue that should not be underestimated. As Vrabel suggests, the key is to regulate the algorithms of social media platforms so as to limit the reach of dangerous content. Social networks must be held responsible for what they disseminate, just like the media.

Helping seniors navigate through the complex internet environment is also aim of several NGOs, such as Život 90 or Elpida. According to the STEM research, only one sixth of Czechs are equipped with the skills to fight disinformation. Život 90 offers regular seminars for seniors. A special one took place on 19 January, where seniors learnt more about the presidential election and also how to take part in them in case of limited mobility. Elpida, for example, made a podcast series regarding the nature of disinformation and how to resist it.

Matěj Stropnický’s “Proposal for Peace”

In January, Matěj Stropnický, former chair of the Green Party and later advisor to Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jana Maláčová (ČSSD), published an initiative called “Peace and Justice”, which calls for the return of the ceasefire and peace in Ukraine. The text of the appeal contains 10 points of the initiative’s premises and five actual demands, but they contain several manipulative and false statements or repeated Russian propaganda narratives.

Here is a list of them:

  • The first points of the petition try to show the current situation of the conflict, what the causes were and who is on which side of the conflict. However, the only state that instigated the conflict was Russia, the aggressor, and thus the petition admits that Russia may have had a reason for its aggression, even though it did not.
  • On the third point, the petition opposes the involvement of the West. However, the West has greatly helped Ukraine to defend itself against the aggressor. Moreover, the West has only been involved in the conflict since 2022, even though Russia has been waging aggression against Ukraine since 2014.
  • The fifth point points out that all funding and activity is now directed towards helping Ukraine. Now, however, refusing to help Ukraine would support Russia’s goal of ending the peaceful democratic order established after World War II. Concessions to imperial powers such as Russia have shown us in the past that they will lead to greater problems in the future and must be resisted immediately.
  • The sixth point appeals to the fear of Russia and warns us about the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has long tried to achieve its negotiating objectives through the threat of nuclear weapons. However, giving in to these threats may, in the end, rather reduce the supply of weapons, leading to further deaths of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers defending their country.
  • The seventh point repeats the argument of the ‘Western arms lobby’, which has an interest in the war in Ukraine. It is in no one’s interest to prolong the war further. The war is costing the lives of tens and hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians every day. On the contrary, if Russia decided to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, the war could be over. Thus, the only one with an interest in the war is Russia.
  • As in the introduction, point eight of the petition attempts to show that we do not know the real motives and objectives. On the contrary, it concludes that sanctions against Russia have not worked. Sanctions are long-term measures which, on the contrary, are proving to be effective. Given the constant missile attacks, deportations, extermination camps and mass graves, one of Russia’s main objectives is the gradual extermination of Ukrainians, and the existence of Ukrainians has long been unrecognized by Russia, which sees them only as part of the wider Russian empire.
  • The petition concludes, in point nine, by attempting to outline a ‘just peace’ between the two sides and holding both sides responsible for the conflict. Responsibility for the conflict lies solely with Russia, and the only just option remains to stop the occupation of Ukraine and accept responsibility for its actions committed over the past year.

 Although the petition recognizes that Russia is responsible for unleashing the invasion, it also seeks to blame both sides for the current situation and to make a very clear situation a ‘gray area‘, questioning the impact of sanctions or the West’s motivation for supplying arms to Ukraine. The authors thus blame both Ukraine and Russia for the current situation, setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

The petition was supported by Petr Drulák, former deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, immunologist Václav Hořejší, former MEP Jan Keller, chairwoman of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Kateřina Konečná, lawyer Alžběta Samková, economist Ilona Švihlíková and political scientist Zdeněk Zbořil. Some of the named members of the initiative have previously spread misinformation and are helping to spread Kremlin narratives in the Czech Republic.

The authors also call on the government to end its verbal support for war and the spreading of hatred against any state, to take all steps to achieve a ceasefire, which will include a moratorium on arms supplies to Ukraine, and to review the impact of sanctions against Russia. It is difficult to deduce from these demands whether the authors are too naive or are deliberately manipulating the current situation, but it is quite clear that the authors do not realize what the consequences of these actions may be for Ukraine. It is crucial to take into account that Russia repeatedly breaches ceasefire agreements. In this case, the “ceasefire” mentioned in the appeal would most probably only help Russia solve its logistic issues with military supplies.

Evidence of how manipulative the petition is can be seen in a statement by the Council of the Learned Society, an association of the most eminent scholars in all disciplines: “The Czech nation is still traumatized by the fact that in 1938 our representatives laid down their arms and did not defend our country against Nazi tyranny. The Czech Republic is once again one of the respected democratic countries of the European Union and NATO, and therefore we must not, at any cost, push Ukraine into peace negotiations with Putin without Russia first leaving all the occupied territories of Ukraine. On the contrary, we must support it in its struggle by all means available until it wins or until it shows, by its own choice, the will to negotiate with Russia on the terms of peace and on the future coexistence of the two neighbors.” The Czech Academy of Sciences similarly distanced itself from the petition.

The only real “peace” that the authors should attempt, and which is possible in the current situation, will come once Russian troops leave Ukrainian territory. Unfortunately, the initiators of this petition imagine a ‘just peace’ as the sacrifice of part of Ukraine’s territory as the cost of ending the war. At the same time, the authors have no certainty that, if the demands were met, there would indeed be peace and that this would not simply mean delaying another future conflict. There can therefore be no question of any ‘peace’ here.

Transfer of Russian assets in Europe to Ukraine

Sanctions against the Russian Central Bank

In response to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the European Union has imposed a series of sanctions on Russia. These include, for example, a ban on the use of the SWIFT system for Russian and Belarusian banks, and sanctions against the Russian Central Bank. 

Among the measures against Russia, the EU has banned all transactions with the Russian Central Bank related to the management of its reserves and assets. As its assets are frozen, the central bank no longer has access to the assets it holds with central and commercial banks in the EU. As a result of the ban on transactions by the EU and other countries, it is estimated that more than half of Russia’s reserves are frozen. Other countries (e.g. the US, Canada and the UK), which also hold part of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, have also imposed bans.

Since the start of the war, the EU has frozen over $18 billion in Russian assets and another $318 billion in the Russian Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves. Kiev estimates the damage caused by Moscow’s invasion at $370 billion.

Russian response

The decision to transfer confiscated Russian assets to Ukraine is framed by pro-Kremlin media as an “international theft”. Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper for example used this term in one of its articles, adding that Western propaganda is labeling Russia as a “terrorist state”. Izvestia informed that “transferring Russian assets to Ukraine will cause a global collapse among various countries and corporations”. Another Russian news website Life claimed that this transfer will “undermine the trust in the US financial system and international system as a whole”. In this regard, we could expect similar narratives to spread to the Czech social media environment via Russian-backed media outlets by pro-Kremlin groups, especially on Facebook and Twitter. 

Constitutional implications of asset seizures

While the process of freezing assets can generally proceed without a court’s prior authorization, and judicial review of asset freezes after they have been implemented has generally been found to comply with due process requirements, it is unlikely that seizures of assets would be legally permissible without judicial notice.

A seizure of state property that violated the principles of international law would undermine the credibility of that order and provide its opponents with an argument that international law is a matter of convenience rather than obligation. Therefore, countries should “examine legal possibilities to channel sanctioned Russian assets towards Ukraine’s recovery”.

First country to seize assets – Estonia

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu announced in January that his country is finalizing the legal basis for the transfer of Russian assets frozen by EU sanctions to Ukraine. If the proposal passes, Estonia will become the first country to transfer the frozen assets.

According to EU legislation, the seizure and transfer of the property of a foreign state is a difficult operation, but Russia’s violation of international law in Ukraine could provide justification for this step. It is a general principle of international law that the aggressor who caused the damage must pay reparations. Moreover, reparations serve also as a tool to sanction those who act against the principles of international law, such as peaceful reconciliation of disputes or state sovereignty.

The legal framework will be in place by the end of January after the government in Tallinn mandated ministries in late December to draw up a plan for seizing assets, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mihkel Tamm said. Similarly, Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, announced: “EU members must move forward to ensure accountability for the crime of aggression and take advantage of frozen Russian assets.” A number of politicians in other countries have expressed similar ambitions.

Conclusion and Recommendations

 Matej Stropnický’s “Proposal for Peace” shows how the subtle use of the peace narrative can be dangerous. Everyone wants peace and an end to the invasion of Ukraine, but few know that the only way to stop the Russian aggressor is through support for Ukraine. Using the example of Stropnický’s petition, we can see how subtly Russian narratives can permeate the Czech environment and how subtle they can appear to the average person when talking about ‘peace’. It is therefore important at the present time to spread the idea that a “fair peace” is illusory, and that Ukraine would be forced to sacrifice its territories to an aggressor. If we want to achieve a real peace, we need to support Ukraine’s military efforts to the maximum extent possible to repel the aggressor’s efforts to acquire more territory and carry out the genocide of Ukrainians.

Secondly, the level of vigilance towards the issue of chain emails sent to Czech seniors should remain high. Authors of chain emails have the potential to shift people’s opinion not only during the presidential elections, which show us how important it is to boost seniors’ resilience towards disinformation. Cooperation of policy makers with NGOs such as Elpida or Život 90 has a great potential to help in this regard. Such organizations can also hold seminars in cooperation with other experts (such as journalists), which increases trust in media. Cooperation between policymakers and such NGOs can reduce certain barriers in communication towards elderly people and will help the policymakers to reach the target group better. 

Lastly, asset seizure of Russian property should follow a well-prepared legal framework that fully complies with international law. Cooperation at the EU level is key, along with precisely defining the basis for this decision, for maximum transparency. Policymakers should also be prepared for increased activity of disinformation websites regarding this issue and invest time in explaining their public decisions.

Attention

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations