Lessons from the Czech election

Europe’s far-right populist leaders insist they’re “peacemakers” when it comes to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Czechs didn’t buy it in last month’s presidential election, but if Putin starts winning, more politicians will call for appeasement. 

By Petr Tuma

Petr Tuma is a visiting fellow at The Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. He is a Czech diplomat with expertise on Europe, Middle East and transatlantic relations.

24 Feb 2023

In January, Czech citizens elected their new President, Petr Pavel, a retired army general who served as head of the Czech Army and later as chair of the Nato Military Committee. He defeated former prime minister and populist-leaning business tycoon, Andrej Babiš.  

It’s certainly good news for Europe and Czech allies abroad. Both an Atlanticist and pro-European, Pavel will guide foreign policy in line with Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s centre-right coalition government.  

Czechs said “no” to populism in a context that appears instructive for some of the upcoming elections in Europe and elsewhere. I’m alluding to the central role that the Russian war against Ukraine played in the runoff campaign. Babiš accused the retired general of being a warmonger, while portraying himself as a peacemaker. In one of his election posters, the former prime minister claimed: “I won’t drag Czechia into war. I am a diplomat. Not a soldier.” Yet during his campaign, Pavel only called for the continuation of Prague’s manifold support of Ukraine to avoid even broader Russian aggression that could further threaten Europe and move closer to the Czech border.  

Babiš hinted at his idea to organise a peace summit at Prague Castle, without specifying how he planned to convince Putin to leave Ukrainian territory. He even went as far as saying that he would oppose the dispatching of the military in case Poland or the Baltic states were attacked. Although he walked it back later, adding that he would honour the obligations arising from Nato Article 5. 

What happened during the Czech presidential campaign should be viewed as a warning. Russia’s war is far from being over. Putin is likely betting on growing fatigue in countries supporting Ukraine, with the hope that it will help redraw political maps in Europe.  

Babiš’s campaign with its polarising messages may have gone too far for Czechs. Calls for concessions vis-à-vis Russia won’t be appealing in countries like Poland that have had negative historical experiences or relations with Russians. Still, it can find fertile ground elsewhere. Think about Hungary, where President Viktor Orbán decided to maintain his cooperative approach toward Moscow and won parliamentary elections in April 2022 by a shocking margin. 

Critiques of support for Ukraine will certainly resonate in Slovakia, where early parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. Former Prime Minster Robert Fico – who has a chance of returning to the government – is already calling for a “common-sense approach” to the ongoing war that will be “neither American nor Russian” but “Slovak and human”.  

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party, which is opposed to supporting Ukraine, also looks to be regaining momentum ahead of 2024 parliamentary elections. Across the Atlantic, former US President Donald Trump recently launched his presidential campaign by saying he would negotiate a peace deal within a day.  

If Putin starts winning, more politicians will call for appeasement

Whether this camp will broaden depends on how the Russian aggression plays out. If Putin starts winning, more politicians will call for appeasement. If he continues losing, we’ll see his supporters weaken or swap horses. In France, Marine Le Pen, a far-right-candidate with links to the Russian president, was overwhelmingly defeated. Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Meloni decided to revolutionise the far-right by clearly condemning Russian aggression. 

Vanquished Moscow could turn into a much less attractive partner than in recent years, which applies both to Europe and its broader neighbourhood, be it the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa or the Sahel. It is why we should continue to help Ukraine and beware of those who now call for “peace” that would only enable yet another Russian aggression. 


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