Voters in the Czech Republic head to the polls on Friday to elect a president amid concerns that Russia will try to influence the result.
Nine candidates are standing in the election with Milos Zeman, the incumbent, currently the favourite to win.
Mr Zeman, who previously served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, is also believed to be Russia’s favoured candidate due to his pro-Kremlin inclinations. The 73-year-old has met frequently with Vladimir Putin, supported the lifting of sanctions against Moscow and called for the recognition of Crimea.
While the role of president in the Czech Republic is largely ceremonial as most of the power in the central European nation is held by the prime minister, the outcome of last year’s parliamentary elections has made Czech politics more fluid.
Elections in October 2017 resulted in a hung parliament with no possible coalitions and Andrej Babis, (dubbed the Czech Donald Trump) whose populist ANO 2011 party won the largest share of the vote, became prime minister in December 2017 of a weak minority government.
Mr Babis has been at the centre of corruption allegations and was previously investigated by the European Union’s anti-fraud office. He has an uncertain future as most Czech parties are unwilling to work with him because of the ongoing fraud charges.
But he has an ally in Mr Zeman, who has promised to give the billionaire businessman two chances to form a functioning administration should his government fail to win its first vote of confidence on Wednesday.
Mr Babis’ unstable position could even work in Mr Zeman’s favour as he seeks re-election, according to one political analyst. Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague said during an interview with Politico last month that Mr Zeman, as a prominent figure in the Czech political establishment, “could present himself as an experienced and strong president who knows his stuff” and is able to lead the country out of crisis.
However, liberal critics fear that if Mr Zeman is re-elected, he will use his influence over Mr Babis to encourage stronger ties to Russia at a time when Moscow is trying to exert its power over Europe.
Russia has already been accused of meddling in a number of elections across Europe including the 2016 Brexit vote through the spreading of false news as well as the 2016 US presidential election.
However, the Czech Republic’s presidential election is thought to be one of the Kremlin’s most important targets, according to a report released in October by Czech-based pro-Europe think tank, European Values.
The report- authored by political analysts Lorant Gyori, Peter Kreko, Jakub Janda and Bernhard Weidinger- predicts the Czech Republic to be the “most intense battleground for Russian meddling efforts, especially during the presidential election”.
In the presidential election, the authors predict Russia will try to influence the result by attacking Mr Zeman’s main opponents Jiri Drahos and Michal Horacek through the spreading of disinformation to ensure their favourite is kept in power.
“Kremlin-inspired Czech disinformation efforts are almost completely united behind president Zeman and will probably play the role of creator and offer a platform to massive disinformation and smear campaigns against Zeman’s challengers,” the report said.
Sean Hanley, a senior lecturer at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said Russian involvement in the election might be found in Mr Zeman’s campaign finances.
"Milos Zeman has said he is not waging an election campaign and has taken a 'Rose Garden strategy' of letting his record speaking for himself but somebody is paying for billboards and newspaper advertising for him, which have appeared since December," Dr Hanley told The National.
However, Dr Hanley played down the idea that the incumbent Czech president was a "Russian Trojan horse" intent solely on working for the Kremlin’s interests.
“Zeman is a very unpredictable politician,” he said. “He [Zeman] sarcastically says ‘Here I am a Kremlin agent’. I think his attitude is that it is in Czech Republic’s interest to build economic links with Russia and China. Zeman goes to the former Soviet Union quite a lot. He is someone who does have ideological beliefs and being pro-Russian is not one of them.
“A lot of his basic positions are quite consistent, for example he has been anti-Islamic for years, but it hasn’t really been on show. What he has said in interviews is that he likes and admires Russian culture- which is common in Czechs of a certain generation- and he is willing to deal with Russia as it is.”
Mr Zeman’s feelings about Russia are shared by many Czechs who, since the financial crash and the refugee crisis in Europe, have felt the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU has not lived up to its promises.
“There’s a scepticism towards the EU and further integration. It’s rooted in the fact that the EU was presented as an end point for economic prosperity and catching up with the West, which hasn’t worked out for everyone,” Dr Hanley added.
“Czech attitudes to Russia are very pragmatic, there isn’t great admiration for Putin. Their political stances are rooted in pragmatism and where their national interests lie.”
Central and eastern Europe is experiencing a tide of anti-immigration sentiment following the refugee crisis, with nationalist parties performing well in elections.
Austria, Hungary and Poland have all appointed leaders who have promised to curb immigration in a direct challenge to Brussels.
Mr Zeman, who has spoken against refugees from the Middle East arriving in Europe, used a television interview last week to blast the EU for allowing migrants into the bloc.
He also said that the culture of Muslim refugees was incompatible with that of European culture.
While Mr Drahos, a centrist politician who is the incumbent president’s main opponent, has repeatedly warned against anti-Islamic radicalism.
The first round of the presidential election will take place from January 12 to 13 and a run-off will take place at the end of the month between the top two candidates if no candidate wins a majority.
Latest polls predict Mr Zeman will win the first round but will fail to make the 50 per cent needed for re-election and will face a run-off with a potentially powerful rival.