The Toxic Politics of Migration in the Czech Republic

Another anti-establishment politician comes to power in Europe—raising questions about the state of constitutional democracy.

Andrej Babis against a black background with a light shining on him.
Andrej Babis arrives for a live broadcast of a debate before the country's parliamentary election in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 19, 2017.  (Milan Kammermayer / Reuters)

I met the future prime minister of the Czech Republic early in 2014, at a Washington, D.C. breakfast organized by the “No Labels” movement. Andrej Babis had recently been appointed his nation’s finance minister. He and the No Labels organizers had met at a conference in Europe and been mutually fascinated by each other’s promises of trans-ideological problem-solving.

I wasn’t as impressed. Babis looked to me less like a problem solver, more like an example of the problem to be solved. Babis had become very rich, very fast, in a very murky way. A hereditary member of the pre-1989 communist elite, in the post-communist scramble he had gained managerial control of very valuable state assets, including the great preponderance of the country’s agricultural land. Through complex financial transactions, he soon emerged as those assets’ outright owner—and reputedly his country’s richest or second-richest man. At every step of the way, Babis was dogged by accusations of financial fraud and past collaboration with the communist-era secret police—accusations he dismisses as the work of a “deep state” conspiracy against him.

The self-promotion of the former communist elite into a new post-communist ownership elite ranked high among populist grievances everywhere in the former Warsaw Pact countries. Babis responded to these resentments with his own distinctive approach to problem-solving: He purchased almost all the Czech Republic’s media—one of its largest radio stations, its two most influential daily newspapers, and its most popular news website, among other properties.

Following the example of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Babis then parlayed media power into political power. He founded his own political party, ANO, which is both an acronym in Czech for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” and also the Czech word for “yes.” ANO gained almost 19 percent of the vote in the 2013 Czech parliamentary elections, elevating the party to become the second in parliament and Babis himself to the finance ministry and deputy prime ministership.

Needless to say, the man across the breakfast table from me in 2014 did not care to address any of these issues. Nor did he have a compelling explanation of what his party intended to do to redress the “dissatisfaction” he observed about him in the Czech Republic. He spoke little, and what he did say was vague. “Enigmatic” is a word that recurs often in profiles of Babis, but “elusive” might be more exact.

The Czech Republic seemed a poor location for anti-institutional politics.

Unlike Hungary, which elected Viktor Orban in 2010, the Czech economy had generally performed well since 1989, and especially since it emerged from currency and banking crises in 1997. The republic joined the European Union in 2004, but did not qualify for the euro—thus escaping the deflation inflicted on other small European countries after 2010. Over the past few years, the Czech Republic has boasted one of the highest growth rates and lowest unemployment rates on the European continent.

Unlike Poland, which turned to the authoritarian Law and Justice Party in 2015, the Czech Republic lacks a large non-metropolitan hinterland whose people feel left behind by the prosperity of the urban centers. Prague alone accounts for 12 percent of the population of the republic; by contrast, only 4.5 percent of Poles live in Warsaw. The country’s former mining and heavy industrial regions were sliced away to form the separate republic of Slovakia in 1993—and unsurprisingly, independent Slovakia has proved susceptible to authoritarian politics and Russian covert influence.

And yet, the Czechs—whose country has long been regarded as the model democracy of central Europe—have not proven immune to authoritarian politics and Russian influence. In 2012, the republic altered its constitution to provide for  the direct election of the country’s president. The Czech presidency is mostly a ceremonial role, but it does command some important powers—and the very great prestige of having been held by Vaclav Havel for a decade. In the first election to fill the presidency, 2013, the Czechs turned to the thuggish Milos Zeman. Here’s a photograph of him posing with a mock assault rifle labeled “At Journalists.” Many of Zeman’s long roster of offensive remarks can be chalked up to his notorious drinking habits, but he was not drunk when he allowed his closest political aide to accept millions of dollars of gifts from a Russian state-owned oil company. Zeman has disported himself as one of Putin’s most outspoken allies inside the European Union, in particular as an opponent of the sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Despite these antics, the Czech Republic’s democratic identity seemed securely anchored in a multiparty political system dominated by pro-EU parties of the moderate left and center. So long as those parties retained their strength and credibility, the loud-mouthery of its sottish president could be winced at, but need not inspire much worry. The country’s past three prime ministers have all been conventional European politicians, who—under a Social Democratic political label—followed a consistent line of policy committed to the rule of law and favorable to economic growth.

That left and center was decimated in 2017. The Social Democratic party dropped from largest party in Parliament to sixth, the result of a plunge of 70 percent in its raw vote total. The traditional party of the moderate right, the Civic Democratic party, did gain seats over its 2013 result, but still barely outpolled the Czech Republic’s party of the authoritarian, anti-immigrant far right.

Babis’s ANO won more than the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats combined. He won more than any party at all in the elections of 2013 and 2010. How did he do it? The short answer is that he did not do it. The respectable democratic leaders of the European Union did it for him, by failing to respond to mass migration from Africa and the Middle East.

When I met Babis, the great surge of migration into Europe from Libya and Syria were accelerating, heading to the crisis of 2015. To that point, immigration had not been a Babis theme. He had no issues, only a slogan: “Bude lip,” it will be better. Babis limitlessly believed in himself, and equally limitlessly believed that all opposition to his wishes—including his investigation for subsidy fraud—was the work of a sinister conspiracy against him.

Then, in 2015, he found his issue: immigration. The escalating influx of migrants across the Mediterranean had come to a climax that summer in a spectacular miscalculation by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

To that point, people who arrived on European shores to claim asylum were stopped at the first country they reached: typically Italy or Greece. Under EU law, they had no right to move from their first “safe country” to another. But asylum-seekers were of course also seeking economic opportunities, which is why they did not always stop at the first country of refuge—and that meant transit from the depressed economies of southern Europe to the strong economies of the north, especially the United Kingdom, Sweden, and above all, Germany. They began to move north, illegally, often on foot. On August 25, 2015, in an effort to relieve pressure on its harder-pressed neighbors, the German government made a fateful decision: Syrian citizens who had arrived in Europe would henceforward be allowed to enter Germany to apply for asylum there. That decision, announced in a tweet from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, almost instantly sparked one of the greatest mass movements of people since 1945. Young men from Sri Lanka to Senegal cashed everything they and their families had to make the move to Europe to present themselves as “Syrian refugees” seeking entry into the German job market. Almost 2 million people would arrive in Germany before the flow was finally halted in later 2016. (After deducting foreign nationals who exited Germany—mostly people from other EU countries returning home—the population impact netted out at some 1.2 million new arrivals.)

Staggered and surprised by the movement they had triggered, German officials cast about for ways to share the load—notably by pressing other European countries with strong job markets to accept a quota of the 2015-2016 arrivals. They looked especially hard at the countries of Central Europe. These countries had received billions of euros of EU aid since 2004. Now was the time for them to lend a hand, or else face a cut in their subsidies from the EU and the German taxpayer.

The conventional parties of central Europe acceded to this pressure, opening the political way to a surge in authoritarian populism in every country from the Aegean to the Baltic.

Anti-refugee feeling turned about the fortunes of Viktor Orban, which had been sagging in Hungary after a failed attempt in 2014 to impose heavy taxes on internet use. Anti-refugee feeling delivered an unprecedented majority of the vote to the reactionary and authoritarian Law and Justice party in the Polish elections of October 2015. Anti-refugee feeling prevailed in Austria, where on October 16 an absolute majority of the population voted for immigration restrictionist parties: 31.6 percent for the People’s Party, and 27.4 percent for the Freedom Party—once such a pariah that in the year 2000 the rest of the EU sanctioned Austria for allowing Freedom Party members into a coalition government.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to see the way the wind blows. In January 2016, Andrej Babis announced his new conviction in an interview with a Czech newspaper (their translation):

We are not duty-bound to accept anyone and we are not even now able to do so. Our primary responsibility is to make sure that our own citizens are safe. The Czech Republic has enough of its own problems, people living on the breadline, single mothers. The West European politicians keep repeating that it is our duty to comply with what the immigrants want because of their human rights. But what about the human rights of the Germans or the Hungarians? Why should the British accept that the wealth which has been created by many generations of their ancestors, should be consumed by people without any relationship to that country and its culture? People who are a security risk and whose desire it is not to integrate but to destroy European culture?

The one-time trans-ideological problem-solver had reinvented himself as a populist nationalist. Babis would escalate this messaging over the months leading to the October 21, 2017, parliamentary vote. "I have stopped believing in successful integration and multiculturalism,” he posted on Facebook in the summer of 2016. “We must do our utmost to reject migrants, including the quotas in which we were outvoted. I want to reject the quotas even at the cost of sanctions.”

“We have to fight for what our ancestors built here,” Babis told journalists at a conference in Prague in June 2017. “If there will be more Muslims than Belgians in Brussels, that’s their problem. I don’t want that here. They won’t be telling us who should live here.”

Babis was never a true believer in the far right. He is not a true believer in anything. While he rejected EU resettlement quotas and opposed adoption of the euro currency, he did not share the more ideological anti-EU position of the rest of the European far right. “They give us money,” he said of the EU in October 2016, “so our membership is advantageous for us.” What Babis offered Czechs was all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs. If that position was unrealistic … well, that was information that could await the post-election period.

Two questions now overhang Czech politics. The first is the character of the government Babis will form. It takes 101 seats to constitute a parliamentary majority in Prague. Babis commands only 78. He has a choice of coalition partners: some conventional parties, others more disturbing. He has in the past speculated about changes in the Czech constitution. Will he try to follow the Polish and Hungarian path? Or will he abide by the existing rules of the game?

The second question is the more haunting—and is the question that validates Babis’s title as “the Czech Trump.” Politicians like Trump and Babis are brought to the fore by public disgust with politics as usual. “It’s a rigged system, folks!” as Trump so caustically said. Their own careers are proof of how rigged the system is. Misconduct leads to cynicism which enables misconduct, in a spiraling doom for constitutional democracy. Will the investigation into charges that Babis diverted EU subsidies be permitted to go forward? Or will justice in the Czech Republic be politicized as it has been in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia? Will the Czechs perceive that the true “rigged system” is this closed loop of rationalization for wrong? If they can perceive it, can they act to halt the cycle and save themselves? Can any of us?