Czechia More Resilient Than Ever: New Parliamentary Committee on Hybrid Threats

Filip Stojanovski // CC

The Czech parliament has approved the establishment of the Permanent Parliamentary Committee on hybrid threats. This expert platform will be dedicated to monitoring influence operations and issuing recommendations to Parliament. Located in the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is often a popular target of influence operations from aggressive great powers such as Russia and China.

However, the country has managed to turn this undeniable disadvantage into an opportunity, becoming one of European leaders and innovators in national resilience building.

The Czech Republic has undertaken yet another important step, confirming its position as a regional leader in resilience building towards hybrid threats. At the decision of the Czech Parliament, a new, permanent, parliamentary Committee for hybrid threats will be established after the Parliamentary recess in September.  It will have nine members drawn from each political party sitting in Parliament.

Permanent commissions are consultative bodies within the Parliament formed with MPs who are considered to be experts in a given field. They issue recommendations to their peers in the Parliament and provide consultations and recommendations when needed.

This Permanent Committee on Hybrid Threats will be responsible for assessing systemic risks and identifying weaknesses in Czech defence, through behind-closed-door’ meetings with representatives of relevant state institutions, academia and the non-governmental sector.

Based on these sessions, the Committee will develop policy recommendations on how best to overcome these flaws and, ultimately, how to increase the overall resilience of the Czech Republic. Members of Parliament and the Government, together with other state officials and relevant stakeholders, will be delivered these parliamentary recommendations.

Similar committees have been established in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Singapore; however, the Czech Republic is the first member of the European Union (EU) to have established such a political body devoted solely to the assessment of hybrid threats.

One of the strongest reasons behind the establishment of the Committee are recent hybrid operations conducted on the territory of the Czech state. These are, according to the annual reports of the Czech intelligence services,  growing both in number as well as severity. 

The Russian and Chinese Hybrid Toolkit

The monitoring duties of the committee will include the activities of all states conducting or attempting to conduct hybrid operations on Czech territory, without discrimination. However, it is not a surprise that Russia and China are expected to be the main actors of interest in this regard.

The primary reasons why Russia is still trying to influence the state of affairs in the Czech Republic are of a historical and geopolitical nature. The incumbent Russian regime, as the legitimate successor to the Soviet Union, does not respect the sovereignty of neighboring countries and, in many cases, still perceives them as satellite states.

This historical obsession transforms into a ridiculous, illegitimate claim of former Soviet-state obedience, and Russia’s constant meddling in their domestic affairs. This sentiment is well illustrated by the recent “Koněv Affair.”

The decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague recently led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cybernetic attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and -right civil actors.

The situation became so untenable that three political representatives – including the Mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib – had to be given police protection. Ultimately, the affair resulted in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the Czech Republic.

On the other hand, the Chinese obsession with the Czech Republic is future oriented. Given its convenient location in the heart of Europe and next to Germany – together with its membership in the EU – the Czech Republic epitomizes, in the eyes of Chinese communist officials, an ideal entry point in the European continent and to Germany in particular.

One of China’s strongest allies in Czechia has emerged as the richest Czech businessman, Petr Kellner. His company, Home Credit, which provides non-banking loans, makes nearly one-third of its profit on the Chinese market. Hence, Kellner and his business in Asia is, to a great extent, dependent on good relations with Chinese political elites.

At the end of 2019, Czech investigative journalists revealed that Home Credit paid for 2,000 hours of work to a PR company with the intention of manipulating Czech politics and the public in favour of China. Among the services provided by the PR agency were a number of unethical deeds, including the ‘internal monitoring’ of the activities of high political representatives who had openly criticized China, and the pressuring of the media to withdraw critical articles about China and publish neutral or positive ones.

Elections to Monitor and Critical Infrastructure to Protect

So, what tasks lie ahead for the Committee? Theoretically, its proposed function is clear; however, when looking to concrete examples, there are three main areas the Committee is expected to focus on in the coming months. The first is being an election watchdog for the local and Senate (in 2020) and parliamentary (in 2021) elections.

The second concerns the construction of two nuclear power plants, the Dukovany and the Temelín NPPs, which Russia’s Rosatom is particularly interested in. And third, the development and construction of the Czech 5G network, which is of interest to China. 

Russia has proven itself to be an especially keen actor when it comes to electoral influence through intense disinformation campaigns. There exist multiple examples from all over the world, and the Czech Republic has been no exception to this commonplace practice.

Indeed, one of the most profound examples is the ‘Lithium Affair’ of the last parliamentary elections in 2016, believed to have helped the current Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, and his ANO movement ‘steal’ the election from the Social Democrats.

More recently still, during the presidential elections in 2018, Russia conducted a  widespread disinformation campaign which according to Czech experts, was in support of the reelection of the current President, Miloš Zeman, who has since been nicknamed the ‘Russian Trojan Horse’.  

Furthermore, in the coming years, the Czech state will make a decision that will significantly impact its future for at least another seven decades. The construction of new cooling towers at two Czech nuclear power plants – first Dukovany, and then eventually Temelín – is the most expensive state infrastructure project in Czechia’s recent history.

Together with the strategic and economic importance of this tender, it is no surprise that both Russia and China are lobbying heavily for their national companies to be granted this project. Thus, it will be an absolutely essential task of the Committee to issue recommendations and use its political influence during the selection of the vendor to ensure a transparent and fair process. 

A very similar situation is currently ongoing with respect to the construction of the Czech 5G network, with strong pressure exerted by China  for the project to be entrusted to its national technology champion, the supposedly private company Huawei, but having deep ties to the Chinese military and intelligence agencies.

The Committee is, therefore, expected to keep a watchful eye on the development of 5G networks as well. 

A Resilience Pioneer in the Heart of Europe

While both Russia and China have certainly been keeping the Czech security scene busy, the Czech Republic has developed one of the best state resilience systems – not only in the region, but also in Europe. Thus, the establishment of the Parliamentary Committee represents the next logical step in the Czech mosaic of resilience measures

In 2016, the Czech republic conducted a thorough audit of the state of its resilience-capabilities, resulting in the National security audit. The document, conducted by 120 independent experts, identified 10 types of threats that would endanger the Czech state the most, and subsequently proposed a roadmap towards a more resilient Czech state. 

Since then, Czech governmental, academic and NGO actors have joined forces and, shoulder-to-shoulder are undertaking steps to reach this goal. As a result, the Centre for Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, located within the Ministry of Interior, has been created, and so too the National Cyber and Information Security Agency.

The latter institution is already well-regarded, its experts annually winning international cyber security competitions, such as the Estonian ‘Locked Shield’, and its members invited to the US Congress to help create a cyber security exercise for US stakeholders. Hence, these institutions will  form  the primary cooperation partners for the newly established Committee. 

As a result of this ongoing commitment to resilience and the countering of hybrid threats, the Czech Republic became the first country to openly speak out against the Huawei-sourced 5G technology, becoming one of the leading countries on the discussion of the future of 5G networks in Europe.

It was, therefore, no surprise that a summit of world leaders on 5G took place last year in Prague, and that this led to the establishment of the Prague Manual, overlapping in many areas with the EU’s own official toolbox on 5G cybersecurity.

Measures described above are the ones conducted by the government, parliament and other state institutions. However there are other pieces crucial for constructing a functioning resilience of a national state. The role of a strong civil society is priceless together with innovative forward-thinking research on hybrid threats, and the high quality and impartiality of its independent public media.

It is undeniable that Czech Republic checking to some extent all of the boxes is a country to look at when looking for a working mechanism of increasing resilience of a national state.

The main future challenge not only for Czechia but for other countries involved in this undeclared hybrid conflict is not to rest on laurels but to continue the hard daily work on maintaining and strengthening those resilience mechanisms.

Just as the enemy never sleeps and continues to develop smarter, more vicious and targeted schemes of attacks, so must our defence be flexible, adaptable and always improving. Ongoing European cooperation, sharing best practices and learning from each other is an integral part of it. 

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