Why does Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis, also known as Czech Donald Trump, lean towards the US, while the country's President Milos Zeman pursues strong ties with China?
With support for Washington’s enduring trade war with China wavering in Europe, US President Donald Trump welcomed Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis to the White House on Thursday for high-profile talks on cybersecurity the former hopes will help cement an ally in the European Union.
The EU in recent weeks has grown increasingly divided over warnings from the US that Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei Technologies would develop high-speed, fifth generation wireless technology known as 5G to commit espionage. Countries like Britain, Germany and France have thus far fallen short of imposing stricter guideline against Huawei, while the Czech Republic’s cybersecurity agency issued a warning in December affirming Washington’s accusations. Mr. Babis has meanwhile shown an increased willingness to work with American businesses in recent months.
The meeting with Mr. Trump comes on the same day that Huawei announced that it is suing the U.S. government, alleging that moves made to restrict its business there were “unconstitutional.” Huawei has also threatened to sue the Czech Republic for similar reasons.
“Our countries will work to ensure secure and reliable telecommunications networks and supply chains to reduce the risk of malicious cyber activity,” the two leaders said in a joint statement yesterday. “We resolve to deepen our cooperation in this area and to work together bilaterally and multilaterally to develop telecommunications security principles.”
Like several countries in Central Europe, the Czech Republic has been seen in recent years as growing closer to China with President Milos Zeman meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jingping in Prague back in 2016 to bolster ties. Since then, Mr. Zeman has personally facilitated a deal with Huawei to develop the country’s first 5G network.
The most recent accusations against Huawei caused a split between the two Czech heads of state. Mr. Zeman has disregarded the accusations against Huawei as unsubstantiated, going so far as to disavow his own country’s cybersecurity agency following the December warning, while Mr. Babis ordered his office to stop using Huawei equipment. The Prime Minister would also meet with Apple CEO Tim Cook and AT&T chief John Donovan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, saying afterward that he’d invited AT&T to develop 5G in the Czech Republic and that Cook had agreed to open an Apple store in Prague.
Often referred to as the Czech Donald Trump, Mr. Babis is currently the Czech Republic’s second richest person, and much like Mr. Trump is no stranger to controversy, implicated in several scandals from conflicts-of-interest to espionage. He was elected in 2016 at the height of Europe’s nationalist movement, running on an anti-establishment, anti-migrant platform.
“I perfectly understand your plan: how to make America great again,” he told Mr. Trump during his meeting yesterday. “I have a similar plan to make the Czech Republic great again.”
Jiri Pehe, a political analyst at New York University in Prague, said that the highly coveted meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House would serve as a way for Mr. Babis to raise his profile at home among a constituency of Czechs who have often taken to the streets in opposition to him.
“He is trying to use this meeting to deflect the perceptions of him at home, not to speak of the fact that he likes the limelight and to be seen with powerful western figures,” he said.
In addition to cybersecurity issues, Mr. Trump and Mr. Babis also discussed enhanced energy diversification, the NATO alliance, Ukrainian sovereignty and trade, with Mr. Babis hoping to convince Mr. Trump to back down on threats to impose new tariffs on automobiles imported from the EU.
“Czech Republic doing very, very well economically and in all other respects,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s always been a safe country. Strong military. Strong people. We have a very good relationship with the Czech Republic and the United States. We do a lot of trade.”