Anti-government rally in the Czech Republic, which gathered tens of thousands of protesters. Source – RTVI
To destabilize the internal political situation in European countries, Russia is waging a hybrid war that began long before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The countries that actively support Ukrainians are the most pressured.
An analysis of Russian-speaking groups in Western countries shows several main narratives that are frequently propagated there: refugees from Ukraine are unwelcomed in Europe; Russia takes better care of refugees; Ukraine inflicts harm and abuses civilians; Ukrainians pose a threat to host countries; Ukrainians receive far better conditions than refugees from other countries. The results of the research were published by the analytical center “Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD),” which has analyzed Russian-language discussions since the beginning of the invasion.
We debunk the latest documented global instance of the Kremlin attempt to turn Western societies against Ukrainians and explain how Russia acts to weaken the coalition supporting Ukraine and Western democracies.
CZECH REPUBLIC IN FOCUS
Even during the “Soviet era,” Russia expanded its influence in Western Europe through the Czech Republic – a country located in the heart of Europe. Back then, Czechoslovakia, still occupied by Soviet forces, stood as a frontier between the West and Moscow. The influence from Moscow was so substantial that the pro-Russian network partially remains there to this day, even after years of its independent existence and having the pro-European government currently.
For instance, Rostislav and Olga Zorikov – family members of Boris Obnosov, owner of the Russian missile factory, being owners of several properties in Prague, were included to the sanctions list only in the summer of 2023 after public outcry and the USCC campaign in the Czech Republic. This family is directly involved in the killings in Ukraine: the missiles X-101 and X-22, produced at Obnosov’s factory, were used by the Russians to hit residential buildings in Uman, Dnipro, and a shopping mall in Kremenchuk.
Particularly, efforts to destabilize the internal political situation in the country continue. Rallies are organized in the Czech Republic, where euroscepticism is propagated, calls for the current government’s change are made, and calls to withdraw Czech Republic from NATO, along with protests against providing military aid to Ukraine, and against support of Ukrainian refugees.
Just this spring, several large demonstrations took place in Prague under the banner “Czech Republic Against Poverty,” where participants called for the government to resign. Among the protesters were individuals clearly associated with the “Russian world,” identified by symbols of “Z” and chevrons of the “Wagner” Private Military Company (PMC), or those openly expressing approval of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The PRO party announced about organization of another anti-government protest which will take place in Prague on September 16, 2023. Participants are being encouraged, including Czech Roma, who have recently become part of a larger Kremlin campaign aimed at destabilizing the Czech Republic and tarnishing the reputation of Ukrainian refugees.
On June 10, 2023, a case involving the killing of a Roma individual by a Ukrainian national was reported in the Czech Republic. The Czech publication “Romea,” citing the police, reports that the altercation, leading to injuries and death, began on public transportation. Some witnesses claim that the Ukrainian man made remarks to a larger group of Roma youth who were loudly listening to music and shouting inside the tram. The situation escalated into a physical confrontation, during which the Ukrainian man reportedly used a knife in self-defense. Currently, a criminal case has been opened for intentional homicide, though the investigation is ongoing, and the police may re-classify is to self-defense.
This situation sets off a series of events related to Ukrainians and Roma in the Czech Republic.
Dissemination of Disinformation
From the analysis of news during June-July 2023, reporting on the conflict between Ukrainians and Czech Roma, it is apparently that there were at least 8 further accusations against Ukrainian refugees for crimes against Roma. However, the Czech police only confirm three cases: the fatal injury of a Roma individual on June 10 in Brno, a mass brawl between three Ukrainians and Roma on July 2, and a single clash between Roma youth and a Ukrainian on July 29 in Novy Bydzov. Neither of the two clashes had lethal consequences.
Five other crimes in which Ukrainians were accused turned out to be disinformation to intensify the conflict following the events after the death of the Roma individual on June 10 in Brno.
The following fake stories were spread on social media:
– In Sokolov, Ukrainians allegedly stabbed an eleven-year-old Roma boy and killed a woman who was supposedly Roma.
– In Krupka, Ukrainians were said to have harassed and supposedly attacked Roma children, attempting sexual violence.
– In Prerov, Ukrainians reportedly assaulted a Roma woman and threatened to kill all Roma.
– One of the latest instances of disinformation again accused Ukrainians of a new clash with Roma in the city of Brno on July 23.
Right after the initial report of the killing, direct accusations against Ukrainians of aggression toward Roma began to appear on social media. These accusations also included criticism of the presence of Ukrainians in the Czech Republic and the government of Petr Fiala, which allowed Ukrainian refugees to enter.
On June 17, the first demonstration “For the Safety of Citizens in the Czech Republic” took place in Brno. The organizers assured that they were against collective responsibility for Ukrainians. However, some participants had more radical views. Xenophobic and racist slogans such as “Black and white unite!” and “We are Czechs!” “We are at home” were heard at the event.
Starting from June 10, at least 8 protest actions and demonstrations with similar narratives occurred. Czech journalists report that Roma extremists and pro-Russian politicians were present at these events, attempting to incite the crowd to mass unrest and politicize the actions. Notably, at some events, participants and organizers spoke out against such “guests,” as they believed that peaceful demonstrations might become radicalized and exploited by extremists.
The peak of dissatisfaction led to open threats. On July 18, during protests in the Czech cities of Brno and Krupka, slogans almost escalated into attacks on the housing of Ukrainian refugees. Protesters (mostly Roma) shouted, “Ukraine, go away from here. Get out, leave!” in front of a dormitory where Ukrainians in Brno reside. A representative of the opposition party “Žít Brno” in the Brno municipality, Matěj Hollan, commented on such calls: “Roma are falling victim to Russian disinformation.”
On the same day, around five hundred Roma at a demonstration in Krupka demanded a police investigation into a conflict supposedly involving Ukrainians and Roma in the city. Later, it was revealed that this was another case of disinformation, and Ukrainians had no relation to the clash in Krupka. However, it didn’t stop the Roma community from organizing a protest march that turned into an overtly anti-Ukrainian manifestation. Videos from the event captured the crowd chanting slogans such as “We are at home here,” “Accursed Ukrainians,” and “Glory to Putin” in the area where Ukrainian refugees reside.
REACTION FROM BOTH SIDES
Immediately after the conflict, President Petr Pavel and Prime Minister Petr Fiala expressed their condemnation of any forms of discrimination, violence, and collective blame. The President of the Czech Republic acknowledged that the event was organized by movements such as “Pulse of Europe,” the “League of Roma in Czechoslovakia,” and “Prague Maidan.” Representatives of the Roma and Ukrainian minorities came together on Prague’s Old Town Square to denounce displays of hatred and intolerance based on nationality and to honor the memory of the deceased. On the Ukrainian side, the “Hlas Ukrajiny” initiative and Deputy State Representative for the Ukrainian Minority in the Czech Republic, Bohdan Raychynets, co-organized the event.
Anastasiia Sihnaievskа – USCC representative in the Czech Republic and co-coordinator of the “Hlas Ukrajiny” initiative.
Misinformation often repeats the Russian narrative of a provoked war or actively promotes support for far-right Czech politicians/activists. We believe that one of the main reasons for the escalation of animosity towards Ukrainians within Czech society is the vested interest of Russian agents in destabilizing the situation by exploiting sensitive segments of the population.
“I participated at a public discussion involving Czech Minister of Internal Affairs Vit Rakušan regarding the increase in tensions within Czech society. During the discussion, as Ukrainian representatives, we publicly argued for the connection between anti-Ukrainian sentiments among the Roma minority and Russian influences. The Minister of Internal Affairs condemned the exploitation of the Ukrainian war theme for cynical anti-Ukrainian campaigns by Czech politicians. He stated that there are currently no direct proofs that the situation is caused by sources of Russian influence, but this matter requires more thorough investigation and is currently under review”, commented Anastasiia Sihnaievska.
The Chairman of the League of Roma in Czechoslovakia, Karel Karika, stated that Roma, together with Ukrainians, want to stop violence and xenophobia. He pointed out that the conflict between the Roma and Ukrainian communities has been simmering since the beginning of the “refugee crisis” (a term used to refer to the period since February 24, 2022). “It’s about the marginal part of our minority that doesn’t quite understand this,” he said. Commissioner for Roma Affairs, Lucie Fuková, joined his words, emphasizing the danger of increasing xenophobia and violence.
Czech Minister of Internal Affairs, Vít Rakušan, commenting on the spread of propaganda among the Roma, stated that the conflict would not benefit either the Roma or the Ukrainians. The only beneficiaries of the conflict are those who harbor hostility towards both sides.
Currently, the Czech authorities and civil organizations are focused on resolving the conflict between the Roma and Ukrainian refugee communities. “We would like to create a special group to act against misinformation in order to quickly respond to the information field that manipulates communities in socially isolated areas. Disinformers are very fast, they try to exploit the social status of the Roma,” stated Lucie Fuková. At the local level, working groups will be established to de-escalate incidents. “So that demonstrations are not held without knowing what really happened,” added the commissioner.
SENSITIVE POINTS IN EUROPE
According to the government’s qualified estimate for 2021-2030, approximately 262,000 Roma live in the Czech Republic (2.5% of the total population), making it the largest minority in the Czech Republic.
The primary instrument of Russian propaganda targeted at the Roma community is the demonization of Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Through this, they aim to reinforce existing disinformation, which the Kremlin strategically disseminates across countries in the free world, identifying and exploiting each society’s “pain points” to achieve the most effective polarization.
One of the signs that Russia is likely to be directly or indirectly involved in spreading discontent among the Roma is the widespread dissemination of conflicts in Russian media and the involvement of pro-Russian citizens and politicians (and sometimes even Russians themselves) in such actions.
Dozens of Russian media and Telegram channels have covered the Roma protests.
Source – telegram
Among the participants of the events in the Czech Republic, collaborators suspected of cooperating with Moscow and fans of the “Russian world” have been noticed. Beata Mari Krusich, one of the organizers of the event in Brno, turned it into an anti-Ukrainian demonstration, delivering Russian-made falsehoods about atrocities against residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and about the suppression of the population due to the desire to speak Russian. On July 13, in Prague, pro-Russian activist Jakub Yashek attended the demonstration. He had previously received a suspended sentence for displaying symbols associated with the “Wagner” group and the letter Z, which he wore at demonstrations in the Czech Republic in the spring.
Fortunately, a significant number of opinion leaders among the Roma community understand the danger of such rhetoric. “People who today call themselves patriots from extremist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and, dare I say, fascist groups and associations have never hidden their hatred for other national minorities, primarily Roma,” stated pro-Roma activist Marcel Pakert at the event on July 13. Activists have fear that such incidents are aimed at fueling hatred, with the blame potentially falling on the Roma community. Such tactics are typical for Russia, especially concerning national minorities.
THREAT TO THE FREE WORLD
Since 2023, the Czech Ministry of Interior constantly monitors activities falling under pro-Russian hybrid influence and strives to analyze their origins. The police emphasize that the goal of such actions is to undermine and weaken the foundations of the country’s democratic system. Similarly, Russia acted in 2016, following its intervention in the Syrian war and the resulting bombardment of civilian areas, which led to a large influx of refugees into Europe. Subsequently, Russia launched a disinformation campaign to turn Western societies against their governments, that had provided refuge to the refugees.
One of the most well-known examples is the story of Lisa, a minor from a Russian-speaking family in Berlin, who was purportedly abducted and sexually assaulted by migrants from the Middle East. However, investigations revealed that there was no abduction or assault; the news was totally false. Despite this, the Kremlin attempted to exploit the situation to organize anti-migrant protests. Sergey Lavrov, the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at that time claimed that the German authorities were trying to conceal the truth about the investigation.
Serhii Kuzan – Head of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, Military-Political Expert
“This is a traditional Kremlin tactic – creating internal problems in democratic states where public opinion is an electoral key and human life is the highest value. For example, researchers of the Islamic State identify one of the key conditions for suicide attacks as the democracy of the government being attacked, as public opinion is important for it.”
Russian propaganda actively operates in all countries that have taken in many Ukrainian refugees. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, numerous messages have been recorded regarding the “wealth” of Ukrainians (reducing it to the absurdity of providing housing and social security to “non-poor” Ukrainians), fake crimes, or allegedly inappropriate behavior exhibited by Ukrainians in European countries, etc. Similar reports have come from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, and other European countries. Each of these messages was actively spread not only in the West but also in Russia.
“Clearly, each case, as we are currently see in Czech Republic, sets a precedent and requires a political decision at the state level. However, if we do not eliminate Russian influence in Western countries and around the world, we will end up in a situation where we cut off one head of the hydra so that another one can grow in its place.”