Dear reader,
 

Before diving in, we loud like to direct your attention to the new website of MapInfluenCE that we have just launched. 

You will find here all the analysis from the multinational team of analysts in an accessible and user-friendly way in four regional languages and English. On the new website, we are putting emphasis on the growing array of topics that MapInfluenCE focuses on, spanning from Chinese propaganda and disinformation to the interplay between China and Russia in Central Europe. All the data-driven research that the project has undertaken can be now found in the data analysis section. Moreover, the new website prominently highlights our excellent analysts from the V4 countries, including their media appearances and other outputs.

Be sure to visit our new website to stay on top of all the China and Russia-related developments in the region!

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In this newsletter: Earthquake in Czech-Russian relations, Chinese university comes to Budapest, China employs disinformation in Czechia, Sputnik V continues to destabilize Slovak politics, and much more.

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Russia identified as the perpetrator of the bombing in Vrbětice. At a press conference on Saturday, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and the Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamáček announced the findings of the Czech secret services and the security community about the involvement of the Russian secret service GRU in explosions at Vrbětice ammunition depots in 2014. In reaction, Czechia decided to expel 18 Russian diplomats from the Czech territory. On Sunday evening, Russia escalated the situation and reacted asymmetrically by expelling 20 employees of the Czech Embassy. It is clear that this development will shake up the Czech-Russian relations for a long time to come.

Although not all information is already declassified, reports from the government and the security community all confirm that the operation by at least two Russian GRU agents from the infamous Unit 29155 took place after their visit to the ammunition depots in Vrbětice. Two Czech citizens died and more than 50 tonnes of ammunition and other military equipment were blown up in a series of explosions at the depot.

The most likely target was the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine, at the time facing aggression from the Russian Federation and the so-called pro-Russian separatists supported by the regular Russian army. This theory is also supported by the parallel operations against targets in Bulgaria and by the Bulgarian intermediary of this trade, Emilian Gebrev, who was poisoned in 2015 together with his son and colleague. Another theory points to the arms exports to the anti-Assad groups in Syria.

According to the Czech Minister of trade and industry Karel Havlíček, Russia‘s Rosatom will be excluded from the long-discussed Dukovany nuclear power plant tender after Russia’s involvement in explosions became clear. Yet, the reaction of the Czech government has been somewhat mixed. At a press conference on Monday, Babiš called the affair an “attack on goods”. The circumstances of the planned Moscow visit of Deputy Prime Minister Hamáček, which he now claims was to be a diversionary operation, are also unclear. Meanwhile, Czech President Miloš Zeman is not expected to speak on the matter until next Sunday.

The question is how Czechia will play its hand on the international level. After the 2018 Skripal affair in Great Britain, London managed to achieve a coordinated expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats from the allied countries. So far, it seems that due to the domestic political context and the weak negotiating position of the Babiš government the response will be more muted this time.

  • Hungary will pay for the Chinese university campus. More details are coming in about the planned campus of the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest. According to reporting by Direkt36, Hungary will take a loan from China for €1.3 billion and will provide the remaining €300 million of the estimated costs themselves. The construction will most likely be directly undertaken by China State Construction Engineering Corporation without any open tender, using Chinese building materials and labor. The deal would thus follow a similar arrangement as in the case of the Hungarian part of the Budapest-Belgrade railway, where a Sino-Hungarian consortium was contracted for the construction, prompting an EU investigation. It appears that Hungary is willing to accept the Chinese offer that is mostly utilized in large China-financed projects in the developing countries, rather than in the EU or other developed economies. The project will serve as another showcase of Chinese presence in Hungary and a broader region, just as most of the countries on the continent are reconsidering their ties with China. For Orbán‘s Hungary, it will be a symbol of continued engagement with Beijing, entrenching bilateral cooperation for years to come. Finally, Fudan’s arrival can also have a significant impact on the academic environment in the wider region, adding to the established presence of China-CEE Institute which is also based in Budapest.

  • China partners with a disinformation website in Czechia. According to the latest report by Deník N to which our analyst Filip Šebok contributed, China is increasingly willing to cooperate with local disinformation media. The local version of the Chinese state-owned media China Radio International (CRI) has been carrying articles apparently written by “journalists” of a prominent “alternative” website AC24. The cooperation seems to have started in November 2020 at the latest, with tens of articles appearing on the Czech CRI website and later republished on the AC24 site ever since. While the articles are anonymous, the Chinese translation published on CRI accounts is bylined with the name of the owner of the website Ondřej Geršl. Some of the articles from AC24 were also later reposted by the social media accounts of the Chinese Embassy in Prague, creating an interesting cycle of propaganda dissemination. As argued by Filip Šebok, this development shows that China increasingly makes skilled use of local proxies to disseminate its propaganda narratives. While the articles in question still tackle the typical topics of Chinese propaganda (including admiration for China‘s fight against poverty), they are distinguished from the typical boilerplate propaganda on CRI by their customization to the local audience. Similar cases of expanded use of disinformation sources, mainly to shift the discussion on China‘s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, have been noted abroad.

  • The Russian vaccine continues to create upheaval in Slovak politics. Even after the coalition crisis sparked by the Sputnik V purchase resulted in a formation of a new government, Sputnik V continues to make rounds. On April 8, the now-finance minister Igor Matovič flew to Moscow to discuss the vaccine issue only for the Russian side to announce that it was abrogating the contract and would ask Bratislava to return the first shipment of 200,000 does. The reason given was the statements of the Slovak drug regulator ŠUKL that cited discrepancies between the Sputnik V doses received by Slovakia and said it was unable to assess the safety of the vaccine. ŠUKL and its head Zuzana Baťová have since become a source of virulent attacks by Matovič, who has echoed Russian propaganda in claiming that its moves were politically motivated and aimed at smearing the image of the vaccine. Struggling to find a getaway, Matovič visited Hungary where he announced that the Slovak vaccines will be tested in Hungarian facilities. While the situation remains fluid, one thing is clear- through its political games over Sputnik V, Russia has managed to sow discord in Slovakia.

  • Ivana Karásková commented on the role of the founder of the PFF Group Petr Kellner in the Czech China policy for The Wire (read here).
  • Matej Šimalčík wrote how AML laws can be utilized for enforcing transparency from Chinese companies, including Huawei for our sister publication CHOICE (read here).
  • Ivana Karásková joined the discussion about the relations between the Visegrad 4 countries and China, Japan, and South Korea, organized by Hungarian think tank IFAT (watch here).

  • Chinese disinformation in the EU was the focus of the recent closed-door debate organized by CHOICE together with the European Pirates and moderated by MEP Markéta Gregorová. You can find the summary of the debate on the CHOICE website (read here).
  • Filip Šebok provided an overview of the development of China-CEE relations for the Young China Watchers podcast (listen here).

  • Matej Šimalčík discussed Montenegro's plea for the EU to cover its China debt for the South China Morning Post (read here).

  • Pavel Havlíček talked about the build-up of Russian military presence on the borders with Ukraine at a debate organized by Top tým (Czechia) and Youth of Democratic Alliance (Ukraine) (watch here).

  • Ivana Karásková and Tamás Matura discussed the role of Taiwan in China-EU and China-US relations at the event organized by Political Capital (watch here), a Hungarian think tank and partner of MapInfluenCE.

How the EU should approach China: the Visegrad perspective(s)

 – 

Ivana Karásková, Tamás Matura and Jakub Jakóbowski will be joining a discussion hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Europe is recalibrating its relationship with China. The growing scepticism about the future trajectory of the relationship is accelerated by the controversial Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) as well the most recent sanctions via-a-vis China. At the same time, the EU’s new focus on economic sovereignty and supply chain resilience provides an opportunity for a more robust and coherent EU policy on China as well as a joint transatlantic approach. 

What is the place of Central and Eastern Europe in this new context of the EU-US-China relations? What are the specific interests of the Visegrad countries vis-à-vis China? How can they be integrated into a coherent European approach? How can the EU enable all member states to become more engaged in shaping a coherent EU policy on China? What role will the 17+1 format play in the future?

Register here

Do you like our newsletter? Is there something you would like us to improve or is there something we are missing? Hit us up with your suggestions. Feedback is always welcome!

Best regards


Filip Šebok
Project Manager of MapInfluenCE


www.mapinfluence.eu
www.amo.cz

Newsletter editor: Filip Šebok

Contributions from: Pavel Havlíček

@MapInfluenCE and #MapInfluenCE

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