As Czech presidential elections are nearing, populist parties are trying to gain support from pro-Russians by exploiting the issue of Ukrainian war refugees. Most Czechs continue to view refugees positively, but a growing minority believe they are a burden.
Refugees are not a stake in the election campaign, but the number of Czechs dissatisfied with them is growing
The Czech Republic is one of the European countries that has taken the most Ukrainian refugees. According to the latest data, the country, which has a population of over ten million, has granted temporary protection to more than 465 000 people from Ukraine since the start of the Russian war.
Accepting Ukrainian refugees is still not a big political issue, even ahead of the presidential election, the first round of which will take place in mid-January next year. With few exceptions, no political forces are questioning the admission of people fleeing the war either. This may be partly because the numbers of arrivals are no longer as high as at the beginning of the war and some of the refugees have since returned to Ukraine, so the government is not forced to deal with an emergency situations, such as in the spring.
At the same time, part of the society refuses to accept refugees, and this group is growing. While in the spring 13 percent of people refused to accept refugees, by fall that number had grown to 27 percent.
There are some political forces that are trying to reach out to this group of voters. These are mainly extremist and populist parties and movements. When the Chamber of Deputies voted on 13 December to extend temporary protection for Ukrainian refugees, two opposition parties, ANO and SPD, did not support it.
The pro-Russian populists: “Czech citizens come first”
The SPD has long expressed pro-Russian positions and won voters with aggressive anti-refugee rhetoric – especially against migrants from Muslim countries. When it comes to people from Ukraine, the SPD speaks more cautiously, not rejecting the admission of Ukrainian refugees as such, but rather playing on the string of envy.
"The widespread aid to Ukrainians by the current government is disproportionate to the aid to our socially vulnerable citizens, which is insufficient," said, for example, chairman Tomio Okamura.
"We are not against aid to genuine war refugees, but this aid should be proportionate and also limited in time... For the SPD movement, Czech citizens come first" he added.
The SPD movement has its own presidential candidate: MP, former dissident and then ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, Jaroslav Bašta. His statements on accepting refugees seem to be quite friendly. "This is the right step. It is our humanitarian duty, which we have fulfilled," Bašta, whose chances of being elected president are almost zero according to polls, said in September.
However, Bašta has been quite friendly towards Russia at some points: the main theme of his campaign is now to achieve peace in Ukraine even at the cost of concessions to Russia. "I always say that even a bad peace is better than war. Especially when a local war threatens to turn into a European or even a world war," is his main argument.
“Our people” and “them”
The populist ANO movement is very flexible in its views; it is the project of its chairman, businessman and former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who is now also running for president.
Babiš, who is one of the three frontrunners in the presidential election, uses similar rhetoric towards Ukrainian refugees as the SPD - and it is logical, he relies on voters of this movement to some extent.
"The government talks little about helping our people, it talks mainly about Ukraine," he said at one of the meetings with citizens. "Of course, there are the rich who should not be getting the aid. People see this and are angry," he added, for example.
In general, Babiš and the ANO movement very often work with the term "our people", which they contrast with "them" – the Ukrainian refugees.
The other two current favorites in the presidential election - Petr Pavel and Danuše Nerudová - speak primarily about solidarity in relation to refugees. According to Pavel, the aid must "lead them to start actively contributing to our society, not exploiting it". According to Nerudová, the Czech Republic stands to gain from the integration of these refugees.
Most Czechs ignore anti-refugee messages
Both Babiš and the SPD have recently been targeting a similar group of voters. This group is often characterised by a pro-Russian view of the world and is made up of typically older voters with less education. As we have already shown, more than a quarter of the Czech population is opposed to accepting refugees from Ukraine. People of this orientation are ready to go out to the streets. Tens of thousands attended a series of demonstrations in Prague organised by the pro-Russian activist Ladislav Vrabel. One of the goals of the first demonstration, held in September in the centre of Prague and attended by up to 70,000 people, according to police estimates, was to "end the planned dilution of the nation" by Ukrainian refugees, regarded as a threat to peaceful coexistence in the Czech Republic.
It is impossible to determine how much the high turnout at this demonstration can be linked to the rejection of Ukrainian refugees. However, it was convened at a time when society was deeply concerned about rising energy prices, while at the same time supporters of a number of extreme groups – from communists to the far-right, but all with pro-Russian attitudes – turned out.
However, a look at this part of the political spectrum should not distort the overall view of the situation in the Czech Republic. The presence of hundreds of thousands of war refugees from Ukraine does not bring any major problems or tensions. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs points out that an increasing number of these people are managing to find employment, with almost 100 000 people in work at the end of November, and this number is still increasing. At the same time, the number of people receiving humanitarian benefits has been falling.
At the same time, a great wave of solidarity and aid was raised after the outbreak of the war, manifested both by record contributions to humanitarian aid and by the personal commitment of many Czech citizens, who, for example, helped as volunteers or hosted some refugees themselves.