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Czech communists eye slice of power

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Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest rally opposing the attendance of President Milos Zeman at the Communist party’s congress in Nymburk, Czech Republic, April 21, 2018. Reuters

PRAGUE (Reuters) – When the United States, Britain and France bombed Syria earlier this month, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis showed support for his Western partners one day before rowing back the next.

The military strike turned from “inevitable” to an act described as changing nothing after Mr Babis was rebuked by the far-left Communist party, showing the fine line the billionaire businessman is walking as he tries to form a government.

Mr Babis is aiming for a pro-Western administration but political fragmentation in October’s election means he needs the pro-Russian Communist party to either support it or abstain, ending the party’s pariah status since communism fell in 1989.

The Communists and President Milos Zeman will push Mr Babis — whose ANO party is pro-EU and pro-NATO — toward a softer tone on Moscow, but he is not expected to move far despite the fall of his first minority cabinet in a confidence vote in January.

Shunned by most parties over charges of fraud in a 2 million euro EU subsidy case he says is a plot, Mr Babis is now negotiating a coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats that would also lean on Communist votes.

The Communists’ limited role, with no cabinet seats, would not bring the kind of changes to core policies that have sparked conflict between the EU and Hungary and Poland, but would still anger many Czechs who suffered under their rule.

The current Communist rank and file, with average age well over 70, are nostalgic about life behind the Iron Curtain, and the party pledges to fight global capitalism and leave NATO.

“Security threats do not come from the east, security is under threat from those who commit aggressive attacks against sovereign countries in violation of international law as the United States, Britain and France have done in Syria,” party leader Vojtech Filip said at a party congress on April 21.

The Communists would like to end EU sanctions on Russia and follow Moscow’s line on Ukraine: party officials have travelled to separatist-controlled Donbass and Crimea.

They oppose Czech participation in military missions lacking UN approval — which means any opposed by Russia as permanent UN Security Council member.

The Czechs have hundreds of troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, a number Mr Babis’s cabinet aims to boost this year by several hundred. The Czechs also plan to help protect NATO airspace in the Baltic.

“We have an elevated sensitivity to any pressure for escalation of tensions toward the post-Soviet region, we would have to react very strongly to anything like that,” Communist member of parliament Jiri Dolejs told Reuters.

The Communists also criticised Mr Babis’s government for handing a suspected Russian hacker in March to the United States, and for expelling Russian diplomats after the attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.

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