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Czech Power Games: How Russia Is Rebuilding Influence In The Former Soviet Bloc

Russia's LUKoil has serious pull in the Czech Republic, and has cultivated ties with many leading politicians.
Russia's LUKoil has serious pull in the Czech Republic, and has cultivated ties with many leading politicians.
One man's signature was all it would take to end eight years of tortuous negotiations and contentious national referenda. That effort had finally yielded the Lisbon Treaty, a new agreement among members of the European Union that would provide the community with its first constitution and president. The final hurdle was securing that one politician's signature, but European leaders were growing frantic last October because he wasn't answering his telephone.

Instead Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, had embarked on an international tour to promote his new book, "Blue Planet in Green Shackles," an anti-global-warming manifesto in which Klaus -- who has denounced Al Gore as an "apostle of arrogance" -- dismisses manmade climate change as a myth.

Klaus's main destination was Moscow, where LUKoil, the giant Russian oil company, was paying for the book's translation. Speaking in the Kremlin, the Czech leader, his white hair closely cropped and mustache fastidiously trimmed, condemned the EU -- which he once compared to the Soviet Union -- as elitist and undemocratic.

It was an extraordinary state of affairs: a tiny new EU member impeding, if not quite derailing, a historic community development. Klaus eventually signed the Lisbon Treaty, but only after his protracted opposition had frayed the EU's already fragile unity. Critics of Europe's rudest politician, as he's been described, accused him of hijacking the treaty in order to steal the limelight.

Although most Czechs say their president genuinely believes in his anti-European tirades, many were dismayed. But Klaus's trip to Moscow raised eyebrows for another reason: to many observers, he appeared to be acting in the interests of the Kremlin, and not for the first time.

In the 1990s, Klaus promoted Czech oil and gas agreements with Russia before opposing a deal to buy gas from Norway as "economically unviable." (When Moscow cut off supplies flowing through Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, the deal helped enable the Czech Republic to avoid major energy crises.) In 1999, he joined the Kremlin's angry condemnation of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo. A decade later as president, he appeared to back Russia's invasion of Georgia by declaring that the responsibility of Moscow's former Soviet neighbor was "unexceptionable and fatal."

Czech President Vaclav Klaus (right) is seen as moving ever closer to Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
A trained economist, Klaus has served as prime minister or president during most of the Czech Republic's postcommunist history. The staunch free-marketeer -- who keeps a photograph of Margaret Thatcher prominently displayed in his office -- oversaw the transition of a centrally planned economy into one of the former Soviet bloc's most successful markets before emerging as a leading voice of the country's right wing. So you'd be forgiven for thinking it somewhat of a paradox that he's come out on Moscow's side on almost every major issue.

Klaus's resistance to signing the Lisbon Treaty, despite being obligated to do so by Czech law, put him in step with the Kremlin yet again, this time over one of Moscow's biggest foreign-policy goals: splitting European unity. Klaus has backed Moscow so consistently over the years that jokes in Prague about his being a Russian agent prompt chuckles tinged with more than a little nervousness.

Journalist Jaroslav Plesl, who has investigated Russian influence in the Czech Republic, believes it doesn't matter whether the gossip contains any truth. "You don't need to see any documents, even if they exist," he says. "The Russians want the European Union to be as weak as possible, and for that purpose, Klaus serves their interests well."

But there are worries that Klaus, who refused requests for an interview, is just the tip of the iceberg. A growing number of Czech politicians across the spectrum appear to have ties to Russia in one or another form, and it's setting off alarm bells. Twenty years after the end of communism -- and four decades after the Red Army crushed the Prague Spring in 1968 -- a few lonely voices are warning that the Czech Republic and its neighbors are in danger of falling under Moscow's influence once again. This time, they say, the threat isn't from Russia's tanks but the one business in which Russia leads the world: energy.

That was the message from a group of prominent Central and Eastern European politicians led by former President Vaclav Havel, Klaus's predecessor and nemesis, who published an open letter to President Barack Obama last summer. The West, they wrote, should abandon its mistaken belief that the end of the Cold War and the expansion of the EU and NATO into the former Soviet bloc guaranteed their countries were "safe."

Criticism that Washington may be abandoning allies in Central and Eastern Europe in favor of "resetting" relations with Moscow is growing ever louder. But some believe it's distracting from the real threat in this part of the world. A handful of politicians, journalists, and former intelligence officers say rampant corruption is making Czechs vulnerable to exploitation by a resurgent Russia with ready cash to help fulfill its burning desire to reestablish its influence over former Soviet bloc countries.

Unlike Western firms, which lobby largely in their own interests, Russian state-controlled and private enterprises play an integral role in Kremlin foreign policy, and they're "undoubtedly influencing the behavior of various Czech political parties and politicians," Havel said in an interview. "I've seen several cases where the influence started quietly and slowly began projecting onto our foreign policy. I can only advise serious discretion and great caution."

As one objective in a grand strategy, the Czech Republic sheds light on just how Moscow works. It's no secret Russia is the world's biggest exporter of oil and gas, especially to Central and Eastern European countries, some of which depend on Russia for around 90 percent of their supplies. But in the Czech Republic, Moscow is playing for an industry that's been promoted as central to securing the country's energy independence: nuclear power. A Russian company is bidding for the biggest nuclear energy deal in history, and many believe it will win.

WATCH: Russians in Karlovy Vary

Russians in Karlovy Vary
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Spy Game

Klaus's offices are in Prague's storied castle, a dark medieval hulk that looms over a Baroque city of spires. Despite its architectural charms, however, outside the center, much of Prague remains gritty, a city still emerging from its communist past. But some neighborhoods stand out. Near the castle hill above the curving Vltava River, a collection of villas lines the leafy streets of one of Prague's toniest quarters. It's here that many of the city's wealthy Russians have settled.

To those Russians, Prague is a more affordable version of London: an urban asylum that's safer and more civilized than teeming, lawless Moscow, and a convenient few hours' flight away. Russian law firms, food stores and hairdressers serve not only the rich, but a growing number of their middle-class compatriots. The neighborhood is also home to the Russian Embassy, which occupies a sprawling palace and includes a Russian Orthodox church, and, according to Czech intelligence, provides a place for at least 60 Russian intelligence officers and agents, or a third of the Russian diplomatic community, from which to operate.

Last year, the government expelled two Russian diplomats suspected of spying. Many Czechs believe they'd taken part in a large-scale Russian effort to rally public opinion against the construction of a radar base that was to be part of the U.S. missile defense shield. But Czech media later reported the Russians were probably conducting industrial espionage. In a report issued in June, the Czech counterintelligence service warned that Russian espionage was "aggressive" and escalating, especially in the energy business.

That development worries Karel Randak, the soft-spoken former head of the Czech intelligence service whose close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair gives him the appearance more of a scholar than spy. But espionage is only part of the way Moscow is seeking to expand its influence here. Although Randak insists most Russian businessmen behave no differently from their Western counterparts, he says some of the biggest Russian companies operate by stealth, through a dizzying web of shell companies nominally owned and operated by Czechs but actually controlled by Moscow.

Among them, a gas-trading company named Vemex has taken 12 percent of the Czech domestic market since its establishment in 2001 to sell Russian natural gas. Although there's nothing on Vemex's website to indicate it, the company is Czech in name only. It's actually controlled by Gazprom through a series of companies based in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, including Centrex Europe Energy and Gas, which has helped spearhead the Russian drive to buy energy assets across Europe.

Centrex is registered in Austria, and, according to Gazprom's website, founded by its own Gazprombank. But the company's real ownership is impossible to trace. According to the European Commission, Centrex is owned by Centrex Group Holding Ltd., registered in Cyprus, a company controlled by Gazprom's German subsidiary, and RN Privatsiftung, a Vienna foundation whose stockholders are unknown.

Why go to the trouble of hiding the real owners of companies either already known or believed to be controlled by Gazprom? Vemex is just one of a large number of enterprises Gazprom has set up in countries across Central and Eastern Europe to muscle into the European energy-utilities business. By disguising the real owners, Gazprom makes its actions more palatable to Europeans wary of expanding Russian influence.

Randak, who began his intelligence career tracking Russian criminal groups in the 1990s, says the Russians first gained control over organized crime in the Czech Republic from the Italian Mafia around 1992. Beginning with "normal criminal activities," mainly racketeering, they branched into white-collar crime in the mid-1990s. "They hired lawyers and established local companies with Czech board members," Randak says. "Now they're involved in 'real business' because they have real money." And they're controlled by, or work with, the Russian government. "This is the real danger coming from Russia."

WATCH: Interview with former Czech intelligence head Karel Randak

Randak Interview
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The character Victor Laszlo, the fugitive Czech resistance leader in the film "Casablanca," may represent the most common image of the country in the West: rigid, pure, and dedicated, fighting against the victimization of a foreign oppressor. As always, the reality is more complicated. Journalist Jaroslav Plesl, who's one of the country's leading political commentators, blames his own countrymen for their scant concern about the danger from Moscow. "They're willing to sell anything," he says. "If you want to influence politics here, you need to do business with only a very few people, and you can pretty much control the country."

"That's something the Russians have been able to exploit," Plesl says. "Just look at Karlovy Vary."

Nowhere is the Russian presence more visible than in the storied spa town in the hilly west of the country that's a popular vacation destination for Russians. Many of the town's buildings belong to Russians, including the grand Imperial Hotel, owned by a Russian-born businessman who got his start in the region overseeing Soviet uranium mining in the 1970s and where Klaus often stays. "Russians can do whatever they want without permission," Plesl says, "and if they do need approval for something, they'll bribe city hall to get it." During a low ebb in relations, Czechs joked the Kremlin once warned it would bomb Prague if the government wasn't careful. "If you're not careful," the Czech prime minister replied, "we'll bomb Karlovy Vary."

Lobbying Efforts

With some 50 of its filling stations dotting the countryside, LUKoil is Russia's most public face in the Czech Republic. Last year, the company also secured a contract to supply 20 percent of the jet fuel used at Prague's International Airport. No other companies bid for the deal, despite a pledge by then-Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek -- a bitter opponent of Klaus's who's raised serious concerns about the danger of Russian control over Czech strategic companies -- to diversify his country's energy supplies.

That may be because LUKoil has serious pull. According to the Czech media, the company's CEO Vagit Alekperov -- who enjoys close ties to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- twice secretly met Klaus in the Prague Castle. One of the meetings is reported to have taken place in November 2008, around the time LUKoil announced it would expand its business in the Czech Republic, prompting rumors of a backroom deal. When asked by journalists about the meetings, Klaus reacted angrily, but didn't deny they took place.

LUKoil's Vagit Alekperov
The government's decision to award the contract to LUKoil helped reverse a drive to free the country from dependence on Russian oil, the only source until a pipeline from Germany began delivering supplies in 1995 -- against Klaus's wishes. That channel now provides some 20 percent of the country's oil, but according to Jaroslav Spurny -- one of the country's most prominent investigative journalists, who writes for the magazine "Respekt" -- LUKoil now wants to take control of the pipeline and reverse the flow so that Russian supplies would be sent west through the Czech Republic. "That would make us fully dependent on Russian oil again," Spurny says, "which would mean a kind of dictatorship."

LUKoil and other Russian companies contacted for this article declined to provide interviews. But Russian Chamber of Commerce representative Sergei Mikoyan says LUKoil, like any company, is naturally seeking to expand its business for its own interests. "Why should Russia excuse itself for having enough money to buy property abroad?" he asks, adding that charges of a grand Kremlin plan to snap up European energy assets can be made only by people who "simply don't like Russia. No matter what Russia does, they'll always find skeletons in the closet."

Mikoyan says the Czech government can easily rule any company operating in the country off-limits on the grounds of strategic importance, otherwise "say openly they're for sale, but not to the Russians, which would be unfair and not part of free enterprise."

Whatever its motives, LUKoil is cultivating ties with a number of politicians in addition to Klaus. Among them is a popular former prime minister named Milos Zeman, who recently left the Social Democratic Party to start his own left-wing Citizens' Rights Party. While denying allegations that it is financed by LUKoil, the party admits taking money from Russian-connected lobbyists. Chief among them is Miroslav Slouf, a former communist youth leader whose Slavia Consulting company brokered the LUKoil deal to supply Prague's airport. Slouf, who is known to be LUKoil's main promoter in the Czech Republic, also happens to be Zeman's right-hand man.

Zeman denies he benefits from Russian money. At his party headquarters in central Prague, the blunt, hard-drinking, old-school pol -- who many believe hopes to succeed Klaus as president in 2013 -- bridled in response to a question about the influence of lobbyists such as Slouf. "Let me give you a lesson in political science," he says. "They're engaged in a respectable job." Besides, "we haven't received a single penny from LUKoil."

Members of the country's small circle of pro-American politicians disagree, among them Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a pipe-smoking Hapsburg prince. "There are very strong lobbying groups here, very strong," he said in an interview shortly before he joined the cabinet in July. "A lot of Russian firms are under the influence of the state, especially in the energy sector. And Russia is increasingly turning into an authoritarian state. There's always a danger that economic influence turns into political influence."

Former Green Party leader Martin Bursik, who also served as environment minister, is one of the loudest critics of the central role lobbyists play in Czech politics. He says it's opened the door for Moscow to reassert its influence by reactivating a network of communist-era officials. "The kind of transparent, legal lobbying conducted by the U.S. president or secretary of state can hardly compete," he says.

That's being made clear by jockeying over the nuclear energy deal some believe is so important it will influence the country's future development.

WATCH: Interview with Czech politician Martin Bursik

Bursik Interview
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The CEZ Republic

In the region of South Bohemia, an hour south of Prague by car, picturesque but rundown villages dot miles of flat, bucolic farmland. Until you approach the village of Temelin, where four surreal-looking cooling towers loom over the land. They're part of a nuclear power plant soon to become the focus of the biggest business deal in Czech history. The state power conglomerate that owns the plant, CEZ (pronounced "chess"), plans to build two new reactors, and possibly more elsewhere.

Started in the 1980s, construction on the Temelin plant was interrupted by the fall of communism. Westinghouse later completed the project, but last year CEZ discharged the U.S.-based company as supplier of nuclear fuel in favor of a Russian state-controlled firm.

Temelin and a second, larger nuclear power plant currently produce a third of Czech electricity. Although coal provides the biggest share of Czech energy, about 60 percent, the government plans to shut down the oldest, most polluting plants over the next decade. Temelin's new reactors are expected to make up the difference, about 10 percent of the country's energy.

Critics are worried about how the expansion plans will be handled, partly because CEZ isn't just any power company. It's the largest utility and biggest public company in Central and Eastern Europe, with a net profit last year five times that of the four biggest Czech banks combined. CEZ finances the two largest political parties and is so central to politics and business, one observer calls the Czech Republic an "electrostate." Others have dubbed it the "CEZ Republic."

CEZ, which is 70 percent state-owned, also illustrates the deep murkiness of Czech politics. In May, the Green Party publicly called on the company to reveal its ownership structure, alleging the firm stands at the center of "a network of loyalties and linkages in a nontransparent environment. That network includes courts, police, prosecutors, regional governments, and political parties." The Greens are concerned that internal CEZ corruption will affect the outcome of the Temelin tender.

A spokesman for the Temelin plant says the new reactors will be key to maintaining the country's "energy independence." But given that rationale, it may come as a surprise that a Russian state-controlled company, Atomstroieksport, is not only among just three bidders, but by many accounts ranks at the top of the list. Competing against Atomstroieksport are Westinghouse (the U.S. company was bought by Japan's Toshiba in 2007) and France's Areva. The firms will submit their offers this fall. The contract, worth between $15 billion and $30 billion, will be awarded next year, and the new reactors are expected to begin operation by 2020.

CEZ says all three bidders are well qualified, and that the main consideration should be price. Others say the deal isn't about money. "It's a civilization choice," says Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech Republic's foreign envoy for energy-security issues. "I want my country to be tied to France or the U.S.," he explains. "I'm not lobbying for Areva or Westinghouse, just against the Russians."

When CEZ announced the Temelin tender last year, the government said it was up to the company to decide who wins. But Bartuska succeeded in a single-handed campaign to make the choice political: now the government will have the final say. It's been a lonely battle. Bartuska, a dissident student leader under communism, is the only high-ranking government official to warn about the threat from Russian influence, for which he was criticized by even his own government for being "too pro-Western."

'Exporting Corruption'

The smiling former journalist -- who spoke in his airy office in a sprawling 17th-century palace that houses the Foreign Ministry -- says the difference between Russian and Western companies is the code by which they function. "Russian companies export corruption," he says.

Czech energy-security envoy Vaclav Bartuska
Bartuska points to a deal last year to build a new storage facility at Temelin for spent nuclear fuel. The sole bid submitted for the $80 million contract was from a company so shady that it's under investigation by the government. CEEI is believed to be Russian-controlled, but its ownership remains unknown. The trail stops at a Liechtenstein-based firm called U.B.I.E., where former Liechtenstein Prime Minister Markus Buechel is a director. He's also Russia's honorary consul to Liechtenstein.

Buechel has said even he doesn't know who ultimately owns CEEI. According to a Prague-based business newsletter called the "Fleet Sheet," however, he's asked what would be wrong if the owner did turn out to be Russian. The newsletter also reported CEEI board member Vladimir Hlavinka, a CEZ executive, as dismissing concerns over CEEI. The country's public-procurement law bars investigating bidders' ownership, he said, because that would amount to "discrimination."

Critics of the CEEI deal say Germany recently built an almost identical storage facility for half the price. "Fleet Sheet's" American publisher, Erik Best, characterizes CEZ's actions as evidence of what he calls the "privatization of state authority," when state companies make decisions in the interests of their own executives instead of the state. Best says public projects in the Czech Republic are usually overpriced, undertaken less for the sake of improving infrastructure than the sums officials are able to skim from the contracts. He questions why Temelin's new storage facility was commissioned.

"Was the real reason simply that they could build it, because that's 1.5 or 2 billion crowns [$70 million or $100 million]? That means someone got 1.5 or 2 billion crowns, and of course there are the rumors [CEEI] is ultimately owned by Russians," Best says.

Temelin's spokesman has denied allegations of wrongdoing, saying the storage facility was necessary and long-planned. But energy envoy Bartuska agrees the questions surrounding CEEI are cause for serious concern about how CEZ will handle the upcoming reactor tender. Not least because one of CEEI's directors is in jail for trying to kidnap another, who happens to be Klaus's former chief of staff, in an alleged extortion attempt. Bartuska says that reminds him of incidents in countries such as Nigeria and "not how I want to see my own country."

WATCH: The Temelin nuclear power plant -- a key battleground in energy security

Temelin Nuclear Power Plant
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Nuclear Politics

Bartuska believes the decision over the Temelin tender will affect much more than the nuclear industry alone. "Putin will be bidding not just for two reactors," he says, "but for [influence over] the entire Czech Republic." Jiri Kominek, an analyst who writes for the Jamestown Foundation, says Moscow is already putting "unprecedented" lobbying pressure on the Czech government, and expects it to be successful.

Some opinion makers, including the editorial board of the "Hospodarske noviny" business newspaper -- where Plesl is a columnist -- are calling for banning Atomstroieksport from even participating in the tender. But that proposal is facing an uphill battle not least because the Russian company is expected to submit the lowest offer by far.

Sergei Mikoyan of the Russian Chamber of Commerce dismisses the criticism that the state-controlled company would pose a threat to Czech national security. "On the contrary," he says, "the state's backing of Atomstroieksport is good because the Russian government can guarantee the project's security."

For its part, Atomstroieksport has played down its connection to the Russian state, publicizing its bid by promising to subcontract up to 70 percent of the construction work on Temelin to Czech companies. The main beneficiary would be a nuclear-engineering firm called Skoda JS (separate from the eponymous car company, which is owned by Volkswagen). Last year, Atomstroieksport and Skoda JS formed a consortium to enter a joint bid, something Skoda JS director Miroslav Fiala says shows it's "not really a Russian offer, but from a consortium led by Skoda JS."

But there's a catch. Although Skoda JS's Czech managers may represent its public face, the company is really Russian-owned, after its recent sale to the state-controlled industrial conglomerate OMZ. Pressed on that point, Fiala admits the Skoda JS-Atomstroieksport bid actually "represents Russian national capital." But he adds, "we're simply offering CEZ a competitive and safe project that will open great opportunities for Czech industry."

"Fleet Sheet" publisher Best isn't convinced. "Skoda JS's sale to OMZ is a much bigger matter than anyone is willing to admit," he says. For one thing, the Czech company's ownership of the plant's designs "gives the Russians access to Westinghouse's commercial secrets."

"They've just been simply better prepared than the French or the Americans," Best says of the Russians. "They've been more active coming in and setting up agreements with local suppliers. In that sense, they've done a better job than the Americans."

Did U.S. Vice President Joe Biden do enough lobbying in Prague?
Vice President Joe Biden lobbied for Westinghouse's bid when he visited Prague last winter. But Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, who's among the most pro-American members of the political establishment, criticizes Washington for doing too little. In an interview before his recent appointment to the government, he rejected concerns the Temelin bid would automatically go the Russians, but "a more energetic approach [from Westinghouse] would certainly be appreciated."

Not A Done Deal

When Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 in what looked very much like punishment for Kyiv's pro-Western policies, there was little doubt Moscow was using energy as a foreign-policy tool. European countries, whose supplies were also disrupted, vowed to diversify their supplies by looking to other sources and developing renewable energy. But Europe still depends on Russia for a quarter of its gas, and that figure is only set to grow.

Those who believe Russian companies act differently than their Western counterparts see patterns in the Kremlin's drive to broaden control over Europe's energy infrastructure. Moscow's success in the past several years has been dramatic. Germany, Italy, and Hungary are among the countries to have joined projects to build two major new gas pipelines from Russia that would deepen Europe's dependence on Moscow. Earlier this year, Austria became the seventh country to sign on to Moscow's South Stream pipeline, which is planned to deliver supplies from Central Asia.

Some believe Washington has fallen asleep at the wheel. "The U.S. never expected the Russian offensive would be so strong," Plesl says. But he sees signs the United States has started mapping the "damage" caused by the Russians, and "I think they're horrified."

The U.S. Embassy in Prague and officials in Washington turned down requests for interviews. Some say it's ironic that a U.S. administration undertaking a historic drive to institute regulations at home isn't doing more to criticize the breakdown of rule of law among allies like the Czech Republic. "I don't think they care a bloody damn about us," Schwarzenberg, now foreign minister, said last spring. "We're just a very small country somewhere in Central Europe. Why should they care?"

Following parliamentary elections in May, Schwarzenberg's TOP 09 party joined a new center-right coalition government that will decide the Temelin tender next year. The new government is led by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which has called for lessening dependence on Russia and fighting corruption, a top issue for many who support the new government. But Karel Randak, the former intelligence chief, says he's not optimistic because the previous center-right government -- also led by the ODS until it collapsed last year -- oversaw a rise in corruption.

Questioned about the advantages corruption gives Moscow, Czech politicians routinely say EU membership guarantees their country independence. "I don't think ordinary investments from Russia, the United States, Italy, China, Japan, Brazil, Germany, France, or anywhere else are a threat to our national independence," says Jiri Paroubek, a former prime minister and Social Democrat leader who was seen as especially sympathetic to Moscow.

But critics such as former Green Party leader Bursik warn that Moscow's activities in the Czech Republic have shown that any belief that membership in international organizations such as the EU is enough to ensure the rule of law is naive. Moreover, the actions of Klaus -- who founded the ODS -- like those of other Czech leaders, have contributed decisively to the EU's failure to mount a unified defense of its collective interests. That's essentially enabled Russia to dictate the rules of the energy game by making deals with individual countries' energy companies. "It's still a power game over who has influence within the Czech Republic," Bursik says. "It's still a battle between NATO and Russia."

Although President Klaus has no formal say over Temelin's future, he's endorsed Atomstroieksport's bid. Klaus's critics contend that's part and parcel of his support for Moscow's position on virtually every foreign-policy issue. But energy envoy Bartuska doesn't believe Klaus is actually working for the Russians. "He loves to be alone against the flow, on climate change and many other things," he says. It's no secret that Klaus's recalcitrance is something Moscow has exploited.

Bartuska, who's met Putin and Medvedev in the Kremlin, also says he knows how seductive a grand Kremlin reception can be. "When they give you the treatment, oh my! Suddenly you feel you're someone. Klaus can't even get a meeting in Washington. Where would you go?" Still, the real threat to Czechs, Bartuska says, doesn't come from Moscow "but from ourselves." The Czech Republic made a "huge leap" toward the West after 1989, he says, but "suddenly became dissatisfied, started looking around and saying, 'So this is it?'"

Still, Bartuska says the game isn't up yet. Although he lost the fight to exclude Atomstroieksport from the Temelin tender, last June the government appointed him to oversee the process, a sign he says "speaks for itself."

"Now we're on a threshold. Either we can go the way of Ukraine, a phony democracy with a few people who are rich. Or we can go back and try to be a normal boring European country in which law is law."

"But it's not a done deal," he adds. "We have to decide for ourselves what kind of country we want to live in."

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