UN General Assembly President Caught Up in Security Scandal

The referendum dates for EU accession for Poland (7-9 June) and the Czech Republic (13-14 June) are drawing near, and will surely provide ample grist for the EuroSavant mill – soon, if not right now.

Right now, I’d like to discuss an interesting scandal raging in the Czech Republic. Interesting, because it reflects an ongoing problem for former Soviet block countries which have joined the NATO alliance, or which have been invited to or otherwise would like to, and also because it happens to implicate the current President of the United Nations General Assembly, the former Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan.

Being in NATO is supposed to mean holding to a rather high standard of secrecy for important military and diplomatic documents. I think all of us from “old” NATO countries would agree that having our secrets compromised – any of them – was NOT among the objectives involved in adding three new members in 1999, nor the seven additional countries whose accession to the Atlantic Alliance is currently undergoing ratification by the parliaments of the nineteen current member-countries. Nonetheless, that risk is there, e.g. because the new countries need to learn and adapt themselves to NATO procedures of security classification, or because it was not that long ago that these countries were on “the other side,” so that who-knows-how-many functionaries with, shall we say, unreconstructed mentalities, whom security vetting processes have failed to uncover, are still lurking around the intelligence file cabinets and computers.

Whatever Jan Kavan’s particular problem was, he has been accused by Jan Klas, a member of the Czech lower house of Parliament and chairman of its intelligence oversight committee, of grossly disregarding proper procedures for the disposal of hundreds of classified documents when he served as foreign minister. These procedures ensure that what has been destroyed – and what has not – is known, including who ordered/authorized the destruction. Kavan’s missteps mean that Czech officials don’t know whether many of these documents – at least some of which are NATO-related – were destroyed or still exist, and, if the latter is the case, where they might be.

“If that is true, Mr. Kavan cannot be our employee,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar was quoted in the Czech press as saying. But the problem is that Kavan is General Assembly president is predicated on his being a Czech Foreign Ministry employee. So the government of Premier Vladimir Spidla decided that he should be fired – but only in September, after his term at the UN ends. For his part, Kavan ascribes the whole affair to attempts to discredit him politically; it is at least true that his diplomatic career is dead once he is terminated as a Czech Foreign Ministry employee.

Not surprisingly, the affair has set of a flurry of reporting and commentary in the Czech press. As reported in Hospodárské noviny, it really got going once the complaint about Kavan’s allegedly lax handling of classified documents was taken up by current Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda. “Jan Kavan signed a declaration,” Svoboda claimed to the press, “that, after studying them, he destroyed documents classified as restricted, confidential, and secret. This happened from 1999 until 2002 and had to do with a total of 385 individual elements. That declaration was not true.” According to Czech news agency CTK it is possible that, in the case of some of these documents, Kavan simply signed the certification of destruction because he had lost them and didn’t want to go through the trouble and embarrassment of having them searched for, but Svoboda would not comment on that. He did, however, announce Kavan’s dismissal from the foreign ministry when his term as UN General Assembly president is up.

According to Mlada fronta dnes Kavan can look forward not only to dismissal from the foreign ministry but also to a hefty fine. At least “this is not a matter of a criminal act, so the prospect of imprisonment is not threatening Mr. Kavan,” an unnamed diplomat ventured to offer. “But that doesn’t mean that the results of the official investigation won’t be painful” – i.e. at least in the financial sense. For now, as an article in Lidové noviny makes clear, Kavan’s party colleagues in the CSSD are standing by him against opposition calls that he resign his seat in Parliament. They need to – the governing coalition’s majority there is already only one vote. Still, that stance could quite likely change should the official investigation into Kavan’s activities substantiate the charges against him.

Lidové noviny scores an interview with Jan Kavan himself, and he keeps admirably on-theme: I don’t know where Minister Svoboda is getting information from, I certainly never acted improperly to damage the interests of the Czech Republic, and I will not bow to calls from the opposition ODS party and resign my seat in Parliament. What me, the black sheep of the Czech diplomatic corps (in response to a question mentioning that Czech diplomats, including his own colleagues at the Czech mission to the UN, are no longer authorized to communicate classified information to him)? Far from it: As president of the General Assembly I deal every day with the world’s leading diplomats and politicians, and I’m glad to enjoy their confidence.

At least one report does side with Kavan’s assertions that someone is trying to destroy him politically. The Fleet Sheet’s Final Word reports that its sources say that the whole fuss has been manufactured out of nothing: the documents were unimportant, Kavan caused no real damage, but current foreign minister Cyril Svoboda nonetheless already tried to leak reports about Kavan’s alleged indiscretions to the press a month ago. It seems that the current foreign minister sees the past foreign minister as a political rival to be taken out of the way.

(I don’t include the “Final Word,” an e-mailed bulletin sent workdays, in the list of “Publications that I monitor” because it’s in fact in English, and so accessible to all of us English speakers interested in what’s happening in the Czech Republic – and it’s also free! Interested? Go here.)

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