Corrupt Czech Wine in New Bottles

Friday, August 9th, 2019

It’s a momentous year, precisely thirty since 1989 defined a new era of European history with all the revolutions in the East overthrowing Soviet Russian hegemony and – as we’ve already seen here – this weblog will have no hesitation in picking up that theme.

Apparently this is also true of the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS), the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, which recently announced its own public campaign (hashtag #30LetSvobody, “30 years of freedom”) to remind the public of the momentous happenings back then. That’s because, according to them, this eagerness to engage with 1989 is not shared by the present government. So far (and there are only three months to go) it has budgeted only Kč55 million (= €2.16 million) for a handful of events, such as exhibitions at the National Theater, and something called “Velvet Simulation” which will take place at the National Museum’s new next-door building (formerly the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building; formerly the HQ of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

This accusation of relative neglect towards commemorating 1989 seems credible enough, but anyone can see that the ODS’ ulterior motive is a political one. The current Babiš government is a minority regime in the first place, and now under considerable fire (including facing mass demonstrations demanding that it resign), so new elections are always a near-term possibility. And the ODS, you see, was one of the very earliest proper political parties to emerge on the Czech(oslovak) political scene back when that emerged from the chaos and euphoria of the so-called Velvet Revolution.

So at the announcement of their #30LetSvobody initiative the ODS wisely led with a renowned pre-1989 dissident (there weren’t too many of those; and there aren’t very many left) still within its ranks, namely Aleksandr Vondra: right-hand man to Václav Havel, ambassador to the US, etc. “Svoboda dnes dostává na frak” he declared (“Today freedom is really taking it on the nose”), “we’re governed by a former StB official [StB = Communist secret police; that’s PM Babiš] and his press.”

Vondra was followed by Pavel Žáček, not any dissident (he was only 20 years old in 1989) but subsequently Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and now a member for the ODS of the Czech Parliament’s lower house. He was followed in turn by current ODS Chairman Petr Fiala, who said uplifting things about “Democracy and freedom, a return to the West and Capitalism, these are the values we want to defend.”

Nice, but by the time they got to Fiala the dissident magic was long gone. Most knowledgeable observers would agree with Vondra’s complaint about having a former secret police collaborator as head of government and about a national press divvied up between hostile camps of billionaire native oligarchs. How could it have come to this – as well as other, related corruptions of Czech society – over thirty years when 1989 offered in its immediate aftermath a clean slate for starting again combined with so much idealism and enthusiasm?

That’s a deep and very interesting question; I’m fully confident books will be written trying to answer it, and I’ll be on the look-out for them (even if, as likely, they’re written in Czech). But it’s at least clear that the ODS had much to do with that. They were in control of the government through much of the 1990s, led by Václav Klaus with his Thatcherite right-wing ideas about letting free markets work, keeping the government off to the sidelines. Who knows? Maybe that approach was precisely what nascent Czechoslovakia (then, from January, 1993, the Czech Republic) needed at the time; maybe Klaus’ scheme of “voucher privatization” (every citizen received a voucher representing share-ownership in government-owned firms; most promptly sold theirs off to businessmen who had at least a faint idea of what they might do with them) was a reasonable way to return the state-owned enterprises that made up just about all of the economy into the hands of the people.

ODS Is Guilty (ČSSD Too)

What’s also true is that the ODS did much to initiate the strong streak of corruption that plagues the country today. It wasn’t so much the violations of party-funding rules that led Klaus to resign the premiership in 1997 (he would later serve as President from 2003 to 2013); rather, under the ODS “hands off” government clever Czechs discovered the exciting new business game of “tunneling,” meaning sucking the value out of the company you were responsible for like a leech, by means of diverting money and assets into your personal accounts while fattening up the firm further by taking up loans you know it will never be able to pay back.

Many used those dubious means to get rich, and many of those remain rich today and have in the meantime taken ownership of media properties for whitewashing their histories and defending their reputations. For a good play-by-play of that ongoing process you’re referred to the Fleet Sheet’s Final Word e-newsletter, to which you can subscribe for free.

By the way, the ODS naturally did not rule through the 1990s unopposed – which was the other prominent party to emerge from the post-Revolution turmoil? Those were the socialists of the ČSSD and yes, they took over the government from ODS in 1998. (Actually, with the active assistance of the ODS – but never mind, the details are complicated.) Boy, was that group tarred with the brush of corruption, even more than the ODS! Their particular brand tended instead towards things like crooked sell-offs of government properties and corrupt processes for public procurement.

Both ČSSD and ODS are still present in Parliament. The ČSSD in fact is they key prop currently keeping Babiš’ government in power, but one has to think they would never be so brazen as to try to shore themselves up politically by reminding people of their history back to the Velvet Revolution (and beyond): the laughter would be deafening. The ODS has little more basis for doing the same, although they are giving it a try.

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Unfriendly Presidential Send-Off

Monday, March 4th, 2013

[Please note the correction added at the end of this blogpost.]

Now here’s a tweet you don’t see every day! It has to do with Václav Klaus, now the former President of the Czech Republic, but it’s not just about his departure from that office:

CN: Senát má rozhodnout, zda podá na Klause žalobu pro velezradu #klaus #senat #amnestie http://t.co/ebQLBOWPP8: http://t.co/yhHmp4QGPn

@Zpravy

Zpravy


Velezradu: “treason.” So that’s “Senate must decide whether to charge Klaus with treason.”

“What’s that all about!” you might ask. It is a pretty poor good-bye present, don’t you think? Why couldn’t the Senate just have handed the ex-President a nice necktie, or maybe a gold pen?

But OK, this is fairly easy to explain in an American context, for those out there with long-enough memories. You might recall that the dying days of the Clinton Administration, back in early 2001, were rather by the ridiculous pardons Bill Clinton started handing out, most especially to Marc Rich, the financier who had made sure he was out of the country when he was indicted by the IRS for tax evasion.

Well, Václav Klaus did much the same thing as the end of his presidential term started to come within sight.around last New Year’s Day. He issued a wide series of pardons which mainly went – in a similar manner to Marc Rich, funnily enough – to businessmen guilty of abusing the Czech Republic’s system of “coupon privatization” for disposing of State-owned properties back in the 1990s, by “tunneling” many of those companies, i.e. systematically stealing their assets, sucking them dry, then escaping to foreign lands with well-stocked Swiss bank accounts. It’s no coincidence that by far the major actor involved in getting coupon privatization going was then-Premier Václav Klaus.

(OK, the České noviny report that you get when you click through the link in the abovre tweet also says that the Senate has also charged him with further harming the Czech national interest by refusing to sign duly-ratified laws that he didn’t like – for example, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty – and by paralyzing the country’s court system by refusing to nominate any new justices for a whole year.)

Well, it’s the justices of the Czech Republic’s Supreme Court which now get to preside over an impeachment trial:

Senát schválil ústavní žalobu na Václava Klause. Z 68 přítomných senátorů pro žalobu hlasovalo 38, proti 30.

@iDNES_vyber

Zprávy iDNES.cz


Right, the vote among Senators was 38 in favor, 30 against. This probably isn’t about Klaus actually ever going to jail, though. Just as elsewhere, impeachment is mainly a matter of removing a sitting President who can be shown to have violated the law in a serious way. Conveniently, the Senate waited until Klaus had already left office – but he still stands to lose the payments he is still due from being President (e.g. his pension, though he has other pensions) if he is convicted.

BTW that same article has an instant mini-poll to the side showing 69% approving of the impeachment. Those numbers might change by the time you access that page later.

So Václav Klaus, second President of the Czech Republic, is not just going to fade away into the sunset; the Senate won’t let him. Things could get exciting!

P.S. Apologies that the IDNES tweet above announcing the result of the Senate impeachment vote did not have the usual link within it to allow you to go look at a Czech-language article. But let’s give IDNES (= the on-line paper of the Czech Republic’s biggest non-tabloid daily, Mladá fronta dnes) a bit of a break, they’ve had a hard time:

České zpravodajské servery čelí druhé vlně počítačových útoků. Weby iDNES.cz tak mohou být opět problematicky dostupné. Situaci řešíme.

@iDNES_vyber

Zprávy iDNES.cz


That’s right, they’ve been hacked! There’s a lot of that going around among news organizations these days. Should you desire to access their website, it might not be working quite yet.

CORRECTION: Klaus has not yet left the Czech Presidency, his last day is 7 March 2013. So the Senate’s action has caught him in the last days of his term. Naturally, there is hardly enough time to resolve the treason charges during his remaining time in office, so this impeachment cannot have the effect of removing him as president.

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Not So Isolated

Friday, December 9th, 2011

It’s the make-or-break EU summit, going on now within the cavernous Justus Lipsius European Council building in the Brussels European Quarter. Will what issues from this conference be enough to save the euro?

The answer to that remains up in the air, as the summit continues into the weekend. What we do already know, however, is that an important split has occurred within the EU, resulting from the failure of German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy to have accepted by all 27 member-states their proposals for greater national budget control and coordination. Now the action on that front has shifted to the group of 17 member-states who actually use the euro.

The excellent “Charlemagne” commentator from the Economist has already termed this development Europe’s great divorce, in an article (in English, of course) featuring at its head a picture of the defiant-looking British PM David Cameron pointing an aggressive finger towards the camera. And indeed, this one and many other press reports from the summit would have their readers believe that the UK is isolated in its stand of resistance against those “Merkozy” proposals for greater EU power over national budgets. That is certainly also the message from the authoritative German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, where an analytical piece from Michael König is rather dramatically entitled Bulldog Cameron bites the British into isolation.

But such observers should be careful about rushing into any over-hasty conclusions. They should remember that a number of other member-states share an attitude towards the EU rather closer to that of the UK than Germany or France. The Czech Republic, for instance:

iDnes: Klaus a Telička schvalují rozvážnost v Bruselu, ČSSD varuje před izolací: Prezident Václav Klaus označil … http://t.co/Qh043Qmm

@Zpravy

Zpravy


(more…)

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