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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