Frustrated with the state of corruption in Czech politics, Andrej Babiš, one of the country’s richest entrepreneurs, last year founded the political movement ANO 2011, which plans to register as a party and put forward candidates in upcoming elections. In an exclusive interview with Czech Position, he speaks about cronyism in Prague City Hall under former mayor Pavel Bém (ODS) and the influence of lobbyists like Roman Janoušek and Marek Dalík and various “mafias” on the political landscape.
Q: What do you say to the publication of the wiretaps of conversations between Pavel Bém and Roman Janoušek?
Babiš: I don’t say anything, rather I feel like I’m in a madhouse. Everyone knows what Mr. Janoušek was doing with Mr. Bém. But when I spoke about out it openly in an interview with Hospodářské noviny (HN) in September last year, there was a terrible scandal because Babiš dared to speak the truth. Journalists attacked me for not having evidence while Mladá fronta dnes (MfD) wrote that I was talking “pub banter.”
Now the same MfD has the wiretaps which confirm my banter. Now everyone here is surprised by something that everyone knew about. By the way, I mentioned Janoušek [in a speech] at the Lucerna on November 23, 2010. In the name of all farmers and agriculture workers I called upon Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) to do something so he steals less in this country. Back then I cited HN which wrote that Janoušek had Kč 2 billion in bank accounts in Switzerland which will be missing from the state budget.
As well as Nečas, the then minister of agriculture [Ivan] Fuksa (ODS) was there as were television and journalists. Do you think any media published what I said then?
Q: President Václav Klaus has said something to the effect that the actual content of the wiretaps is secondary, but apparently that what is far more damaging for democracy is that the wiretaps were made at all ….
Babiš: I don’t even feel like commenting about this. My main motivation for giving that interview with HN that caused all the fuss about Babiš was the president’s comments about the pointlessness of the anticorruption initiatives. “What corruption is there here? I want hard data,” Klaus said then. Now he has hard data. But now that data “endangers democracy.” The president is making madmen out of us.
Q: According to the law, the [domestic Czech intelligence service] BIS reports its information to the prime minister and president. Do you think they knew about the wiretaps?
Babiš: The head of BIS won’t say although he told [the daily] Právo that he would be mad to keep such information for himself. Let’s not be naive that Klaus and [former ODS prime minister Mirek] Topolánek didn’t know what Bém and Janoušek were doing in Prague. Everyone knew about it. During his time Topolánek made hints, but he didn’t initiate anything against Bém and Janoušek. Why? Because Bém and Janoušek were making money in Prague, while Topolánek’s close friend and associate [Marek] Dalík was on the make from the rest of the country. That’s how those lads had it divided up.
If today we hear that Mr. President says that Bém was the best mayor, and add to that the link between the Prague mafia with [the political party] Public Affairs (VV), and Mr. President’s favoritism towards its members, everyone can probably complete the picture for themselves.
Q: Then again, we can read that according to Topolánek, Janoušek is small fry compared to “godfathers” Babiš or [Pavel] Tykač.
Babiš: I’ve pretty much had enough of commenting about Mr. Topolánek and his statements. Topolánek is a typical example of someone who was not successful in business and thus entered politics to get rich. He bought the biggest corruptioneers with him, misters Dalík and [former transport in Topolánek’s government Aleš] Řebíček. He created a judicial mafia and formed the so-called Tuscany gang, which received public contracts worth tens of billions of crowns. During his term as prime minister, theft of state property reached unprecedented proportions. ‘Topolánek is a typical example of someone who was not successful in business and thus entered politics to get rich.’
Thanks to the Tuscany gang, he is again a “successful” businessman who fights to defend their interests. What can he accuse me of? Since its establishment the dealings and finances of Agrtofert [Babiš’ agro-chemical giant] have been transparent and are easily accessible. It’s all entered into the legal registers. It would be interesting to find out where Mr. Topolánek pays tax on his assets and how he gained them....
Q: What for you what has emerged from the Bém–Janoušek wiretaps being published?
Babiš: That everything I said has been confirmed, that there’s a mafia here, that there was the Dalík – Topolánek mafia, wiretaps of which probably no one will pass to MfD. And that there was also the Bém – Janoušek mafia. I simply pointed out that these people engaged in corrupt practices without any fear whatsoever, brutally, with unbelievable arrogance and on an unprecedentedly large scale. And what’s being done about it? Nothing. Some policeman has resigned. At the same time in Germany the president resigned “only” because of some suspect loan, and look at how Bém is conducting himself here in this country.
But those wiretaps reveal just small details. For example, we haven’t found out from them that people in Prague who wanted to buy [municipal] land had to pay Janoušek Kč 500 in cash per square meter. He together with Bém changed the municipal planning map as he pleased. From where did Janoušek get the Kč 2 billion he has in Switzerland? And the “elite” Janoušek - Bém duo lasted for years as of 2005. ‘Instead of heads rolling they’re now prevaricating and speaking about a threat to democracy. We cannot be surprised when someone in Brussels then calls us a mafia state.’
I don’t have any wiretaps like BIS or [private detective firm] ABL do. I only say what I find out from businessmen who ran into the Janoušek – Bém real estate mafia in Prague City Hall. Only now politicians will prefer to settle who leaked the wiretaps. It’s clear that they must stick together because they together are that mafia system. Instead of heads rolling they’re now prevaricating and speaking about a threat to democracy. We cannot be surprised when someone in Brussels then calls us a mafia state.
Q: But Pavel Bém claims that what Janoušek did was normal.
Babiš: What else can he do? Also in the media they carefully call Janoušek a businessman or lobbyists, but he’s simply a criminal. If what Janoušek does is absolutely normal, why doesn’t he show where he got his money and assets from? Why is he hiding it in Switzerland? And when people read about this of course they’re angry. At the same time the ODS is writing its own death warrant.
Q: In your opinion, does Prime Minister Petr Nečas have enough strength so as the ODS won’t have to finish writing that warrant?
Babiš: PM Nečas has the misfortune that he inherited the Bém and Topolánek mafias and he still has this crazy inheritance from Bém and Topolánek. And this is not something easy for him to resolve. What’s more he has the burden of Bárta, who at the end of the day is part of the same gang. As MP [Jaroslav] Škárka (unaffiliated) said in court – it was the ODS godfathers who lent Public Affairs Kč 200 million, and now they want Kč 400 million back…
Q: Do you think that something will now happen after the publication of the wiretaps? Is the situation now somehow different than it was in 2010?
Babiš: Nothing whatsoever will happen. That network is built in [to the system] and is functioning. The network will sacrifice several individuals and then continue.
Q: The scandal broke at a time when public opposition to the government is gaining strength, civic initiatives are protesting and trade unions are planning strikes. Among other points, on its website ANO 2011 states that it’s unlikely the government will survive until 2014. Where does your initiative fit into the somewhat confused collage of protest movements?
Babiš: When I say something, I act in accordance with it. Unlike politicians who for the most part say something but do nothing, I try and do things which have sense. Take for example the fact that here we need the charity of Karel Janeček [founder of the Endowment Fund Against Corruption (NFPK)] in order for someone to actively expose corruption. Of course it’s absurd because it should be up to the police. People from that charity presume that some kind of revolution will arise from the cases that they uncover, but in my view that is a very uncertain path, even though it may appeal to me.
Then came the Holešov Appeal [Holešovská výzva] by people who want the government and the president to step down. But why would the government and president do that? Just because people aren’t happy with them? Of course the government won’t resign of its own accord, unless it was advantageous for it in terms of political power.
I think the only democratic way by which people can change something is through parliamentary elections. Of course people are restless and would like to make a revolution, but in my view it doesn’t work that way and would only lead us somewhere where we don’t want to go. We’re also not happy, but we say that parliamentary elections are important.
Q: What stage has planning reached within your movement ANO 2011?
Babiš: We are still officially an association, but we want to become a political organization which is a prerequisite for us to put forward candidates in parliamentary elections.
Q: But the number of people who have lost interest in elections is continuing to grow. They have the impression that elections and a new government won’t fundamentally change anything and that it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s the ODS or center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD).
Babiš: It’s true that in the Prague City Hall the ODS and ČSSD created a state within a state, a mafia which reigned together. It was an independent unit within the ODS and ČSSD. The politicians who knew very well about the mafia will now of course look for who leaked the wiretaps. It’s completely absurd. They should have more important work to do, after all, this week HN made public the whole network that Janoušek headed.
Q: About ANO 2011 specifically: how can you get people to vote in elections which they no longer believe in? After your entrance to the political arena last year, a section of the public presumed you wanted to position yourself as a leader of the discontented. And now on the web pages of your initiative and elsewhere, disappointed voices are being raised and claim you have softened your stance.
Babiš: We’re not softening. It simply wouldn’t work for me to go and protest on a square and speak there about changes to the Constitution. First of all we are attempting to go among people and explain what we’re about.
And you should know what we’re about after all it was Czech Position which the week before last wrote about no VAT being paid on imported goods worth Kč 440 billion. It’s crazy. The state is not functioning and is not collecting tax. And this is what it’s about first and foremost.
Of course it’s good when people express their opinions on the streets, but I repeat: the only legal way to change is the standard way – through parliamentary elections. ‘What’s crucial for me is for the conditions to change so the state is no longer ruled by gorillas.’
Q: In the event they take place before 2014, will you be prepared?
Babiš: We’re not ready, but we’re flexible so we’ll see. The government could fall early, but in the current parliament I don’t see an alternative [for forming a coalition]. What’s crucial for me is for the conditions to change so the state is no longer ruled by gorillas. I’m still convinced that if one proper person was in power, the extra Kč 200 billion would be found, further it would be possible to formulate a clear investment plan and to use those funds for the benefit of everyone: for transport infrastructure, for science and education, for healthcare and pensions, for sports… The fact is the sums that began to go missing with the arrival of the two gangs named above are gigantic.
Q: If some kind of miracle were to happen and the political environment began to cleanse itself and if you were convinced that things were changing for the better, would you abandon you political initiative and concentrate on your business?
Babiš: I won’t abandon the initiative because I don’t believe that here things could change for the better by themselves. The question is whether people will believe that ANO 2011 is serious and could have some significant success in elections. In the next parliament I don’t see representation of lots of small parties as an alternative. In my opinion it wouldn’t help anything because in all such coalitions, the smallest party blackmails the larger parties. We’ve already had great coalitions here such as Šlouf-Dalík-Melčák-Pohanka, or the [ODS] coalition with [Martin] Bursík (formerly the leader of the Green Party). Now we have a coalition with a criminal organization called Public Affairs [VV – a junior member of the coalition government].
Q: Maybe we’re jumping too far ahead, but what’s the potential for ANO 2011 joining a coalition? When you founded the initiative, some political scientists said it was more of a left-wing movement. Is there any point in talking about the possibility?
Babiš: Left and right wing... In the current parliament party political programs are not important. It’s about cash and power. When Mr. Fico won the elections in Slovakia, Nečas said a magic sentence on the evening news when he stated the worst thing is when a politician has to fulfill his promises.
Q: Without regard to the right – left axis, you must have set some principles in this area.
Babiš: We’re clear about several things. First of all income tax should be raised, secondly VAT should not be raised. Thirdly, I say there is still enough money here, at least Kč 200 billion, which in time could be found. It would be enough for someone with farmer’s reason to lead and not steal, basically someone with experience to run this country like a firm. I should say more like a family business, that’s better because when you have a family, you look after it.
Politicians here aren’t concerned about us. If things in our country continue as up until now, within 17 years we’ll find ourselves in a practically irresolvable debt situation and creditors will dictate what we have to do. I haven’t invented this myself, it’s what a number of economic analysts are saying.
Q: Only then would there be a real prospect of a revolution?
Babiš: I don’t know, but in Island there was a revolution only when the country de facto went bankrupt. Things explode in a country only when a crisis starts to affect a majority of people, when the value of their savings in the bank are wiped out, for example.
Q: Can we expect that in the next elections, those who offer more social measures, rather than political reforms, will have the advantage, that’s to say probably the ČSSD….
Babiš: ‘A return of decency is required. And Czechs have such potential.’ That would be going around in circles again and isn’t a perspective solution! A few politicians change seats, but that would be all. [ČSSD leader Bohuslav] Sobotka, who has never done anything other than speak at ČSSD political meetings, has already been in government. And did he do something positive for this state? Did [former ČSSD prime minister Jiří] Paroubek bring something positive?
I firmly state that now we no longer have the luxury whereby we can choose between left and right. The state is in crisis and is not functioning. The state should function in such a way that there is social peace and harmony, so that entrepreneurs advise entrepreneurs to pay taxes here, not to steal, and for there to be social solidarity. A return of decency is required. And Czechs have such potential. There are plenty of clever, skilled people here who, however, are not allowed a chance to help resolve the current situation. The parties that exist are closed in a system which suits those parties. And bad things befall those who attempt to disrupt that system.