Nothing is how it used to be. Klaus’ “censure” did not clear anything up. The Christmas period of calm has just passed and those in the governing coalition are already at each other’s throats. Interior Minister Radek John’s (Public Affairs, VV) anti-corruption “package,” which Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) raised objections to at the last minute, was surprisingly passed Jan. 5 by the government without a hitch.
After the strategy was approved, the de facto boss of Public Affairs, Transport Minister Vít Bárta, had to “swallow his ego” as he put it. But then again, what wouldn’t a responsible politician do for the benefit of a country whose celebrated past he feels bound by and whose spiritual and material wealth he would also like to make a contribution to?
If a few contentious formulations can be “tidied up” by the coalition by around Jan. 20, the package will then be complete and all grafters will be shaking in their boots. That’s how hopeful the situation looked on Jan. 6. Today, however, the situation is less optimistic.
After the approval of the anti-corruption package in government, Bárta rejoiced prematurely when he said that “the rhetoric of discord has transformed into the rhetoric of compromise” and that this is “a good sign for the government as well as the public.” Unfortunately, the daily political agenda indiscriminately damaged not only the rhetoric, but also the general climate within the coalition.
The selection process had got underway to find the successor to Police President Oldřich Martinů, whose resignation VV pushed for and Nečas accepted before Christmas, much to the displeasure of a significant portion of the ODS. Subsequently, Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, the vice chairman of the ODS, publicly professed his concern that the selection of the new police president would be inappropriately influenced by Bárta and the ABL security agency, which the transport minister owned until recently. And that set the roof on fire!
A lunatic, liar, etc.
Bárta issued a scathing response. ABL had nothing to do with VV, let alone the police, who, on the contrary, are under the influence of former Interior Minister Ivan Langer (ODS). The chairman of VV and current Interior Minister John even accused Langer of leaking “hot” information from police files to friendly journalists and of trying to control the police. Although John and Bárta had implied something similar about Langer previously, their words carried great resonance in the heated atmosphere surrounding the selection of a new police president. ‘Those are either the words of a mentally disturbed person or a cynical liar.’
But then Langer also reciprocated accordingly. “Those are either the words of a mentally disturbed person or a cynical liar,” was the message he sent John via daily Právo and by way of similar statements in other media outlets. “If the first possibility is the case, he deserves sympathy and a course of treatment. If it’s the latter scenario, he deserves a few slaps and a spell in prison.”
Prime Minister Nečas has also got involved in the VV versus ODS conflict. He has expressed serious doubts about the selection procedure for the next police president, which has been impetuously organized by John. Incidentally, some of the legal experts who have discreetly commented on this affair believe that John’s approach is at variance with the law on serving in the police and the armed forces.
This could be the case — with the VV party, “minor” legislative oversights cannot be ruled out. This unconventional organization, which is not yet even a proper political party, can be too creative. And by placing its hopes on the moment of surprise it is pushing its people into ill-considered initiatives. The question is why. (Especially if Bárta, as the de facto head of the VV party, is considered a person who is perhaps a little narcissistic, but is also thought to be extraordinarily intelligent with the ability to lead in crisis situations).
VV on the offensive
We would venture to offer one answer. Is it by chance that Bárta scents an opportunity to attract supporters back to VV, whom it has disappointed with its tame performance in the governing coalition after its dramatic post-election promises? It is as though a turnaround has occurred at a certain moment.
At a “policy conference” in December, VV suddenly took a decisive stance and defined itself as a “centrist party with social welfare sensibilities,” which would straighten out (i.e., irritate) its right wing partners from the ODS and TOP 09 parties.
The party then immediately began applying pressure to remove police president Oldřich Martinů and, with the aid of President Václav Klaus, they got their way (even at the price of the humiliation that Prime Minister Nečas experienced while being “censured”). And seeing as the iron has to be struck while it’s hot, the VV now has to continue going on the offensive by chasing after the supporters it lost (regardless of whether it wants to or not).
With the exception of the Minister for Regional Development Kamil Janovský (VV), who has long been passive and whose removal has been whispered about, all VV’s representatives in government are visibly active. For example, Josef Dobeš (VV), who heads the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, has suddenly popped up to vigorously confront officials from the Czech Sports Association (ČSTV) in connection with the serious longstanding situation at Sazka, in which the ČSTV is the largest shareholder. The chairman of VV, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister John is again bravely tackling Nečas about the methods used to select the police president.
And, on top of everything else, based on the findings of an auditing firm, which discovered a number of past transgressions at the Interior Ministry, he is promising to publish an A to Z on the Internet of public procurement contracts in his department as early as February, which is sooner than is required by law. If he fulfils his promises, other ministries, including those controlled by the ODS and TOP 09, will have to pick up the gauntlet John has thrown down and also begin fighting corruption.
Incidentally, VV is not risking anything because, unlike the ODS and many from TOP 09, there is no danger of any unpleasant skeletons popping out of a ministerial cupboard or any other closet.
An irritating “pain in the neck”
So far, VV’s frontal attack is not very systematic and is markedly personal in nature. From the Interior Ministry audit, it came to light, for example, that when Ivan Langer was in charge, the ministry awarded a contract for laundering uniforms without a selection procedure to the firm Dočista owned by the entrepreneur Tomáš Paclík, which had been established just two months previously.
Langer claims that he was not aware of this, although he knows Paclík, and another firm of his leases office premises in the Olomouc, Central Moravia, building where the ex-minister lives with his family. Paclík pays the Interior Ministry preposterously low rent for a laundry facility in Kolín, Central Bohemia, but actually does the laundry for a price that is more expensive than the normal market cost. In three years, he has made Kč 54 million out of the Interior Ministry. However, the time sequence of events is also important.
The simple fact that Ivan Langer told John he was either crazy or a liar already provides us with a “point of interest” concerning Langer himself. How many things will John still discover in the auditor’s report and who are all the people they will concern? And how will the ODS, in which Langer is an influential person, or some other potential “target” respond to the VV party?
An “interesting point” now follows hot on the heels of another “interesting point.” The mind boggles. Whereas, the Jan. 12 edition of Hospodářské noviny uncovered the laundry of Langer’s acquaintance Paclík, Jan. 13’s edition of Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD) immediately published “eight items of evidence proving how people were monitored by Bárta’s ABL agency.” If this surveillance actually took place, it would definitely be most interesting to know who ordered it and paid for it.
This concerned a case dating back to 2007, in particular the surveillance of Marta Šorfová, the former mayor of Prague 11 and subsequently the manager of the ODS central office, which the paper had already written about in September last year. At the time, Bárta described the published documents obtained from within the ABL firm as false, and he sued the newspaper.
MfD has now published further evidence, which seems to confirm the shadowing of Šorfová, with whom part of the local ODS linked to “godfathers” (i.e., corruption-prone-but-influential business interests) and other municipal bigwigs in Prague 11 allegedly squared accounts with.
If this surveillance actually took place, it would definitely be most interesting to know who ordered it and paid for it. In any event, some time ago Bárta assured Prime Minister Nečas with a handshake that ABL never spied on any politicians. One way or another, however, the “eight items of evidence” can revive the mistrust of the ODS and TOP 09. They had been suspicious of ABL when the coalition was being formed and that’s why they were reluctant to give VV the Interior Ministry. They eventually let them have it because it was a non-negotiable demand on the part of Public Affairs.
While Bárta has allegedly stopped communicating with MfD in recent weeks, he has appeared for a second time on “Questions from Václav Moravec” (Otázky Václava Moravce) on public broadcaster Czech Television. His most recent appearance was last Sunday, which he used as an opportunity to announce that he was lodging a criminal complaint against the Road and Motorway Directorate in the Ústí nad Labem region, some of whose managers are allegedly being influenced by Patrik Oulický and Petr Benda, who are “famous godfathers from the ODS and Social Democrats (ČSSD).”
Although Oulický has long “enjoyed” media “attention,” even a passive and disunited ODS is probably unanimous in feeling that its coalition partner should use different methods than those employed by Bárta. Moreover, if it is true that certain people from VV and the ČSSD are exploring the possibility of potential cooperation should the Nečas government fall, then Benda, the current boss of the North Bohemian Social Democrats, must already be in a very bad position regarding the party when the “brains” of VV has been “sticking the boot” into him and Oulický.
It is hard to imagine that the clever Benda would complicate VV’s relations with its current coalition partner, the ODS, as well as with its possible future partner, the ČSSD. Naturally, Benda has said that he is going to sue Bárta, and just for good measure Jiří Paroubek wants to do the same, apparently because he has unjustly vilified the fact that Benda is his daughter’s godfather.
And while we’re talking about the Social Democrats, which is due to have its congress in March while also electing new leaders, one of its former chairmen, Stanislav Gross, suspended his membership in the ČSSD before the claims of a Swiss prosecutor, which MfD recently reported on, are investigated. This suspiciously investigative daily stated that a trader paid a commission of $5 million for the privatization of the coal-mining company Mostecká uhelná společnost in 1999, and that this money probably ended up in accounts belonging to people close to Gross, one of whom — a certain Mr. Sýkora — subsequently helped him miraculously make a fortune by purchasing shares cheaply and immediately selling them at a profit. Political discourse is being replaced by screaming and shouting, reciprocal foul play and — in the best case scenario — by routine skullduggery.
We have left out much of what has appeared in the press and on the airwaves in recent days. Nonetheless, we hope that the selection that has been cited also illustrates one noteworthy fact. It now appears as though Czech politics, which has long been without any major ideas or personalities and has therefore been of little interest, has abandoned conference halls and government corridors for newspapers, television and radio.
It is not occurring in a place of general assembly, like the Agora of antiquity, where it would be in close contact with citizens, but is being played out in an arena. Although this arena can be easily seen by audiences, it is also safely removed from the viewers in the stands.
Political discourse is being replaced by screaming and shouting, reciprocal foul play and — in the best case scenario — by routine skullduggery, which nobody is interested in now that it has been reprised for the second or third time. One would prefer to be optimistic at the start of the year, but how can one refrain from telling a lie while simultaneously claiming that Czech politics is not bankrupt?
Petr Nováček is a commentator for Czech Public Radio’s channel Radiožurnál.