What's behind the current governmental crisis in Czechia?

  • Tomáš Hošek
  • 21.11.2018 07:47

Last week’s big events have shaken up the Czech political scene in an unexpectedly significant manner. The newly discovered circumstances about the alleged kidnapping of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s son to Ukraine and Russia have put the PM’s position in question and have raised serious concerns about Czech vital security interests. To understand the convoluted case in a wider perspective, we offer you a deep-dive analysis of the current state of affairs.

It was an unexpected turn of events last Monday evening when the Czech online platform Seznam TV released a breakthrough investigative mini-documentary that has sent Czech politics into a fresh governmental crisis in the following days. The investigative report contained shocking testimony by Andrej Babiš Jr, the oldest son of the incumbent Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš Sr, about his alleged kidnapping in Russia-annexed Crimea in times of a starting investigation of a financial fraud supposedly committed by his father in 2008.

As details about the scandal followed and the Czech public saw a rare display of all six opposition parties standing side by side in their demand for Babiš Sr’s immediate resignation, the PM’s seemingly unshakeable position started to appear as unstable as ever. However, taking all of the possible alternatives to the Babiš’ government into account, the prospect for Czechia’s future seems more worrisome than optimistic: Things can get much worse.

 

Babiš Sr, the second richest man in the country, currently stands accused of subsidy fraud and damaging the EU’s financial interests.

 

The long-running investigation into the PM’s criminal case started in 2015 with allegations that Babiš Sr’s multinational agro-chemical group Agrofert falsely obtained nearly €2m in EU funds for the construction of a hotel and conference centre called Čapí hnízdo (Stork’s Nest), back in 2008. Specifically, the company was first transferred from Agrofert in order to be granted the EU subsidy, which is designated for small businesses, and then got quietly repossessed by the conglomerate several years later. Babiš Sr, the second richest man in the country, currently stands accused of subsidy fraud and damaging the EU’s financial interests.

Farm Čapí hnízdo (Stork’s nest). Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

Although Babiš, who at the time was Finance Minister in ex-PM Sobotka’s government, fiercely denied the accusations and reminded he had to convert his businesses into a special trust fund in order to enter the high-ranking political position. The Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies eventually released him for criminal prosecution in 2016. With his populist ANO movement, Babiš nonetheless managed to secure a relative victory in 2017 parliamentary election, receiving 29 % of the vote, but for a long time failed to attract viable coalition partners. It was mainly Babiš’ long-lasting alliance with the re-elected Czech President Miloš Zeman that eventually secured him the grip on power. Despite gaining a parliamentary immunity once again after the fresh elections, Babiš’ prosecution was renewed in early 2018, giving Czechia it’s first criminally prosecuted Prime Minister.

The PM’s son entered the case in 2016 when his father revealed that at the time of obtaining the subsidy, Čapí hnízdo was being owned by his two adult children (his daughter and his son, Babiš Jr), his then-partner and current wife Monika and her brother. In order to pursue the investigation and acquire testimonies by key witnesses, police started to negotiate with the Swiss authorities about the extradition of Babiš Jr who lives in Geneva with his mother. However, it was only after the two reporters from the privately owned Seznam TV tracked Babiš Jr in his apartment on their own that the Czech public got the first chance to hear his version of the whole story.

 

Babiš Jr spoke on hidden camera about being kidnapped to Crimea, at the time already occupied by Russia’s military forces.

 

Babiš Jr, who has supposedly been suffering from schizophrenia since 2015, revealed he had been made to sign official documents regarding the ownership of Čapí hnízdo but did not understand what they were. Moreover, he spoke on hidden camera about being kidnapped by one of Babiš Sr’s employees, Petr Protopopov, to Crimea, at the time already occupied by Russia’s military forces. Further details subsequently showed that Babiš Jr “travelled” with Protopopov, who has a Russian background and at the time was acting as his guardian due to his mental health, in a similar manner to the Russian enclave Kaliningrad, to Moscow, and to the industrial city of Kryvyj Rih in southern Ukraine. In addition, Babiš Jr apparently got introduced by Mr Protopopov to an unknown Russian woman, with whom Babiš Jr was left alone within Kryvyj Rih for a certain period of time after his visit to Crimea, and he later got engaged to her.

In his immediate, emotive response to the distressing findings, Babiš Sr (in close cooperation with his skilful PR team) called the published report “predatory”, “coup” and “yet another attempt to get him out of politics”, and did his best to spin the whole situation, questioning the reliability of his children’s testimonies (Babiš’s daughter suffers from bipolar disorder and the police have already interrogated her). In the wake of the 17 November’s Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day, he then left to Switzerland to meet his son, raising questions about unrightfully influencing the key witness. So far, Babiš’ Sr.’s ex-wife released a statement on Sunday from her Swiss apartment, condemning the journalists’ work and asking the media to “leave them alone”. Moreover, Babiš Sr himself then claimed in a Facebook post that both his son and ex-wife “finally understood how the journalists abused them”, leaving little room for doubt that he visited his son just to have a game of chess with him.

 

We can be almost certain that Russian intelligence services benefit the most from the current situation.

 

Either way, due to the fresh circumstances the whole case of Čapí hnízdo suddenly raises serious security concerns. We can be almost certain that Russian intelligence services benefit the most from a situation, in which the Czech PM’s son, presumably an easily suggestible person due to his health condition, spent multiple “holidays” in  Russian-controlled areas, and what’s more, this time was spent in the company of a strange woman that he barely knew before their engagement. Just a reminder: President Zeman, who has a chief-adviser with shady business links to the Russian power industry and is notoriously known for his pro-Russian views, is currently actively pushing for granting a multi-billion contract for the completion of the Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant to the Russian Rosatom. In times like these, any intel and potential leverage on the head of the government, who has the final say in the enormous contract, can be used in Russia’s favour.

Czech President Miloš Zeman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Copyright Kremlin.ru

Czech President Miloš Zeman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Copyright Kremlin.ru

Regarding the political leg of the scandal, the opposition parties mostly see Babiš Sr’s position as untenable and are already preparing for a non-confidence vote due to occur on Friday. The heaviest burden currently lies on the shoulders of the Social Democrats (ČSSD), Babiš Sr’s minority coalition partner. Already struggling with an ongoing anti-Babiš rebellion from within the party, the ČSSD leader, Interior Minister and vice-PM Jan Hamáček now hopes to secure loyalty among his parliamentary deputies in order to hold the government in place and subsequently push for the most elegant solution, Babiš Sr’ resignation. However, the PM fiercely rejects such an option and again enjoys the support of his most valuable ally, the President, who promised to authorize Babiš Sr with forming a new government in any case, allowing his incumbent cabinet to govern for an indefinite amount of time. Call it what you want, but “the most powerful Czech bromance” label seems accurate enough.

 

Okamura, leader of the far-right SPD, was quick to announce his willingness to negotiate with Babiš Sr about replacing ČSSD in the government.

 

On Saturday 17 November, the Czechs celebrated 29 years since the Velvet Revolution, fall of communism and the beginning of Czechia’s modern democratic era. However, thousands also protested all around Prague against their criminally prosecuted Prime Minister, Russia-adored President and Tomio Okamura, leader of the parliamentary far-right movement SPD, who was quick to announce his willingness to negotiate with Babiš Sr about replacing ČSSD in the government and putting his party’s extremist program into practice.

 

Due to Babiš Jr’s Swiss citizenship, the Czech police has a very limited space in which to conduct a proper investigation.

 

The results of the contemporary government crisis remain to be seen, and the same goes for the new discoveries in the Čapí hnízdo investigation, which so far offers more questions than it provides answers. The Supreme State Attorney’s office already promised to investigate Babiš Jr’s claims about his alleged kidnapping to Crimea; needless to say, due to Junior’s Swiss citizenship and the country’s practice of not extraditing its citizens, the police has a very limited space to conduct a proper investigation. Nevertheless, it is vital for the judiciary and the security services to also verify the identity of Junior’s fiancé (and her potential connections to the Russian intelligence services), establish a detailed profile of Mr Protopopov, and thoroughly examine Babiš Jr’s journeys to Ukraine and Russia.

If anything, it is already fair to say that Czech politics has once again found a new low and, most importantly, has never been threatened by Russian (and Chinese, for that matter) geopolitical influence to such an extent. Only the coming weeks and months will show how resilient against this security risk the Czech state in fact is.

About author: Tomáš Hošek

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