Scandal Around Billionaire Prime Minister Leaves Czechs In Limbo: NYTMatt Atlas
PRAGUE — A billionaire turned politician sweeps to power by tapping into deep public disgust with a system that many believe is rigged against them. Even before taking office, he has been hounded by controversy about conflicts of interest related to the company he ran for decades. Opponents threaten to remove him.
If some of that sounds familiar, Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic and its second-richest person, has long been compared to Donald J. Trump for his populist politics, bombastic style and exuberant wealth. He has also been similarly besieged by opponents he accuses of being part of an organized cabal out to bring him down.
On Friday, those tensions hit another high point when lawmakers held a vote of no confidence seeking to end Mr. Babis’s government, the second time they have done so since he came to power more than a year ago.
Though Mr. Babis survived the challenge, all sides agree that the conflict has become so venomous that it has paralyzed the politics of this small Central European country, at a critical moment when populist forces are threatening to tear apart the democratic gains made since the fall of communism almost 30 years ago.
For Mr. Babis, those politics have become increasingly personal. In the most recent and bizarre turn of the scandal, it was reported that Mr. Babis’s eldest son — Andrej Babis Jr., 35, known as Junior — had claimed that his father had had him abducted and held outside the country against his will to prevent him from talking to investigators.
In response, Mr. Babis revealed that his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2015 and charged the reporters, whom he called “hyenas,” with exploiting his mentally ill son when they tracked him down in Switzerland and interviewed him on the doorstep of his home.
Sitting in a conference room outside his office in Prague, Mr. Babis was by turns angry, rueful and deeply emotional.
“What if I will say you are a pedophile?”
He leaned in closely to emphasize his point. “I will say it 10,000 times, and finally you will be a pedophile. Then start to make your defense. How could you fight against this?”
Wojciech Przybylski, the editor of the magazine Visegrad Insight, said that Czech politics was now in a state of limbo — caught between fortifying its democratic institutions and moving in the illiberal direction of other countries in the region.
It “has not gone as far as Hungary or Poland, but if it continues along the path it may very soon follow,” he said.
“Importantly, the rise of pro-European sentiment in public opinion and increasing mobilization of protesters are showing that there is a new counter-trend,’’ he said, referring to the forces arrayed against Mr. Babis, whom opponents say tends toward a populist, anti-immigrant and increasingly authoritarian approach.
‘‘The important trigger will be next steps or lack of progress by the prosecutors investigating the prime minister’s corruption,” Mr. Przybylski added.
Mr. Babis came to power vowing to clean up politics. The credentials he ran on included the argument that he was so rich that he could not be tempted by corruption.
But he has never been able to lift himself out of a scandal that dates back more than a decade tied the conglomerate he built, Agrofert, and that made his fortune — in particular, whether he misused subsidies from the European Union.
Tomas Pergler, head of domestic political news at the Prague financial daily Hospodarske Noviny and author of “Babis — The Story of an Oligarch,” said that Mr. Babis had become the country’s largest employer — with some 34,000 people on the payroll — through a combination of hard work and clever tactics.
Agrofert prosperity is to a large extent based on as efficient as possible use of subsidy programs, both from the E.U. as well as the national ones,” he said.
“The magic is the structure of the holding that is divided into more than 250 companies. At first sight, smaller agricultural companies of the group receive individually relatively small sums,” he said. But if you add it all up, he said, it amounts to billions.
Mr. Babis called Mr. Pergler one of his enemies and said there was nothing wrong with the way he had structured his former company.
Still, it was one of those subsidiaries that is at the heart of the scandal plaguing Mr. Babis.
In 2007, his company looked at investing in a farm known as Capi Hnizdo, or Stork’s Nest, about an hour outside Prague. Mr. Babis has offered varying explanations about what happened next, but no one disputes that the company decided to set up a subsidiary to develop the property.
Mr. Babis, in the interview, said that the project was the idea of his daughter, who loved horses and wanted a place where she could ride.
In creating a subsidiary, he was able to tap into some $2 million in European Union funds for the project. However, at the time, he did not disclose the shareholders of the newly formed company.
It was only later revealed, under pressure from Parliament, that they included his two children from his first marriage, his current wife and her brother.
The revelation — coming long after the former farm had opened for business as a hotel and resort, complete with a horse-riding school — gave his critics new ammunition.
Mr. Babis, in the interview, asserted repeatedly that questions had never been raised about the project until he decided to enter politics.
Those questions reached full boil as Mr. Babis’s ANO party competed in the parliamentary elections in 2017, with the Czech police bringing fraud charges against him and ten other people, including his two children from his first marriage.
When investigators sought to interview the children, their lawyer claimed that both suffered from mental illness and could not testify.
It was around this time that Andrej Babis Jr. left the country. In late December of 2017, he sent an email to the Czech police saying he was being held against his will in Crimea.
Mr. Babis, in the interview, said that his son had been on vacation, seeking to escape from the media glare, and there was nothing unusual about the trip.
Last month, two journalists, Jiri Kubik and Sabina Slonkova, working for the news website Seznam Zprávy, tracked down the son, who was now in Switzerland.
With his mother by his side, he at first declined to talk, but then claimed that, at the time of his trip to Crimea, he had been told he could either go on an extended “holiday” or be locked up in a mental institution.
Mr. Kubik defended his pursuit of that interview.
“Even if he is mentally ill, it does not mean that he cannot speak his mind,” he said, adding that his mother had been by his side the whole time and had never contradicted a word he said.
After Mr. Babis flew to Geneva last weekend, however, she issued a video statement saying that the reporters had asked leading questions and taken advantage of her son.
Mr. Babis accused the reporters of “terrorizing” his family and aggravating his son’s condition.
Critics of Mr. Babis are quick to note that the doctor who had diagnosed his eldest son as schizophrenic, Dita Protopopova, would later work for Mr. Babis at the Finance Ministry and join his ANO party.
Shortly after the report about Andrej Babis Jr. was published, she resigned from her position at the National Institute of Mental Health, and stepped down as an elected representative in a district of Prague.
Mr. Babis repeatedly said that all the charges against him were part of an orchestrated campaign and that those same people were now trying to use his family against him.
Asked if he now regretted getting involved in politics, he said, every day. But just as quickly, he made it clear that he was not going anywhere, no matter the cost.
“The truth is on my side,” Mr. Babis said. “I am very sorry this is making negative publicity, because all these people, which want to destroy me based on these lies, of course, hate me, because no one can corrupt me.”