‘Czech Berlusocni’ – A Threat to EU Unity?

Europe’s year of political upheaval isn’t over. In the Czech republic, a charismatic, controversial billionaire dubbed the ‘Czech Berlusconi’ – and more recently the ‘Czech Trump’ – is poised to take power.

Hot on the heels of Austria’s hard shift to the right, this weekend’s legislative election in the Czech Republic could be another shock to the EU which is still digesting the results in France and Germany, not to mention Brexit.

In his 2017 book What I Dream About When I Happen to be Sleeping, Andrej Babis set out an agenda that would transform, and some claim destroy Czech democracy.

He wants to abolish institutional checks and balances such as the Senate and regional government, he wants to ditch proportional representation and have the country vote first-past-the-post.

Read the full story in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Babiš and Zeman Plotting Post-Election Czexit?

As Rebecca Perring writes in Express.co.uk a post-election Czexit could be in play. Excerpt below.


Billionaire former finance minister Andrej Babis is heading up a campaign steered towards Czechs who feel forgotten by the Brussels club, and his anti-EU rhetoric is gathering momentum, as polls predict he will seize power in the October elections. 



His anti-establishment party ANO (Yes) boasts a list of policies, which outline plans to stamp out Brussels authority, including the rejection of the euro because it would “be another issue that Brussels would be meddling with”.

Mr Babis’ victory would be a crushing blow for the embattled bloc, which is already trying to stem growing populism, just recently highlighted in Germany after the AfD got 12.6 per cent of the vote in the German elections.

A decisive ANO victory on October 20 could further cement the Czechs’ anti-European Union views at a time when France and Germany are calling for greater Brussels integration in a bid to rebuild the bloc.

‘This is Russia’ Troubled EU will NOT meddle in elections, Brussels…

Babis is steering towards an independence referendum in Czech Republic if he takes power

Billionaire former finance minister Andrej Babis is heading up a campaign steered towards Czechs who feel forgotten by the Brussels club

The latest survey by polling agency Median shows the Social Democrats getting only 14.5 per cent of the vote, trailing ANO’s 26.5 per cent and just ahead of the pro-Russian Communist Party, with 13 per cent.

Mr Babis, 63, is known for his controversial comments in the wake of the Berlin Christmas market terror attack.

The Czech billionaire said German Chancellor Angela Merkel bore responsibility for the atrocity and migrants had “no place” in Europe.

The Czech Republic only joined the EU in 2004 and has been the beneficiary of billions in development funds, but has some of the most hostile public opinion.

Babis said Merkel bore responsibility for the Berlin terror attack

It has long been embroiled in an ongoing row with Brussels over its migrant quotas after the Czech Republic announced it will refuse to take in any refugees under the scheme.

Prague defied repeated calls by eurocrats to speed up the rate at which it processed people by only taking in a handful of the 2,691 migrants which Brussels order it to in its quota.

The move prompted the EU to warn it would risk losing funding unless they meet quotas for allowing migrants to enter the country, and take their fair share of the escalating crisis.

Meanwhile, the gap between the East and West of the bloc appeared to widen during Europe’s escalating refugee crisis as Mrs Merkel welcomed refugees in to Germany with open arms, while Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary saw a boost in anti-immigration and eurosceptic parties.

Babis is tapping into the minds of disgruntled Czechs

Jiri Pehe, a prominent political commentator and advisor to former president Vaclav Havel, said: “There is a danger that the Czech Republic could now slide towards the kind of populism seen in Hungary and Poland.

“They could do a lot of damage in the EU.”

But Matthew Mokhefi-Ashton, politics and international relations expert from Nottingham-Trent University told Express.co.uk that although Mr Babis will put up a good fight against the EU, he is unlikely to call a independence referendum.

He said: “While I think he’ll continue to talk a good fight and sabre rattle, I’d be very surprised if he actually calls a referendum.

“If he loses it he’d lose prestige, if he wins it he’d have to preside over massive cuts in public spending. It would be a lose lose situation.”

Mr Mokhefi-Ashton said countries including Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic “get significantly more out of the EU financially then they put in”.

Speaking on a recent episode of the foreign policy podcast Altamar, host Peter Schechter described Babis as a populist threat to the European order, representing many of the worst trends sweeping the region.

Czech Republic on Brink of Stepping Back Behind Iron Curtain

As L. Todd Wood reports in The Washington Times the Czech Republic is on the verge of slipping back into Russia’s “iron embrace”. Excerpt below:

One of the hallmarks of the ex-Soviet countries is the reign of the self-serving elite, which evolved from the old communist “nomenklatura” — the top party cadre. Oligarchs usually run the country, skimming off the top.

Unfortunately, in the Czech Republic, powerful business interests are coming into power. Exhibit A is Andrej Babis, a very influential billionaire. His ANO party and the powerful media empire he controls are ascendant. On Oct. 20 and 21, Czech voters will choose the members of the Chamber of Deputies, which will elect the prime minister. Opinion polling suggest ANO is the country’s most popular political party, making Mr. Babis the favorite to be the next prime minister.

Mr. Babis is viewed as a billionaire media mogul who is more interested in his own business interests than in cleaning house.

Another corrosive influence is the uncomfortably close relationship of President Milos Zeman with the Kremlin. Soviet and Russian security services’ involvement in European politics is legendary. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who worked in neighboring East Germany, would like nothing better than to have outsize influence on a NATO member seen as a model for Central European success. Currently, Mr. Zeman, a sympathizer of Mr. Putin who has supported Russia’s policies in Syria and Ukraine, may be re-elected in January 2018.

Allowing Kremlin confidants into the inner sanctums of Czech political power sets a dangerous precedent. It is no secret that Martin Nejedly, chief executive of the Czech branch of the Russian energy firm Lukoil, is a close confidant of President Zeman.
Mr. Babis and Mr. Zeman could be the agents of change to move the Czech Republic away from the EU and NATO and into the Russian bear’s iron embrace. Before bringing to power a government that accelerates the decline of the rule of law and politicizes the court system further, 

Czech voters should consider the inevitable fruit of their choice. Elections have consequences. The consequences of this election could be a weakening of NATO and the EU as we know them today.

Czech Police File Fraud Charges Against Andrej Babiš

Cynthia Kroet writes in Politico that Andrej Babiš has been formally charged by Czech Police. Excerpt below.

Police filed charges against Babiš, a former finance minister, and his deputy Jaroslav Faltýnek for subsidy fraud linked to a farm and conference center nearly a decade ago. Babiš is believed to be behind a plan to acquire the EU funds that were only meant for small businesses.

PM candidate Andrej Babiš already lost his parliamentary immunity this summer. If the case is brought to court and if the men are found guilty, they face potential prison sentences.

Babiš is the leader of the centrist ANO party, which looks set to win the most votes in next week’s legislative election, according to polls, but it could fall short of an overall majority. If Babiš does become prime minister, he would again be immune from prosecution.

Will the Czech Donald Trump Be the Next Prime Minister?

andrej Babis

As Peter Laca writes in Bloomberg  Czech voters may have found their own version of Donald Trump. Excerpt below.


Like the U.S. in 2016, voters in the Czech Republic look set to hand power to a populist billionaire who attacks traditional parties and promises to run the state as one of his businesses. Andrej Babis is leading in opinion polls by a wide margin before Oct. 20-21 elections despite being a target of criminal investigation over alleged fraud — he denies any wrongdoing — as well as facing accusations of conflict of interests stemming from his chemical, food and media empire. Anti-establishment sentiment often spreads at times of economic malaise; Babis’s rise, more unusually, has come amid strong growth, record-low joblessness and robust wage increases under a coalition he’s shared with the Social Democrats.


1. What explains Babis’s rise?


The second-richest Czech, with a fortune estimated at $4 billion, Babis stormed the country’s politics four years ago, when his ANO party was the runner-up in legislative elections. (ANO means “yes” in Czech and is also an acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, the name of a Babis’s political movement.) ANO depicts traditional parties — the ones that have held power since the fall of communism in 1989 — as corrupt and incompetent. As finance minister from 2014 until his firing in May 2017, Babis got credit for overseeing an economic rally that helped cut the republic’s budget deficit – a badge of honor in a nation averse to debt and proud of its industrial heritage. One of his main initiatives forced businesses to link cash registers to the tax office via the internet, significantly improving tax compliance.


2. Won’t the criminal charges derail his campaign?


It doesn’t seem like it. Less than a month before elections, Czech police filed criminal charges against Babis over the alleged misuse of European Union funds at a recreation center belonging to his business empire. (At a 2016 parliamentary hearing, Babis said the center was owned by his children and brother-in-law when the application for EU funds was filed.) Babis calls the case politically motivated. The immediate fallout may be limited, since it’s highly unlikely that a court could issue a verdict before the election. Earlier this year, the Social Democrats teamed up with the opposition to tighten the law on conflicts of interest, forcing Babis to transfer his assets to two trust funds. The affair had a negligible impact on his popularity, and he’ll become the owner of the companies again if he leaves politics.


3. What kind of prime minister would he be?



As with any election, that depends on the strength of his prospective victory. All of ANO’s potential coalition partners reject Babis’s most radical idea — changing the electoral system from proportional to majority representation, which would require amending the constitution. Babis also proposes reducing the number of ministers in the government and simplifying parliamentary procedures to expedite the adoption of laws. He promises to streamline state management by, for instance, centralizing purchases of office supplies and limiting the use of outside contractors. Babis says he wouldn’t meddle with the judiciary, distancing himself from the kind of measures seen in neighboring Poland that sparked a conflict with the EU over the rule of law.


4. Would he try to shake up the economy?


Almost certainly not. ANO isn’t seeking a stronger state role in the economy, other than Babis’ relatively modest aspiration to assert more direct control of the government-controlled utility, CEZ AS. As finance minister, Babis stopped the Social Democrats from slapping special levies on banks and utilities. The $193 billion economy is highly resilient to government change, following a decade in which the country had five different prime ministers. The biggest industries and banks are in foreign hands and the state has largely avoided any major interference.


5. How might ANO go about forming a government?


Even the most optimistic polls for Babis indicate he will probably need a ruling partner. With as many as eight parties possibly crossing the 5 percent election threshold, building a coalition may be difficult in a fragmented legislature. Babis has ruled out cooperation with extreme parties like the Communists and the anti-immigration Freedom and Direct Democracy. Apart from that, the tycoon has been vague about a possible coalition make-up, saying only that he sees some people inside other parties that he could work with. 


6. Could he try to maintain the current coalition?


That’s one of the options. Though he calls the Social Democrats lazy and fiscally irresponsible, Babis has stopped short of rejecting future cooperation with them. After all, their ruling alliance, despite many differences and constant bickering, became the first since 2002 to survive a full four-year term. Before Babis was formally charged with a crime, President Milos Zeman had said even that scenario wouldn’t stop him from asking the billionaire to form a government if ANO wins the elections. There’s always the chance that Babis’s opponents could team up in a broad coalition to prevent him from taking power. But polls indicate it might be impossible to form a government without ANO.


7. What are the biggest risks of a Babis-led government?


Babis lacks the traditional political philosophy or ideological anchor that defines mainstream parties. He has shown he can reverse a stance if he sees a political advantage. He initially spoke in favor of joining the euro area — a move long supported by most Czech export-oriented companies — but then became a vocal opponent of the currency switch, in line with the euroskeptic views of most Czechs. While he’s critical of the EU, and blames German leader Angela Merkel’s migrant policies for opening her nation’s borders to terrorists, he isn’t seeking a referendum on leaving the bloc. He says sanctions against Russia are ineffective and opposes closer economic integration within EU.

There Are Accusations that Babis Was a Russian Spy. The Truth?

Slovakia’s Constitutional Court has ruled there is sufficent evidence that Babiš was an agent of the StB, the communist secret police. The Slovak keeper of communist police archives has uncovered at least 12 documents outlining Babiš recruitment, under the code name Bureš, as well as extensive records of spying activities.

Thursday’s ruling means any new court action (which Babiš has pledged to launch) will play out differently. The Constitutional Court ruled that the former StB police officers whose previous statements helped clear Babiš’ name should not be accepted as evidence. The former officers were previously compromised by their own actions and can’t be relied on as objective witnesses. 

The Constitutional Court added the original case should not have been brought against the National Memory Institute, since it is only a keeper of archives and not responsible for their content or interpretation.

The ANO leader reacted quickly to the ruling, saying that he regretted that the court cases would re-start. And he suggested that the timing of the ruling, just over one week ahead of Czech elections to the lower house of parliament, was not by chance, adding that his Czech political rivals were taking advantage of their Slovak connections. 

Even if the ANO leader were found to have been a former communist secret police agent it would not disqualify him from being prime minister or a member of the government under the current Czech rules. 

Nonetheless, there were a chorus of reactions from other Czech political leaders that with such a shadow about his past, Babiš is not fit to be prime minister or a government member. Babiš also faces criminal charges for fraud in connection with European funds. Political analysts forecast this pre-election scandal will not affect the ANO’s lead in the polls.

Is the Czech Republic Falling Under Putin’s Shadow?

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Peter Feaver argues that Russian influence is growing in the Czech Republic, with serious ramifications for the next election:

On Oct. 20, voters in the Czech Republic will go to the polls for Parliamentary elections. Opinion polls show that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant ANO party will win a convincing victory.

The Czech Republic has long been a bastion of pro-Western, liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan pluralism. The Prague Spring of 1968 challenged Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 ended it.

Never one to forgive or forget, Russia has for the past 20 years pursued a single-minded yet sophisticated counterrevolutionary campaign to roll back the changes wrought by heroes such as Czech Nobel Laureate Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president. Their covert action aims to undermine public confidence in state institutions, weaken the rule of law, and put an end to the dream of a united Europe “whole and free.”

The Kremlin has achieved stunning successes. Britain voted to leave the EU. NATO ally Turkey is now installing Russia’s most sophisticated air defense system, not compatible with the Atlantic Alliance. Far-right movements have made historic gains in France and Germany. Russian fingerprints are all over the Catalan independence movement in Spain. Governments or politicians whose interests align more closely with Moscow than Brussels have taken power in Hungary, Serbia, Moldova, and Bulgaria.

In 2017, the Czech Republic risks becoming the latest in the ever-expanding club of oligarch-riddled regimes that Russia has helped engineer. The disruptive populism promoted by Andrej Babis, the leader of the ANO party and the putative prime minister, may make the Czech Republic the latest casualty in Putin’s relentless campaign to weaken the West from within.

Babis is a billionaire who owns Agrofert group, a conglomerate of more than 250 companies spanning chemicals, agriculture, and media, valued by Forbes magazine at $3.4 billion. He served as minister of finance from 2014 to 2017, when he was fired due to allegations of tax fraud. In addition, Parliament has recommended that he be prosecuted for EU subsidy fraud.

Despite these setback, or perhaps because of them, Babis has successfully positioned himself and ANO as outside disrupters who can “drain the swamp” in Prague and return power to the people. His record as a successful businessman and manager appeals to voters, as do his calls to curb immigration, impose fiscal discipline, and limit ties to Europe. Unfortunately, the line between public good for the Czech people and private gain for Babis becomes quickly blurred in ANO’s slick campaign marketing.

The party’s close association with the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, considerably strengthens the political fortunes of Babis and ANO. Zeman has supported Putin’s intervention in Syria and endorsed Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine. He defined the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war between rebels and the state, effectively denying any Russian aggression or military presence on Ukrainian soil. Zeman opposed EU sanctions on Russia, calling them “ineffective” and “stupid.”

Zeman’s ties to senior Kremlin figures and Russian oligarchs are no secret. He is a friend of Vladimir Yakunin, former director of Russian Railways, and the former high-ranking officer of the KGB. Martin Nejedly, the CEO of the Czech branch of the Russian energy firm Lukoil, is an official adviser to Zeman.

Zeman and Babis share a strong Eurosceptic streak. Despite proclaiming support for remaining in the EU and NATO, Zeman told Czech Radio that he “will do everything for [Czechs] to have a referendum and be able to express themselves” on membership in both organizations.

A determined and relentless Kremlin is systematically dismantling the security architecture of the post-Cold War international order. Nations that were once beacons of principled resistance to tyranny — first Hungary and now the Czech Republic, are succumbing to a new form of Russian power projection: weakening from within.

In this 21st-century assault on democratic values and Euro-Atlantic institutions, there are no invading troops or tanks. Rather, the forces of subversion are less visible and subtler. They are to be seen in corruption investigations that go nowhere, or independent newspapers that go out of business, or corporate mergers without a clear money trail.

Central Europe and the Balkans are slowly but surely slipping away from the West’s embrace. This is clearly not an accident, but can it be prevented?

The United States should be neither blind nor passive in the face of this danger. America and its European allies must resolutely resist Russia’s efforts to restore the Soviet sphere of influence to the countries once behind the Iron Curtain.

Hopefully, it is not too late. And here’s a prediction: Whither goes the Czech Republic, so goes the rest Eastern and Central Europe. If the heirs of Tomas Masaryk, Aleksander Dubcek, and Havel surrender the legacy of honor, integrity, principle, and freedom that these men of greatness bequeathed to them, the forces of darkness will have won a great and strategic victory.

Czech Leaders Battle Over Russia Sanctions

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka rebukes President Miloš Zeman Tuesday over reckless comments against EU Russia sanctions.

 

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka took to Twitter Tuesday to publicly scold President Miloš Zeman and reiterate that Mr Zeman’s Pro-Kremlin agenda is not supported by the Czech government.

 

 

During his address to the Council of Europe President Zemen fondly recalled his April 1999 speech to the COE. In which the then Prime Minister celebrated the Czech Republic’s freedom from totalitarian rule. Mr Zemen then shamelessly went on to dismiss Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea as a “fait accompli” suggesting Ukraine accept financial compensation over Russian withdrawal from Crimea.

 

The sanctions have hit Russian business interests hard, the recent banishment of Volga-Dnepr from future Pentagon contracts was especially damaging.

 

Perhaps if Mr Zemen spent more time recalling the history of the Czech Republic he would reconsider his current stance on Russian sanctions.

The Last Rebellion of Prime Minister Sobotka

On the day the Czech Republic commemorates the May Uprising of the Czech People, Bohuslav Sobotka’s prime minister unleashed a conflict on the Czech political scene that he has not experienced yet. “Bohuslav Sobotka decided that he would make a hard fight against all. Not just to the president, “explains Sputnik, political analyst Štěpán Kotrba, of the last few hours.

Bohuslav Sobotka has taken his words back and will not serve the government’s demise. What do you think about it?

 

Well, obviously he wants to make Andrei Babiše the martyr and the winner of the parliamentary elections, as he once said. To say in the beginning that he is turning away Andrei Babiše was a strong gesture. It meant de facto terminating the government’s activities half a year before the elections with the departure of all YES ministers. Zeman said he would invite Babis and ask him if he wanted to be a martyr.

 

Andrej Babiš responded by pulling the horse on the E5 with the YES ministers remaining, even though he will be expelled from the government. Going alone refused. The martyr’s office was prepared by folding the office into paper crates. Sobotka pulled the king and announced that he did not want to make a martyr from Babis. That is why the whole government will resign.

 

Well, obviously he wants to make Andrei Babiše the martyr and the winner of the parliamentary elections, as he once said. To say in the beginning that he is turning away Andrei Babiše was a strong gesture. It meant de facto terminating the government’s activities half a year before the elections with the departure of all YES ministers. Zeman said he would invite Babis and ask him if he wanted to be a martyr.

Andrej Babiš responded by pulling the horse on the E5 with the YES ministers

 

remaining, even though he will be expelled from the government. Going alone refused. The martyr’s office was prepared by folding the office into paper crates. Sobotka pulled the king and announced that he did not want to make a martyr from Babis. That is why the whole government will resign.

The Prime Minister had gone after the president and hoped to convince him. He did not convince. He made his life harder and he was a jester. After a while, we all saw TV live. Today, the Prime Minister has returned to the appeal of Andrej Babiš. He had already been able to deliver the document at Castle. Babiše wants to appeal to 9 May on Victory Day. However, the coalition, according to Pavel Bělobrádek, will meet on Wednesday, one day later. In my opinion, then, I will follow the variant I mentioned in the previous interview with you.

Could you remind this reader?

 

The President will consider responding to this “without undue delay”. But he will consider it responsibly. Certainly he invites to the Castle as Andrei Babis to ask him about martyrdom. He will most likely invite the chairman of the KDU-ČSL again. Maybe also the pretenders for the position of the appointed prime minister from the CSSD. Then he goes to China. Along with him, half of the ministers flee to Beijing. Probably after the return, probably not until 18 May. The President’s spokesman has already confirmed this.

 

On the nervous cries of Bohuslav Sobotka, the Castle will respond by referring to the original intention of the Prime Minister to resign until mid-May. That is, “no rush”. According to the chairman of the KDU-ČSL, the situation can “sit down”. In the meantime, according to Bělobrádek, the duty of all members of the government to continue to work.

What’s the whole story?

 

In my opinion, this retrospective of the whole case shows that the Prime Minister shows the impulsivity and emotionality of his decision, the inability to proceed. He himself maneuvered himself into a situation where he has no other way out. This does not imply Sobotka’s judgments and the judgments of the whole conflict.

 

For three and a half years to attack Milos Zeman and sit with Babis in the government, for three and a half years to dismantle the plurality of opinions in the CSSD, then to morally outrage, to Babis, to resign, then not to appeal again, then to resign and not to give it. And finally, again to appeal – not to appeal. All too late, without media preparation, wider consent and consultation, alone. This is not the responsible Prime Minister.

 

If it happened in another country where the Prime Minister’s position was perceived as a determining factor, the crown-to-bottom rate would fall, and the state’s economy would turn to tragedy.

 

Fortunately, the Czech Stock Exchange is wiser than Sobotka. That is, in my opinion, what Sobotka Zeman has to say. Had the matter consulted with the President in advance, and he did not have a muscular speech at the microphone at first, without a solution, Zeman would probably have helped solve the situation even though he did not like it. He would look like a comic in front of the president, but not publicly.

 

But Sobotka had first decided to act as an adult, a mature man, then as a cautious tactician, and eventually as a crooked desperate. He lost the last remnants of respect and respect to the president. Milos Zeman is able to play chess and does not forgive any small mistakes, the less stupidity.

The recall of the constitutional crisis after a rather successful three-year rule with Andrej Babis is stupidity.

Does that mean Sobotka decided to go into a tough clash with the country’s president?

 

Bohuslav Sobotka has decided to go into a tough clash against everyone. Not only with the president. The threat of the demise of the government certainly did not impress any of the ministers. I ask you, who wants to be governed voluntarily with such a Prime Minister? Given that Sobotka is still not expected to win the next election, it is a handicap.

 

And I’m not talking about Babis’s tapping, from which the first deputy prime minister blames the already dismissed journalist Mafr Mark Pribil and a private agency with contacts at the UZSI (intelligence), mediated by the Interior Minister Chovance. And the Interior Minister obviously does not want to save the case.

Do you expect the government coalition to collapse?

 

The collapse of the coalition had already taken place. Although it is a government, in fact, economically successful, it is not a government that cooperates with the program, that is, the government of three separate entities that rule from reason, not from love or program proximity. The factual breakdown of the coalition, the fall of the government, and the interruption of the administration of the ministries in the middle of the year, no one wants economic judgment because it is half a year until the date of the ordinary elections.

 

A budget needs to be drawn up and projects and investments, especially those linked to European money, must be completed. It is nonsense to shorten the voting period by a month, even more nonsense is to make holiday choices. The desperate Prime Minister has made a series of desperate steps in an effort to strengthen his party’s support for voters. The strangers are now in a friction about him, perhaps he will support some of the undecided voters in the short term, but few can believe in his ability to stand.

 

The turn is Zeman . And Zeman does not seem to be unsuccessful. Sobotka took over the party with 25% support to the public, now the CSSD preferences are half. One of the oldest sides of the political spectrum is the fall trajectory. And that is tragic for Czech politics. The left-wing policy should be to maintain the stability of the country and not to let the left fall.