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Opinion: Czech Elections May Magnify Corruption

Image by David Sedlecký

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact decades ago, the United States pointed to the Czech Republic as a beacon of relative prosperity and success in Eastern Europe, but an upcoming October parliamentary election may change that direction entirely. The pivotal nation in Central Europe is attractive for foreign direct investment, but not clear for how long.

As with all Central and Eastern Europe nations once influenced by the leviathan of the USSR to the east, and now Russia, corruption has always been a problem. Unfortunately, this scourge of the region is growing once again in Czechia.

The EU anti-corruption report of 2014 singled out the Czech Republic as lagging in its corruption scores. The Global Competitiveness Index 2016-2017 warns of Czechia’s favoritism, lack of transparency, mistrust in politicians, and the unreliability of the legal framework. Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index reports the Czech Republic slipping 10 places in 2016/2017. The reason is a weak judiciary, unable to deal with the problem, and stagnating anti-corruption legislation. And it may get worse, if the elections return opaque and pro-Russian forces.

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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. This societal rot plagues Eastern Europe, including Russia, today. Oligarchs usually run the country, skimming off the top.

Unfortunately, in the Czech Republic powerful business interests are coming into power. Exhibit 1 is Andrej Babiš, an very influential Czech billionaire. His ANO party and muscular media empire are ascendant. On 20 and 21 of October 2017, the Czech Republic is going to vote for the members of the Chamber of Deputies, which will elect the Prime Minister. Opinion polling has shown that ANO is the most popular political party in the country and Babiš the favorite for PM.

The rise of ANO to power would likely negatively affect the already gloomy political environment, generating the biggest conflict of interest in the country’s post-1989 story. The Czech Republic is sick of pervasive power abuses, but about to give power to a “Babišconi” (a play on the former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s name). Like the Italian, Babiš is viewed as a billionaire mogul who owns a media conglomerate, and who is more interested in its own business than cleaning house.

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Another corrosive influence within Czech politics is the uncomfortably close relationship of its presidency with the Kremlin. Soviet and Russian security services’ involvement in European politics is legendary. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who worked in the neighboring East Germany, would like nothing better than to have outsized influence on a country that is a model for Central European success and a member of NATO. Currently, Czech President Miloš Zeman, a sympathizer of Putin, who has supported Russia’s Syrian adventure and her involvement in Donbass, may be re-elected in January 2018.

The West imposed sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent support of the pro-Russian secessionist rebellion in East Ukraine. Zeman has gone so far as to criticize sanctions on Russia, calling them ‘stupid and ineffective’.

Allowing Kremlin confidants into the inner sanctums of Czech political power is 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.

Babiš and Zeman could be the agents of change to move the Czech Republic away from the EU and NATO, and into the Russian bear iron embrace. Before bringing to power a government that will accelerate the decline of the rule-of-law, and politicize the court system further, the Czech voters should cast ballots with open eyes as to the inevitable fruits of such a poll. Elections have consequences. The consequences of this election could be the fading of NATO and weakening of the EU as we know it today.

Originally posted at The Washington Times

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