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Do you think you’ve seen everything in politics? You don’t know Andrej Babis, the ‘Czech Berlusconi’

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Kuldeep Singh
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The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, which thousands of Czechs demand that he resign, controls the country’s mainstream media and his personal fortune is estimated at 4,000 million

They compare it to Donald Trump, but it is more similar to Silvio Berlusconi. Andrej Babiš (Bratislava, 1954), current Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, faces an investigation for diverting millions in European funds to his own companies when he was Minister of Finance. Populist, climate change denier, an ally of the Polish and Hungarian governments, billionaire and owner of large business and media conglomerates, has faced almost 400 demonstrations against him throughout 2019 throughout the Czech Republic.

His party, ANO (Alliance of Dissatisfied Citizens, whose acronym means ‘Yes’ in Czech), created in 2011, came like many others with the economic crisis and corruption scandals of traditional parties. In 2017, the campaign that led him to the presidency of the Government attacked the euro, ensuring that his rivals would want to install it in the country, with great damage to the Czech economy. Although last November he was one of the defenders of the enlargement of the EU towards the Balkans (which France vetoed), it tilts towards the Eurosceptic discourse when it suits him, and the same leads the celebrations of the fall of the Soviet dictatorship that pacts for the Czech Communist Party to come to power.

His main headache is now the so-called ‘Stork Nest Case’. Uncovered by the Czech police itself, it investigates the diversion of 2 million euros of European aid to a company of its own when it was Minister of Finance between 2014 and 2017. This 2019, the Czechs have summoned 370 concentrations or demonstrations against him, according to Milion chvilek pro demokracii movement calculations (A Million Moments for Democracy). On November 16 they broke the record for the most massive mobilization in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism, bringing together 300,000 people in Letná Park in Prague.

This 2020 promises to continue the demonstrations against Babiš, which sees its popularity as jeopardized despite the relentless bombardment in its favor of the means of its property.

Babiš’s fortune is estimated at around 4,000 million euros, although since he was prime minister he has descended from being the second to the fourth richest person in the country, according to Forbes magazine. The origin of his personal fortune and his supposed business mastery (hence the comparisons with Trump) come from his father, Štefán Babiš, the senior position of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. According to his critics, the position of Andrej’s foreign representative and director of public companies during the transition from the communist dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s allowed him to take ownership of public companies that were privatized below their real value, creating the Agrofert macro business.

Of every two eggs that someone eats in the country, one is from Babiš

The ubiquity of Agrofert products in the Czech Republic is such that there is already a saying: “Of every two eggs that someone eats in the country, one is from Babiš”. And yes, it can be understood by the double mean sense. There is already an app, Bez Andreje (in checho, Sin Andrej, the first name of the president), with which the user can check those supermarket products belong to Agrofert or some subsidiary just by scanning its barcode, and thus not buy them.

Through Agrofert, Babiš owns Mafra Media Group, a conglomerate that brings together the two most-read digital portals in the country, two newspapers that include the second most read in the country, two television channels, three radio stations and several headers local and fashion or sports magazines. And Babiš, like Berlusconi, is aware of the power of the media. In 2013, shortly before the elections, he acquired the newspaper MF DNES, born in 1990 during the Velvet Revolution (against the communist regime) and one of the most prestigious media in the country. The 2014 elections would lead his party to second place in votes and he to be vice president.

But in October 2017 the tables changed. The Alliance of Dissatisfied Citizens managed to be the most voted force. Although with a simple majority, it doubled in the percentage of vote and representation to the second, the centre-right Democratic-Civic Party. The investiture went ahead with a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (15 seats) and votes in favour of the Communist Party (15 seats). The Social Democrats demonstrated a certain Stockholm syndrome, after being victims of the “bear hug” of their partner. In 2014, Babiš entered the government of Bohuslav Sobotka as vice president and finance minister. In 2017, shortly before the elections in which Babiš swept through, Sobotka forced him to resign between accusations of tax fraud and diversion of funds.

Something more than two years later, and with the ‘Stork Nest’ case uncovered, at least in the street the Czechs are demonstrating against the mass prime minister. However, it does not seem that his position is still in danger.

“Concerned” but without political rivals

The prime minister does have an advantage: “A strong political rival lacks”, explains Eliška Hradilková, a research journalist from the Czech newspaper Deník N who has closely followed Babiš’s career. So far the critics “come ‘alone’ from the street. The opposition is not united or mobilized to ask the prime minister for accountability”, says Hradilková. In an ideal world, Hradilková adds, “it would not even be necessary, because if the case of ‘Stork Nest’ continues, he should resign himself”. Given the personality and history of Babiš, it is unlikely.

However, Hradilková believes that the signs that the prime minister “is more concerned than he appears” are obvious. In the speech of November 17, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and just one day after the demonstration of 300,000 people asking him for accounts for his scandals in the center of Prague, “we saw a humble, moderate Babiš, something totally atypical in him and in his style of politics”, she says.

“On the other hand, during the month prior to the mobilizations and with the Brussels reports” Agrofert put, or attempt to put, important announcements on all headers not directly controlled by Babiš”.

Mikulas Ferjencik, the deputy in the Czech parliament for the Pirate Party – which governs the capital, Prague, and is the third national force – admits that “considering the current balance of power in parliament, it is very difficult for Babiš to lose your position”. The pirates support and celebrate the mobilizations for the resignation of the prime minister, even with the presence in them of his best-known leader, the Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib, but Ferjencik indicates that although “Czech democracy is in danger” for now of “street pressure”.

‘The stork is in the nest’

The legal controversy revolves around the so-called Lex Babiš, approved by the opposition and even those who were its government partners in 2017, while still serving as vice president and finance minister. This law forced him to abandon ownership of the Agrofert conglomerate in February 2017, formally now in the hands of a trust fund controlled by the family of Babiš himself.

In total the business network would consist of more than 200 firms, some of which, critics claim with the prime minister, survive thanks to public subsidies since the late 1990s and thanks to connections with the CSSD (The Czech Social Democratic Party) that the current Prime Minister already had before making the leap to politics. This circumstance and the business engineering carried out so that his family continues to control Agrofert have caused suspicions of tax fraud among the opposition.

Part of Babiš’s current fortress is due to his “intimate enemy” relationship with the current President of the Republic, Milos Zeman, a very powerful figure in the Social Democratic Party and almost as controversial as the Prime Minister himself. The suspicions of lack of judicial independence, in fact, are based on the fact that the Minister of Justice, Marie Benešová, of the CSSD, is a trusted person of the head of State Zeman. In spite of everything, it has been the Attorney General of the Czech Republic, Pavel Zeman – without family or political relationship with the former – who has continued with the investigations of the ‘Stork Nest’.

More damaging even for his image is his unclear relationship with the feared STB, the secret police of communist Czechoslovakia. A report from the Government of Slovakia – where the Babiš family comes from, he himself was born in Bratislava – revealed that the young Babiš, son of a senior Czechoslovak diplomacy officer at the time, worked between 1981 and 1989, the year of the fall of the regime, as a secret police sneak. Although he denounced the Slovak institution, Babiš failed to appear at the trial or provide the witnesses he had said to gather in his favor.

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