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The grief of Czech politics

Czech police during an operation in Prague

The political crisis in the Czech Republic that has now resulted in the fall of the government was launched by a police investigation featuring three main aspects. The first aspect was the investigation into the following of the Prime Minister’s wife by the Military Intelligence Service on the instructions of the PM’s co-worker and lover, Jana Nagyová. Several people have been charged in relation to this scandal and it seems relatively open-and-shut. Nevertheless, the final result is that the two other aspects of the investigation have remained on the sidelines in terms of media interest and therefore on the sidelines of the public interest as well.

Connections between criminal underworld and political scene

The second aspect of the police investigation was the effort to prove connections between the criminal underworld and the political scene that are leading to extensive economic crime in state-owned companies and causing the Czech Republic billions of crowns in damages. With respect to this scandal, the police have initiated operations and performed several dozen house searches. According to the habits of police work, the first charges might be brought as a result of these extensive operations within two to three months. However, the Czech public and some media outlets are impatient. Since no charges against specific people had been filed one month after the house searches, the public has erroneously concluded that the police have found nothing and will not continue their investigation. The politicians at risk of criminal prosecution are quite boldly “pinning their hopes” to this trend. We will explore that in more detail later.

The criminal prosecution of three former MPs

The final and most-discussed aspect of the police investigation remains the criminal prosecution of three former MPs who are charged by the police with giving up their parliamentary seats in exchange for important jobs in state-owned enterprises (in the Czech Republic the term “cigar-stand” is used for such posts). The politicians are alleged to have committed the felony crime of accepting a bribe, since according to the Czech Criminal Code they have accepted something of personal benefit (a place in the management of a firm) in exchange for their obligation to secure the public interest. The constitutional obligation of MPs to serve until the end of their terms in office to the best of their ability is in everyone’s best interest. MPs are not supposed to serve in their personal interest or in exchange for the provision of personal favors.

Here it is appropriate to note that this scandal is also proof of links between the criminal underworld and politics, as the MPs who were charged requested posts in strategic state enterprises not merely for the salaries, but for the opportunity to influence the management of these state-owned firms in order to benefit the entrepreneurs with whom they are affiliated. The best proof of this is the fact that when debate was unleashed over whether the MPs had actually given up their seats in exchange for these posts (they have always denied this and continue to deny it, but police have evidence that this is the case), one former MP satisfied himself with the explanation that he had merely seated “his” person in the pre-arranged job instead of himself. The former MPs seem to have truly not been interested in the salaries paid them to perform these jobs, but in the opportunity to influence the firms strategically. Their ability to manage large firms is best demonstrated by the fact that one of them has bankrupted the firm in question and now faces criminal prosecution for asset-stripping another one.

Nevertheless, the main discussion in society has been based on a dispute over whether giving up one’s parliamentary seat in exchange for a post in an important firm is a crime or not. Even without knowing what public opinion surveys say, it is possible to claim that most of the Czech public believes such behavior is felonious. The staffing of positions in state-owned firms by politicians in return for remuneration, or in order for a specific political party to supervise the firm, has long been a thorn in the side of the Czech public. There are rather strong suspicions that politicians in the management of state-owned firms have also served the function of making it possible for specific entrepreneurs to finance criminal activity that harms this society. Those entrepreneurs are the sponsors both of political parties and of the politicians’ private expenditures.

Political agreements: unethical, however customary?

The politicians are defending themselves by saying political agreements cannot be criminalized. They might not be the most moral of arrangements, but they are customary the world over and cannot be criminalized. Police officers and state prosecutors, however, have presented the argument that the former MPs have actually committed felonies through this behavior and must be prosecuted. That opinion was subsequently confirmed by the first-instance discovery proceedings and a subsequent appeals court as part of the decision on whether the defendants should be remanded into custody. To be precise, the court confirmed that should the MPs’ mandates have been exchanged for posts in state-owned firms as the police claim (which will be the subject of a further evidentiary hearing), then that is indeed a felony. 

This development in the situation greatly gratified a significant portion of the Czech public. It was taken as proof that we are all equal before the law. The public had begun to doubt whether that is the case, as a result of the many scandals in which Czech politicians were suspected of wrongdoing only to see their cases “swept under the carpet”.

The decision of the Supreme Court

Now the Supreme Court of the Czech Republic has disruptively intervened in this matter. At the request of those defending the ex-MPs who have been charged, the court decided that even a former MP cannot be prosecuted because his or her behavior is covered by parliamentary immunity. Why? Article 27 paragraph 2 of the Constitution states that MPs’ speeches in the lower house are granted immunity from prosecution. Until now, experts (including the co-authors of the Constitution) understood this to mean that MPs are protected by this statute during their verbal speech when negotiating in the lower house. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted the statute to cover any act performed by an MP that is of a political nature (non-verbal or verbal, including the conclusion of agreements and compromises) and that has been performed anywhere on the premises of the building of the Chamber of Deputies.

Most experts disagree with this conclusion. Nevertheless, it is final and cannot be amended. What has it done? The public is now back to being sure that a group of super-humans exists in the Czech Republic, namely, MPs who, should they meet certain conditions, are able to commit felonies completely legally. As the Supreme Court verdict puts it: If, for example, an MP on the premises of the Chamber of Deputies announced an auction for a particular vote of his, and then voted according to the highest bidder, that would be an act of a political nature on the premises of the Chamber of Deputies and he could not be prosecuted for it. Ad absurdum, should MPs of a certain political party accept cash from a specific entity on the premises of the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for approving a specific piece of legislation, then that would also be an act of a political nature on the premises of the Chamber of Deputies and the MPs could not be prosecuted for it. 

What now? The decision by the Supreme Court is a victory for the top politicians in the Czech Republic. It does not mean that their behavior has been found not to constitute a crime, but it does mean the police are not permitted to investigate it further. The question of whether such immoral behavior is also felonious will probably remain unanswered. 

An unbiased observer of these events might expect the politicians to react to this judgment as follows: “Fine, we have won our battle to make sure ‘cigar-stands’ will never be reviewed by the police or by the Criminal Code. However, we have noticed the negative reaction of the public to the general distribution of ‘cigar-stands’ and the filling of posts in state-owned firms in exchange for remuneration. Therefore, we will design some measures addressing this and submit them to the public soon, and those measures will lead to this practice, which the public views so negatively, being raised to the same standards as that of general morality.”

Aggression against police officers and state prosecutors

Nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, top politicians have unleashed a heretofore unseen level of aggression against the police officers and state prosecutors who led this investigation. They are demanding not only their immediate resignations, but their punishment, both through criminal prosecution and through disciplinary actions. The defense attorneys of the politicians who were charged have filed 27 criminal charges against specific police officers. The question is where their actions will lead. Is this just the result of their egos being offended, or is this an expression of their desire for revenge?

There is reason to believe their motivation is far worse than that, even. From the available documents it is evident that the police officers started their work on a far broader scale. Their eyes are on the pilfering and robbing of specific state-owned firms. Their investigation is not over. It is very possible that the politicians, after their partial victory in the “cigar-stand scandal”, have unleashed this unprecedented aggression against specific police officers and state prosecutors precisely so they will not succeed in completing their primary work, i.e., to prove the links between the mafia – called “the godfathers” in the Czech Republic – and the politicians.

The heads of the Czech godfathers

It is no secret who the heads of the godfathers are. They are people like Roman Janoušek or Ivo Rittig. In order for the Czech public to get a full taste of the absurdity of the Czech judicial environment (which unequivocally includes the Supreme Court verdict mentioned above), this entire scandal is also surrounded with other paradoxes. For example, there is the fact that the representation of the head of the Czech godfathers, Ivo Rittig, has been undertaken by an attorney who used to be the Chief State Prosecutor in Prague (i.e., the number two in the hierarchy of state prosecutors), Vlastimil Rampula. During his time as state prosecutor it was said of him that he actually was working on behalf of the godfathers and sweeping certain scandals under the carpet. When he was removed from his post by Czech Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil (who is a bit better than the standard Czech politician and is therefore hated even by his own party), he became an attorney in private practice. Now, completely without any scruples, he has taken up the representation of the main godfather himself. It’s as if he wanted to tell the Czech public: “It’s all the same to us what you believe about us. We are the ones who run this country and we will do what we want here completely in the open.”

The radicalization of Czech society

All of these events are leading to the radicalization of Czech society. This society is now full of hatred. Unfortunately, when we look at surveys of voter preferences, it is evident that the public is not prepared to negotiate corrections to this situation through the ballot box. Obviously people continue to believe that what is happening in the Czech Republic is still a dispute between the left and the right. The public is not willing to admit that the behavior we are witnessing today was also perpetrated by the previous left-wing government – but back then the police were not yet mature enough to manage to reveal the scandals.

This is not a dispute between left and right, but a dispute between the politicians - who have remained in office too long, who have lost contact with reality, and who continue to be influenced on both left and right by the era prior to 1989 – and the citizens of this country. Exchanging the left for the right will not resolve it. The only thing that can resolve it is the complete generational renewal of the politicians who are seated in parliament by the parties, and perhaps even the replacement of the existing parliamentary parties with new ones. Unfortunately, after the experience with the Public Affairs (Věci veřejné) party, which got into parliament precisely by campaigning for the expulsion of old political structures from Czech politics and who, after their electoral success, went on to form a government with the political “dinosaurs”, the faith of the Czech voters in such a solution has been greatly undermined.

Václav Láska was from 1992-2003 a member of the Police of the Czech Republic and investigated the most serious economic scandals (the collapse of Investiční a poštovní banka and the collapse of Viktor Kožený's Harvardský investiční fondy). Since 2004 he has been a member of the Czech Bar Association (Česká advokátní komora). From 2004 - 2010 he was active as a member and later the chair of Transparency International Czech Republic's board of directors.

English translation by Gwendolyn Albert.