The Czech Soap Opera

The crisis in the Czech Republic that involves the conservative-led coalition government is not only a case of egregious political cronyism. What makes this disgraceful affair special is that it was the infidelity that caused the police investigation to move from City Hall to the highest echelons of power.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | August 20, 2013

The former prime minister of the Czech Republic with his wife and his chief of staff
Rightist Prime Minister Petr Nečas with his wife and Jana Nagyova, his powerful chief of staff and mistress.

A combination of corruption and old fashioned post-KGB active measures ushered in a serious government crisis in the Czech Republic. Whether engineered by the post-Communists or brought about by rightist hubris, or both, the crisis continues to fester and may lead to early elections.

In April, I described a creeping re-Communization of the Czech Republic’s prime research and vetting outfit, the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR). I asserted confidently that this was part and parcel of a campaign by the local post-Communists and their collaborators to reassert themselves. Known by their detractors as the “reds and the pinks,” the newly ascendant leftists now control the upper house of the parliament and the presidency in Prague. The USTR had been a bane of their existence because of its fine work to commemorate the victims and to condemn the perpetrators of Nazi and, especially, Communist crimes. Thus, the post-Communists and their allies took it over and purged its personnel.

But the real target was always the conservative-led coalition government of the Czech Republic. I witnessed its fall when in Prague in June 2013. However, the leftist offensive commenced a couple of years earlier. It accelerated after the progressive success in the local elections last fall. Further, it was given a tremendous boost when the post-Communist socialist Milos Zeman won the presidency in January 2013. What transpired resembled a Berlusconiesque soap opera with a sinister post-KGB twist.

In January 2012, the clandestine policemen of the Unit to Combat Organized Crime (Útvaru pro odhalování organizovaného zločinu – ÚOOZ) launched an investigation into the links of the local mafia with Prague’s City Hall bureaucrats. The plainclothesmen and public prosecutors ran the operation out of a provincial town to avoid leaks in the nation’s capital, no mean feat since hundreds of law enforcement personnel were privy to it. They also received assistance from Austrian law enforcement. They conducted surveillance and staged provocations. They were ubiquitous.

How was the operation kept secret then? The Czech police answers to the prime minister, and not the president. Further, the ÚOOZ were ostensibly delivering on the conservative premier’s electoral promise to combat official corruption. The prime minister and his minister of the interior, who supervises the police directly, were left in the dark until the very end, when, at night on June 12, 2013, the plainclothesmen appeared before the head of the government to inform him about the imminent arrests. In the end, they sprang the trap and netted eight people: military intelligence officers and conservative politicians of the ruling Civic Democrats (ODS), including Jana Nagyova, the chief of staff of the rightist prime minister Petr Nečas. Two prominent businessmen, or “lobbyists,” fled abroad to avoid arrest. Nagyova was connected to one of them, Ivo Rittig, and the police claim that the link prompted them to monitor her communications which led to proof of abuse of power, influence peddling, and bribery.

By the kleptocratic standards of the post-Communist world, the evidence secured by the police was rather unimpressive: less than 10 million dollars and perhaps 80 pounds of gold in bars, most of it kept in regular bank deposit vaults. But the circumstances were most convoluted. There is no denying connections between politicians, businessmen, and gangsters. In fact, in post-Communism the three categories can and do overlap; this nefarious nexus intensifies as one travels east. In the Czech Republic the bond is relatively mild, placing the nation at number 54 in Transparency International’s scale. But the involvement of Nagyova was a serious matter.

Since 2006, her career has been tied to the prime minister. He secured her ascent from a provincial backwater in Karlove Vary to the government chancellery in Prague. During a brief hiatus, when she was not directly under him, Nečas fixed his protégé with a gig at the Defense Ministry, where Nagyova “consulted” despite lacking any qualifications in the field. Her last real job was in the accounting department of a porcelain factory in her native Chodov. And her dubious claim to fame, while chief of staff, consisted of embarrassing revelations of plagiarism in her master thesis. But who would reject a work submitted by a student who was also the right hand of the premier? Despite all that, her boss showered her with generous performance bonuses, up to $20,000 monthly, the news of which was duly leaked to the media.

The scandal is not only a case of egregious political cronyism. What makes this disgraceful affair special is that it was infidelity that caused the police investigation to move from the city hall bottom feeders to the highest echelons of power. Namely, Nagyova is Nečas’s girlfriend. He dumped his wife for her. But the belle was insecure and she had military intelligence officers follow Radka Nečasova. She also ordered them around via text messages, and babbled openly on her cell phone. It seems that they also may have done some other chores for her, including the liaison with shady businessmen. That is how they appeared on the radar of the ÚOOZ. Perhaps the good old GRU-KGB rivalry also kicked in.

In June everything unraveled for Nečas. After a couple of days in denial, the politician called it quits. His government fell. As prescribed by the Constitution, Civic Democrats tapped the speaker of the lower house Miroslava Nemcová to assemble a new government. Out of 200 deputies, she secured 101 votes in support (including two jailed on corruption charges unrelated to the current scandal). President Zeman rejected her bid and appointed one of his own post-Communist followers, Jiří Rusnok. This was widely perceived, and denounced, as a leftist head of state’s grab for power. However, Rusnok failed to gain enough support in the parliament and his cabinet fell in early August. This may necessitate calling for an early election. A supermajority of 120 deputies is needed to accomplish that. The post-Communists and their allies are convinced that they will benefit from the dissolution of the parliament as they have the momentum. The conservatives are in retreat.

Meanwhile, the opposition moved to strip Nečas of his parliamentary immunity. Although he was not implicated in the Nagyova influence peddling scheme, the disgraced prime minister stands accused of a different crime, namely an alleged bribe that prompted three ODS parliamentarians to quit because they opposed the government’s plan to raise taxes. After exiting the parliament, and, thus, saving their public reputations as anti-tax warriors, they were awarded lucrative jobs in government-owned corporations. Nagyova was alleged to have been the go-between who sealed the deal for her prime minister.

Nečas talks about leaving politics, still professing his ignorance of the Nagyova corruption affair. Former prime minister has never explained, however, why it was that he had abruptly announced his divorce from his wife just a few days before the June 12 bust. Coincidence or damage control?

The secret policemen, on their part, maintain that their targeting of Nagyova stemmed from the logic of the investigation. However, catching the prime ministerial chief of staff in flagranti was rather convenient from the point of view of the reds and pinks. And how were the policemen able to operate without informing their nominal boss, Nečas? Some suspect nefarious disloyalty of his interior minister or some other intrigue. And, why were the two businessmen who were key suspects able to flee? Who tipped them off?

On the one hand, there seems to be plenty of evidence of corruption among some conservatives. On the other hand, we have no proof of foul play on the part of the police. However, by at least a few of the personnel, much of the training, and many methods, the ÚOOZ stems from the pre-1990 Communist secret police (StB). Would Zeman and his comrades have been able to resist resorting to active measures to achieve their goal of toppling the conservatives? Would KGB-trained specialists demur out of loyalty to a conservative government?

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.