Czechs and Balances: arrests in Prague may actually be good news

Ekonom_49_450Prague is, needless to say, agog with the latest and biggest corruption story: the raids this morning by some 400 police officers, led by the ÚOOZ organized crime division, which led to a series of arrests. They included several members of parliament including the former head of the parliamentary party of the Civic Democrats (ODS)—the main party in the increasingly shaky governing coalition—Petr Tluchor, former agriculture minister Ivan Fuksa (ODS), as well as Government Office director and CEZ energy utility board member Lubomir Poul, former Military Intelligence chief Ondrej Pálenik, who now heads the State Material Reserves Administration. However, perhaps the most politically-charged is the arrest of Jana Nagyová, head of Prime Minister Petr Nečas’s private office head (and, according to scurrilous, unconfirmed, but not necessarily incorrect rumor, the now-divorcing PM’s lover). The very fate of the government may hinge on Nagyová’s fate, with the prospect of a no-confidence motion being tabled or even a fragmentation of that is already a fragile and, arguably, dysfunctional government.

Parliament interrupting its session, the value of the Czech koruna dipped slightly, and president Miloš Zeman—who may relish the opportunity to throw his weight around more—has called a meeting tomorrow with Nečas, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek and the national police chief. The main opposition party, the Social Democrats, have predictably called for the “immediate resignation of the prime minister” and early elections but perhaps the most serious risk is that this forced (or allows) the junior government partner, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg’s TOP 09, to bring Nečas down.

In contrast with the strikingly efficient handling of the recent floods, for which both local and national government deserve full credit, this looks like a shambles. The current government has been battered by a series of corruption cases that risks making Nečas look like Silvio Berlusconi minus the bunga-bunga parties. Perhaps it is no wonder that Czechs regard corruption as one of the most serious challenges to their state and foreign observers concur.

But let me add a note of unfashionable optimism here. This is not a corruption story so much as an anticorruption one. Of course, ideally the Czech Republic would be a shining beacon of probity, Denmark with knedliky, but in all conscience, this is hardly—yet—likely. Forty-plus years of Soviet rule and all the value-distorting, economy-strangling, society-warping pressure that entailed and then a crash transition to the market take time to assimilate. As is, 54th out of 176 in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the ČR is near the mid-point of the ex-Soviet satellite states, between Estonia (32nd) and Bulgaria (75th). Lobbyists who go beyond the usual bounds, illegal wiretaps, embezzlement, sweetheart deals; they are hardly unique to the Czechs.

So a certain level of corruption within the elite is, while unconscionable, also probably inevitable. When corruption cases come to light, though, the real message is not that corruption exists, but that it comes to light. The tragic but also encouraging irony is that Nečas, who may be brought down by this investigation, was instrumental in giving prosecutors the resources and political autonomy to allow them properly to investigate corruption. All countries have at least some level of corruption—the mark of a mature, law-governed state is that even the most powerful people are not exempt from justice. While many high-level corruption cases in the ČR never seem to get anywhere and there are still certainly serious challenges, progress does seem to be being made. In short, this is a painful moment for many within the Czech political class, but these may be growing pains.

Postscript: Nečas and his apparent resignation

I write is as the news breaks that PM Nečas is apparently to resign tomorrow in response. To be sure, this might be because some unsavory facts relating to him are about to break or because of pressure within the cabinet, but in general terms, it is likewise counter-intuitively encouraging when a senior figure finds himself having to (or wanting to) take responsibility for the misdeeds of members of his team. I cannot help but contrast that with what happens in Russia, Ukraine and similar countries where democracy and the rule of law are so much more weakly rooted and where corruption is ignored, mobilized as a weapon against enemies (and a treat for friends) and nothing in and of itself to discomfort the ruling powers. The Czechs may be embarrassed by their current travails, but they should be perversely proud. Kinda. OK, better not to have a government mired in corruption in the first place, but if you are going to have that, then arrests, resignations and ample public disclosure and opprobrium are all signs of a healthy political culture…

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