Babiš: #Czech Prime Minister’s Washington visit draws unwanted attention to scandals

| March 20, 2019

On 6 March Andrej Babiš, the billionaire prime minister of the Czech Republic, met President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. However, far from being the PR boost that the under-fire Czech leader needed, media attention instead focused on the plethora of scandals in Babiš’s wake and his concerning proximity to Russia.

 

Rich billionaires railing against the establishment. Extreme anti-immigration views. Questionable links to Russia. Humiliations in their business history and family lives.

 

The visit of Andrej Babiš to the White House in March, the first in many years by a Czech prime minister, was meant to highlight the good relationship between the US and his quiet central European country.

 

Instead, headlines across the US and in the UK rejoiced in the similarities between Trump and Babiš, two scandal-hit leaders with populist agendas. The international media leapt on the idea of a European mini-Trump, a view bolstered by the facts that both men use the same slogans, adopt the same sweeping generalisations, and hold the same disregard for their own law enforcement authorities as they face investigation at home.

 

For Trump, nothing new. However, for Babiš, who rarely receives mainstream coverage or attention across Capitol Hill, the visit swiftly became a public relations disaster.

 

Delving into his background, it is not hard to see why. Babiš has built his empire around Agrofert, a giant, multi-industry business conglomerate that has made his personal wealth rise to an estimated $3.7bn. Much like his counterpart in the Oval Office, it is these business interests, rather than any political leanings, that guide Babiš’s political decisions.

 

Echoing Trump’s business model, Agrofert – which includes food, agriculture and chemical companies – is heavily dependent on European subsidies, which have been jeopardised by a conflict of interest complaint tabled by Transparency International that is aimed at forcing him to choose between his political and business careers. This has prompted an investigation by European commission auditors, which is expected to announce its ruling next month.

 

It is unlikely that this ruling will have any effect. As the OCCRP describes, Babiš has, like Trump, acted with impunity despite serious accusations against him, and carried on with business as usual. Prosecutors accused Babiš of defrauding the EU of two million euros (US$ 2.3 million) during his 2013-2017 tenure as finance minister. But despite having his parliamentary immunity twice stripped for investigations, he retains power partly through his alliance with President Miloš Zeman. Ignoring the accusations against Babiš, Zeman re-appointed him as the country’s prime minister in June 2018.

 

A few months later, in November tens of thousands of protesters were out in force on the streets of Prague calling for Babiš to resign over the scandal, which had been given new impetus by claims from the prime minister’s own son that he had been abducted to Crimea so that he would be unable to be called as a witness in the corruption probe.

 

In Washington DC, there were two aspects of Babiš’s visit that echoed the darker aspects of the US President’s background and behaviour. First came reports of Babiš’s history as an informer (known as ‘Bureš’) for communist Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB, a close Cold War ally of the KGB. Rumours persist that Babiš is discreetly influenced by Moscow, charges levelled many times at Trump.

 

Secondly, there have been worrying signs of possible covert interference in investigations against him. In January, the inspectorate of the Czech security forces (Gibs) opened an investigation into Pavel Nevtípil, the detective leading the criminal probe into the award of an EU grant to a hotel and business centre owned by Babiš, an inquiry that resulted in the prime minister facing a charge of fraud that has still to reach court. There is no evidence that Babiš personally ordered the investigation but he had previously openly criticised Nevtípil.

 

To round off the PR disaster, Babiš was even mocked for his choice of gift to Trump – a commemorative edition Czech-made CZ-75 pistol – which, given recent shootings in the US and the debate around guns, was considered highly insensitive.

 

Babiš’s visit to Washington DC served only to highlight his deficiencies. Legislators on Capitol Hill should follow the media’s approach to Babiš, and keep this oligarchic populist at arm’s length.

 

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