FOUR MONTHS BEFORE ELECTION, STORK’S NEST RETURNS TO HAUNT CZECH PM

The revival of the corruption case against Babis over the alleged misuse of EU funds is one of several mounting problems for the prime minister.

Czech police proposed late on Monday that Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his advisor should be charged with fraudulent use of EU funds. The return of the case adds to a long list of complications for the billionaire premier just four months ahead of the general election.

The Municipal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Prague reported that police have recommended criminal charges be filed against Babis and Jana Mayerova, a former aide at Agrofert, the agrochemicals conglomerate that the prime minister put into trust in 2017 when he was finance minister.

The charges centre on a 50-million-koruna (2 million euros) subsidy granted to the Capi hnizdo (Stork’s Nest) leisure resort, which sits around 50km south of Prague, in 2007. Police suspect that Babis hid Agrofert’s ownership of the resort in order to access the subsidy, for which only small companies were eligible.

As he has since the case first emerged in 2015, Babis protested his innocence to the media. “Nothing illegal has ever happened and I reject all nonsensical accusations,” he said. “At the same time, I still believe that our judicial system is fair and, I hope, it will show in this matter.”

Mayerova refused to comment, but has previously denied any wrongdoing.

The police proposal will be assessed by supervisory public prosecutor Jaroslav Saroch. After studying the 34,000-page report, he will then decide whether to file charges or toss out the prosecution.

Saroch plumped for the latter when police first proposed criminal charges in April 2019. In that file, they described how Babis had briefly handed Stork’s Nest to his wife and children during the time in which the application for the subsidy was made.

However, within weeks, then chief state prosecutor Pavel Zeman overturned the decision. Calling it premature, he sent the file back to the police with a request for more evidence.

Magnifying glass
Many a Czech prime minister have lost their job for less than the possibility of fraud charges, but Babis is part of a new wave of populist politicians. Over the last few years, they’ve tested the boundaries to see if there’s any scandal that cannot be brazened out – and they’ve often come up trumps.

However, there are signs that in the wake of the government’s catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Czech electorate is now looking much more closely at his various scandals. The return of Stork’s Nest only adds to a growing list of headaches as the October 8-9 vote approaches.

The case has been around for six years now and was lurking in the background even as Babis’s ANO party won the last election in 2017. However, that victory came ahead of his four years in office, and amid high hopes that he really might be the white knight arriving, as he claimed, to free the country from the cynical grip of the established parties that had run it, often corruptly, for the previous 27 years.

And crucially, it was before he turned the Czech Republic into a coronavirus blackhole, with 30,000 dead. That tragedy caused ANO’s support to plummet, to the point that in some polls it is now sitting third behind the liberal Pirates/Stan and centre-right Spolu coalitions.

Such slides in support are often self-sustaining. ANO’s dwindling popularity is likely to increasingly focus the attention of its casual, centrist voters on the other scandals buffeting its leader.

The EU audits that have found Babis in conflict of interest regarding millions of euros in subsidies that the taxpayer looks set to have cover; the deep leverage over the weak coalition government enjoyed by the Russia- and China-linked President Milos Zeman and extreme parties on the left and right; the ongoing assault on the independence of the Ceska televize public broadcaster – all are issues now under the magnifying glass of the pandemic, as one analyst recently remarked.

Some of these issues have already provoked protests, led by Milion chvelik pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy). The civic organisation, which in 2019 put over a quarter of a million on the streets of Prague calling for Babis and Zeman to quit, says it has many other matters on its watch list and plans to up the ante ahead of the October election.

A matter of timing
It’s not clear when Saroch might reach a decision on whether to press charges, but the size of the file suggests it will take some months. That may disappoint Babis, who could have used any decision to prosecute him as proof of his oft-repeated claims that the case has been whipped up by a corrupt “establishment” out to get him.

“It doesn’t surprise me anymore, not even that this thing always appears before the election,” the billionaire said in reaction to the news of the police proposal. “It’s a purely purposeful and artificial pseudo-case, which is 14 years old, and the investigation has been going on for five years. And it’s been stopped by the prosecutor once.”

At the same time, a quick decision would also complicate the selection of a new chief state prosecutor, after Pavel Zeman quit last month citing intolerable pressure from Justice Minister Marie Benesova.

It was the sudden appointment of Benesova, an old ally of the president’s, just as the first police recommendation for prosecution was made in April 2019 that sparked Milion chvelik into life. Protest leaders are already organising a rally for Tuesday calling for Benesova to be sacked and demanding that Pavel Zeman’s successor is not appointed until a new government is in place.

A repeat this summer of the mass protests seen in 2019 would be yet another headache for Babis’s election team to contend with.

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