The Czech Trump: how prime minister Babiš undermines democracy

Interview with Jakub Patočka

The political climate in the Czech Republic has grown increasingly repressive following the election of oligarch Andrej Babiš as prime minister in October 2017. With the Czech civil society space squeezed tighter and tighter by Babiš's government, we want to help draw attention to the duress and threats under which many progressive organisations and media outlets now have to work.

In the following interview, Czech journalist and Corporate Europe Observatory board member Jakub Patočka explains what is at stake in the country as targeted defamation campaigns and funding withdrawals are making the work of critical NGOs and newspapers increasingly difficult.

What is the political situation in the Czech Republic now, following the October 2017 parliamentary elections?

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. The fragile system of political parties established after the Democratic Revolution of 1989 has virtually collapsed. It was nothing to be proud of, but it was a democracy resembling more the western countries than the notorious post-communist chaos we are now becoming part of. The Czech democracy was fragile, with many shortcomings, ever deepening corruption and glaring lack of real political alternatives, but still it was a democracy.

It is now being replaced with a political system that still might have formal democratic features, but they are only a facade for a sophisticated authoritarian regime serving the interest of the new Czech leader, Andrej Babiš whose only competition is president Miloš Zeman, who is arguably even worse in some respects.

Andrej Babiš is the second richest citizen of the Czech Republic with personal fortune close to the one of Donald Trump, but in a country with significantly smaller population. The Andrej Babiš party is organized as a part of his property, so are the media he has bought to support his political efforts. His original business is agriculture and related chemicals and he has build his fortunes misusing the weakness of the state, twisting its subsidies and regulations in his favor.

When the Czech neoliberal system was collapsing after the elections 2010 and Babiš’ model of enterprise was in danger he decided to assume the control of the state directly. He used the fact that there was a demand for an alternative to the compromised political establishment. And he perfectly realized that the fact he himself was one of the reasons why the establishment is compromised will not prevent him to buy himself a position in which he can pretend he is a principal alternative.

The fight for the Czech democracy is still open though. Because of the strong movement against him and because of criminal charges he is facing he was not able to form a majority government as of now. This keeps the political situation open and still some of the solutions would not be detrimental to the Czech democracy.

Who is Andrej Babiš?

He is one of the capitalist predators who have made themselves absurdly rich using the loopholes in the young democracies recklessly soft on regulations that emerged after the collapse of communism. He entered the free society of the 1990s with substantial resources he has made as a confident of the Czechoslovak secret police operating in Northern Africa where he was responsible for purchasing strategic commodities for the former Eastern Bloc.

He used his privileged position, contacts and assets to expropriate the national Slovak agrochemical corporation Petrimex which has become the core of his own Agrofert corporation. Then he developed his imperium step by step buying other underpriced – usually after well designed lobbying – state properties.

As a next step he started to buy agricultural properties, both private and coops. As he achieved a monopoly position on the deregulated market with agrochemical inputs his strategy was always the same. He drove the target company to economical problems. He capitalized the debt. He used his shareholder position to put his people in the boards of the target company. Consequently his people would be able to screen the company and identify its weak spots. And in two or three years the company would belong to Babiš. Needless to say, he usually obtained it well under the market price, very often using some nasty techniques.

But as of 2010 Andrej Babiš realized the post-communist bonanza is coming to an end because people can see the power elite of the democratic parties was bought by the new oligarch class. The demand for an alternative was apparent since the outcome of elections of 2010 when new populist movements for the first time made some significant advances.

Babiš established as soon as 2011 a political party called Action of Dissatisfied Citizens – the Czech abbreviation ANO means YES. He bought some of the most influential media and he hired some of the most nimble PR people. Quite absurdly, but nevertheless quite effectively, he started to portray himself as The Alternative to the corrupted system. And he did the trick one year before Trump.

What does Babiš’s party stand for?

Apart from the interests of Andrej Babiš, there is nothing they would really care for. They are very flexible on everything.

The overall strategy is to buy public support on issues that are important for the public but have no relevance for the business interests of the Babis’ Agrofert corporation. There are many issues of this kind where the party would adopt the most popular stance just to get public support.

Then there are issues that might be controversial but which are really important for Babiš and Agrofert. On those issues the state regulation is twisted in favor of Babiš and his media muscle is used to cover him.

What does Babiš’s company do? Where is it doing business? Just in the Czech Republic or also in other countries?

Babiš core operations are in the Czech Republic, although he has substantial activities in Germany and in Slovakia, too. He also owns a luxurious restaurant in France.

His core business is industrial agriculture and chemical industry accompanying this. And he is maneuvering in such a way to make sure that the whole sector of agriculture uses as much chemicals as possible.

In order to make sure the things stay this way he needs to control the decision making processes related to the regulation of the relevant policies. Hence an ever growing segment of his major business operations has evolved into influencing the relevant state policies. In other words for a long time his major profits have not been coming for selling goods or services but from influencing the regulations and subsidies.

When he realized his influence is in danger because the whole political architecture of the post-communist Czech Republic is about to collapse he decided to step in. This is how his political project was borne.

Is Babiš on the same political line as Orban and the polish PiS? What are the differences?

The short answer is: it is the same line but there are differences.

First of all, there are substantial cultural differences in the evolution of the modern political nations of the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks. While there are grotesque and heavy burdens of the visions of “Great Hungary” and “Great Poland from sea to sea”, there is nothing like a concept of a “Great Czechia”.

The nation comfortably confounded in its natural boundaries has its nationalism molded in a purely defensive form. And for the Slovaks it holds true even much more. Without a democratic Czechoslovakia, an incredibly humane and liberal state given the Central European conditions of between the wars era, the Slovak nation would not exist as a nation anymore.

Hence, Babiš cannot run on a nationalistic platform. He himself is a Slovak by nationhood. The patriotic aspect is not so important in the Czech politics and the “blood and land” factor is almost absent. The fact that the far right position in the Czech politics is represented by sly Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura speaks for itself.

But at the same time Babiš is like Orban and PiS, in the sense that he is an antitheses to the concept of the western democracy. He does not want a democratic self-government of people for the people. He openly declares he wants to change the country to be run like a corporation. In other words he wants a society run in a Chinese or Russian way, with him at the helm.

In my opinion, this is the key to understanding the situation of post-communist Central Europe. The majority of inhabitants of those countries have not accepted and internalized the western model of liberal democracy. The reasons for this are many, many of those internal and they do differ country to country.

But some of them are external, too. Western Europe and US have not managed to develop a consistent strategy to integrate the post-communist countries into the democratic West. Some have tried and failed, some just wanted to keep the region as a kind of semi-colonies. The representation of the countries fervently promoted the self-defeating neoliberal ideology that was on top at the end of Cold War. It has softened the fabric of the societies, it has made them fragile and completely ill-prepared for the new dawn of massive propaganda using the new media technologies.

So here we are. Today indigenous oligarchies compete with Russians and Chinese over the control of our politics. The Western powers, both US and EU, have lost the plot, staring in disbelieve how the post-communist countries could be so ungrateful. I can understand the sentiment. But it does not help us to move anywhere.

We have a fight in our hands here. Babiš, Kaczynksi, Orban are the forces of the autocracy against democracy. If Europe and US wants to defeat them, it needs to approach our region in a completely different way than they did so far. They need to start to work with a completely different, deeper strategy dedicated to enhancing real, living democracy. Today all the abundant European money flushing the region basically assist in fostering the emerging autocracies.

Is Babiš a threat to the public and political liberties in the Czech Republic?

For all the reasons mentioned above: Yes.

Have you yourself been threatened as the editor of an independent magazine?

Yes. But not for being an editor of an independent magazine. We have been threatened for publishing a book exposing how he is using his political power to enhance his personal profits.

We have multiple troubles on our hands. We are facing a criminal charge for alleged slander, we are battling an absurd claim that our book was a part of a negative political campaign, there is bullying from the financial police which comes for the first time in our 8 year existence to control our finances.

Babiš’ media also started a slander campaign against me and my newspaper. Its main purpose was to cut us off from our financial resources and to warn everybody not to advertise or support us. We are entering a period of serious economic troubles that may be fatal.

What is the economical situation in the Czech Republic?

It depends on the perspective. Apart of the tiny, absurdly rich oligarch class, there are many well off people, a liberal middle class concentrated especially in bigger cities. On the average they are not as affluent as the middle class in the West but they still do live a life without major economic pressures.

Then there is an ever growing disenchanted lower class whose members feel the new democratic regime identified with deregulated capitalism has made them worse off. There are millions of households living with a constant fear of unpredictable expenses they would not be able to cover even if they could be as low as part of their monthly income.

Hence a campaign of trade unions calling for “The End of the Cheap Work” is constantly getting momentum. The fact that people here are paid much less than their counterparts in the West for the same work is part of the problem. And it is also one of the most gracious explanations of the loathsome attitude the post-communist countries have displayed towards refugees: the people who have not been subject of a generous solidarity are not able to display it themselves.

What are you expecting from the EU in regard to the political situation in the Czech Republic?

I have no doubt the EU is doing most of the things with a good intention but the fact is almost everything has a bad outcome. The strategy has to change completely. It will be much more difficult than setting up the processes correctly before the enlargement. But at that time everyone was too much obsessed with the economy and too careless about politics and about the nature of democracy. This has to change.

The EU needs to understand it has a fight on its hands here. Russia, China, domestic oligarchies, transnational corporations – all those forces feel Central Europe is once again becoming Free For All. If the EU does not want the young democracies to melt away it needs to act swiftly.

Two things that can be done is to re-channel some of the resources to the support of the civil society and free, independent media. And it has to understand that this should be administered by the EU structures, not by the corrupted and failing local political moguls and their cronies. It may be hard to achieve but the alternatives – for the EU and for us – are much worse.

Jakub Patocka is a Czech journalist, founder of the independent online newspaper Deník Referendum and co-author of the book "Žlutý baron" about the rise to power of the oligarch Andrej Babiš. The interview was done by Rachel Knaebel from our French sister organisation Observatoire des Multinationales. The original version (in French) is online here:

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