Czechs may take a step back in up­com­ing vote

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY TODD WOOD

Since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union and the War­saw Pact decades ago, the United States has pointed to the Czech Repub­lic as a bea­con of rel­a­tive pros­per­ity and suc­cess in East­ern Europe.

But an up­com­ing Oc­to­ber par­lia­men­tary elec­tion may change that. The piv­otal na­tion in Cen­tral Europe is at­trac­tive for for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment, but it’s not clear for how long.

As with all Cen­tral and East­ern Europe na­tions once dom­i­nated by the leviathan to the east, first the Soviet Union and now Rus­sia, cor­rup­tion has al­ways been a prob­lem for the Czechs. Un­for­tu­nately, this scourge is grow­ing once again.

A 2014 EU re­port sin­gled out the Czech Repub­lic as lag­ging in its cor­rup­tion scores. The Global Com­pet­i­tive­ness In­dex 2016-2017 warns of fa­voritism, lack of trans­parency, mis­trust in politi­cians and the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of the le­gal frame­work in the coun­try. Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s an­nual Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex de­moted the Czech Repub­lic by 10 places in 2016-17, cit­ing a weak ju­di­ciary and stag­nat­ing anti-cor­rup­tion leg­is­la­tion. And it may get worse if opaque, pro-Rus­sian par­ties do well in the up­com­ing vote.

One of the hall­marks of the ex-Soviet coun­tries is the reign of the self­serv­ing elite, which evolved from the old com­mu­nist “nomen­klatura” — the top party cadre. Oli­garchs usu­ally run the coun­try, skim­ming off the top.

Un­for­tu­nately, in the Czech Repub­lic, pow­er­ful busi­ness in­ter­ests are com­ing into power. Ex­hibit

A is An­drej Babis, a very in­flu­en­tial bil­lion­aire. His ANO party and the pow­er­ful me­dia em­pire he con­trols are as­cen­dant. On Oct. 20 and 21, Czech vot­ers will choose the mem­bers of the Cham­ber of Deputies, which will elect the prime min­is­ter. Opin­ion polling sug­gest ANO is the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal party, mak­ing Mr. Babis the fa­vorite to be the next prime min­is­ter.

The rise of ANO to power won’t help the al­ready gloomy po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, gen­er­at­ing the big­gest con­flict of in­ter­est in the coun­try’s post-1989 story. Or­di­nary Czechs are sick of per­va­sive power abuses but ap­pear about to give power to a “Babis­coni” (a play on the for­mer Ital­ian PM Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni’s name). Like the Ital­ian, Mr. Babis is viewed as a bil­lion­aire me­dia mogul who is more in­ter­ested in his own busi­ness in­ter­ests than in clean­ing house.

An­other cor­ro­sive in­flu­ence is the un­com­fort­ably close re­la­tion­ship of Pres­i­dent Mi­los Ze­man with the Krem­lin. Soviet and Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices’ in­volve­ment in Euro­pean pol­i­tics is leg­endary. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who worked in neigh­bor­ing East Ger­many, would like noth­ing bet­ter than to have out­size in­flu­ence on a NATO mem­ber seen as a model for Cen­tral Euro­pean suc­cess. Cur­rently, Mr. Ze­man, a sym­pa­thizer of Mr. Putin who has sup­ported Rus­sia’s poli­cies in Syria and Ukraine, may be re-elected in Jan­uary 2018.

The West im­posed sanc­tions on Rus­sia af­ter the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the sub­se­quent sup­port of the pro-Rus­sian se­ces­sion­ist re­bel­lion in east­ern Ukraine. Mr. Ze­man has gone so far as to crit­i­cize those sanc­tions, call­ing them “stupid and in­ef­fec­tive.”

Al­low­ing Krem­lin con­fi­dants into the in­ner sanc­tums of Czech po­lit­i­cal power sets a dan­ger­ous prece­dent. It is no se­cret that Martin Ne­jedly, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Czech branch of the Rus­sian en­ergy firm Lukoil, is a close confidant of Pres­i­dent Ze­man.

Mr. Babis and Mr. Ze­man could be the agents of change to move the Czech Repub­lic away from the EU and NATO and into the Rus­sian bear’s iron em­brace. Be­fore bring­ing to power a govern­ment that ac­cel­er­ates the de­cline of the rule of law and politi­cizes the court sys­tem fur­ther, Czech vot­ers should con­sider the in­evitable fruit of their choice. Elec­tions have con­se­quences. The con­se­quences of this elec­tion could be a weak­en­ing of NATO and the EU as we know them to­day.

● L. Todd Wood is a for­mer spe­cial op­er­a­tions he­li­copter pi­lot and Wall Street debt trader, and has con­trib­uted to Fox Busi­ness, The Moscow Times, Na­tional Re­view, the New York Post and many other pub­li­ca­tions. He can

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