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Czech party leader haunted by ghosts of communist past

16 november 2013, 18:17
0
Andrej Babis, leader of the ANO movement. ©Reuters/David W Cerny
Andrej Babis, leader of the ANO movement. ©Reuters/David W Cerny
Unwelcome spectres are coming back to haunt Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, who emerged as a power broker in recent elections but is facing allegations he collaborated with the communist-era secret police, AFP reports.

His populist ANO party sprung out of nowhere to finish a close second in the fragmented vote last month, sending Babis into coalition talks with the victorious Social Democrats and the seventh-place Christian Democrats.

The 59-year-old wooed voters with promises of prosperity and squeaky clean politics at a time Czechs are reeling from a spy and bribery scandal that toppled the previous government and led to the early polls.

But just as his name is being floated for ministerial posts, Babis has been hit with accusations of having collaborated with the Statni Bezpecnost (StB) secret police before the fall of communism in 1989 -- reports that could jeopardise his political future if true.

The StB was a reviled institution used by the totalitarian state to control and terrorise its citizens.

Former StB agents and collaborators are now banned from government, according to a law passed in 1991 designed to allow the country to turn the page on its painful past.

While Babis's name appears in StB files, he insists he was registered as an informant without his knowledge.

"I never collaborated with the StB. Even the fabricated records clearly show that I provided no information to the StB," the tycoon turned political sensation told AFP.

Babis launched a lawsuit against the Nation's Memory Institute (UPN) in his native Slovakia, requesting that his name be struck off the list of collaborators.

Founded in 2003, the UPN houses files on StB agents from Slovakia, which has been independent since the former Czechoslovakia split in half in 1993.

With a net worth of $2 billion (1.5 billion euros), Babis is the second-wealthiest person in the Czech Republic and ranked 736th on this year's Forbes list of world billionaires.

He owns both the Agrofert food and chemical conglomerate and the Mafra publishing house that produces two major broadsheets, the DNES and Lidove noviny.

Out for coffee with the secret police

A court hearing on Babis's murky past is set for January. President Milos Zeman has meanwhile made it known that he will ask every candidate for a ministerial post to prove they did not collaborate with the StB.

The UPN regards StB archive documents as being "authentic and credible", the institute's spokesman Tibor Ujlacky told AFP without elaborating.

Prior to 1989, Babis worked in foreign trade, a sector in which communist party membership and StB contacts were essential to piercing the Iron Curtain in order to work abroad in a capitalist country.

Babis does admit he was once contacted by an StB department charged with "protecting the economic interests" of the country.

He says the officers invited him out for coffee several times in the 1980s to try to obtain information on his boss's private life and on issues related to phosphate imports from Syria.

"I obviously disclosed everything to my boss," he says in his biography.

"I am certain that the court will rule in my favour. I still believe in the independence of the judiciary," he added Thursday.

But opinion appears divided among the 47 ANO deputies in the 200-seat lower house of parliament.

"If evidence emerges that Babis collaborated with the StB, I will quit ANO," deputy Ivan Pilny, former head of the Czech branch of Microsoft, told Dnes.

Meanwhile fellow deputy Martin Komarek told AFP: "I'm convinced Andrej Babis isn't lying when he says he never signed anything nor denounced anyone."

Babis appears to have given up on the finance minister posting on which he had set his sights during the elections, telling Frekvence 1 radio: "It's not my priority."

According to local media reports, a deputy prime minister position could be created especially for him -- a way to perhaps bypass the collaborator law, according to legal expert Ales Gerloch.

The law bans former communist agents from serving as ministers, "but if a member of government doesn't lead any ministry, he is not required in my opinion to have a certificate of innocence," said the dean of the law department at Prague's Charles University.


By Jan Marchal

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