Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Respekt: Zeman and Babiš's interests meet again after years

ČTK |
17 May 2017

Prague, May 16 (CTK) - The interests of the Czech political newcomer Andrej Babis, ANO head, deputy prime minister and finance minister, and an experienced politician, President Milos Zeman, have again met after years, Ondrej Kundra writes in the latest issue of weekly Respekt out on Monday.

When in the autumn of 2011, the ambitious Party of Citizens' Rights - the Zemanites (SPOZ) held a press conference to present their grandiose programme for the first ten months of its possible government, attention was caught by another political ambitious entity, the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens 2011 (ANO) of billionaire businessman Andrej Babis, Kundra writes.

Zeman, the SPOZ's face, did not hesitate to comment on the new rival with the words "As far as Mr Babis is concerned..., I consider him untrustworthy," Kundra writes.

He was hinting at a fact, which was then more or less forgotten, that Babis did not pay for the private chemical giant Unipetrol, one of the biggest contracts of Zeman's government, which was to bring huge money to the state budget in the early 2000s, Kundra writes.

Zeman, former Social Democrat (CSSD) chairman, was prime minister in 1998-2002. Babis's star was shining more and more starting with 2011 and Zeman did not like this because of the past dispute.

Babis, for his part, did not like Zeman's attacks on his old project, particularly when it was already clear that he wants to run for president, Kundra writes.

He writes that Babis wanted to be the one who criticises the others and that is why he met Zeman some time later to iron out the conflict, Kundra writes.

He writes that an until now unknown meeting took place in a pub. It is not known what they told one another, but Zeman's attacks gradually faded away until they turned into a more or less loud support for Babis.

Their alliance is now rocking the whole country, Kundra writes. He alludes to Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's (Social Democrats, CSSD) proposal that Zeman dismiss Babis as finance minister and deputy PM over his dubious financial transactions and a suspected manipulation of the media he owned.

Zeman has been reluctant since early May to comply with the proposal and he even threatened with turning to the Constitutional Court over the issue.

Zeman, however, has been downplaying Babis's problems, while Babis keeps silent on Zeman's repeated lapses or kowtowing to authoritarian politicians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Babis allegedly admires Zeman's ability to flexibly move in the conflict political environment and his collaborators claim that he is visiting Zeman at his seat at Prague Castle seeking advice, Kundra writes.

He writes that the ties of alliance existed between Zeman and Babis in the past already. Before the 1998 general election, the CSSD was in a poor financial situation and it resorted to the parallel financing of its campaign.

Last year, investigative journalist Jaroslav Kmenta, from the Reporter magazine, found out that the CSSD then obtained one interesting gift which was not known until then, Kundra writes.

According to police documents, Zeman's party got five million crowns from a firm called Beltomate in 1997-98. The money came from the Panama tax haven and the CSSD did not state it in its tax return, Kundra writes.

He writes that Kmenta has concluded that Babis may have been behind the gift. The donation contract states the name of an executive secretary who was closely connected with people from the group of the former foreign trade company Petrimex, in the management of which Babis was active.

However, the evidence is indirect and Babis himself says about the gift: "Mean lie and nonsense," Kundra writes.

He writes that if Babis wanted to continue being a top businessman, he needed politicians' support. His influence was really growing. He developed from a fertilizer specialist into the biggest businessman in petrochemistry and later also food industry, which eventually met in Agrofert holding.

Zeman praised Babis as a successful businessman and said it pays the state to do business with Agrofert that employs citizens and pays big taxes, Kundra writes.

However, when Babis was unable to pay for Unipetrol shortly after Zeman withdrew from the head of government and the CSSD and moved to the countryside as a pensioner, their interpersonal relations were adversely affected, Kundra writes.

This changed when the two men met in politics many years later. Zeman was resolved to become president and he succeeded in the first direct presidential election in 2013, and Babis ceased to be satisfied with business only, Kundra writes.

Disputes with Zeman were smoothed out and Babis set out on the path towards premiership, he adds.

Kundra writes that Zeman and Babis actually do not have any other choice. Babis fears that Zeman need not assign him with premiership and give the first attempt to form a government someone else after the October general election.

Zeman, for his part, fears that Babis might field his presidential candidate against him in the presidential election in early 2018, Kundra writes.

He adds that Babis has allegedly promised to Zeman not to do so.

Sobotka speaks about the Babis-Zeman tandem as about a "power pact" and "authoritarians" and paints the fight with them as a fundamental clash for the democratic character of the country, Kundra writes.

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