Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Respekt: Zeman's people may influence issues such as nuclear tender

ČTK |
6 February 2018

Prague, Feb 5 (CTK) - Czech ANO leader Andrej Babis can hardly form a new cabinet without support from President Milos Zeman, whose controversial aides may in exchange influence not only its lineup but also its approach to key issues such as a giant tender for nuclear units, weekly Respekt writes on Monday.

Billionaire Babis's originally critical relation to Zeman changed into their pragmatic alliance last year, but still Babis, whose ANO won the general election in the meantime and who has been assigned by Zeman to launch government-forming negotiations, openly resents Zeman's closest aides, Presidential Office head Vratislav Mynar and adviser Martin Nejedly, a businessman linked to Russia, Respekt writes.

Zeman puts his trust in Mynar and Nejedly, which makes access to him more difficult for Babis. Moreover, Babis is opposed to the Presidential Office's pro-China and pro-Russia policies. Last year, information about Nejedly's secret Moscow debates with Russian Rosatom chief Alexei Likhachev about Russia's chance to supply further nuclear units to Czechs, leaked to the media. Babis reacted by labelling Nejedly an "untrustworthy man," Respekt writes.

He also criticised Mynar and Nejedly as those who "spoil Zeman's reputation" before the presidential election runoff in which Zeman was re-elected, narrowly beating academic Jiri Drahos in late January.

To explain his criticism, Babis referred to an incident he had with Mynar and Nejedly shortly before. He said Mynar asked him for a meeting after the first round of the presidential election so that he can convey Zeman's message to him. Nejedly turned up at the meeting unexpectedly along with Mynar. They told Babis that Zeman wants a clear support from him before the runoff vote and instructed him in detail what he should exactly say, Babis said, adding that he eventually learnt from Zeman that the two had acted on their own, behind Zeman's back, Respekt writes.

The incident illustrates the ongoing battle for power between Babis and the Presidential Office and indicates that the relation between Babis and Nejedly will be important for the Czech developments now that the aides of Zeman, who is ageing and is evidently sick, steer his steps to an extent, Respekt writes.

Zeman might help smooth out relations between Babis's ANO and the Social Democrats (CSSD) and pave the way for the latter's government cooperation with ANO, it writes.

Parallelly, final preparations for a tender for new nuclear units are underway. It is to be the most expensive contract the Czech state would ever pay - involving the supply of new reactors for both Czech nuclear power plants, Dukovany and Temelin, worth up to 200 billion crowns, Respekt writes.

The previous cabinet, in which Babis was finance minister, tasked the semi-state energy utility CEZ to prepare the necessary data for the state to definitively decide this spring on whether to build new nuclear blocs and how to pay them.

Babis has so far promoted the project but said it should be paid by CEZ, in which minority shareholders have a 30 percent stake. The shareholders stood up against the plan, saying the project is too cost-intensive and need not pay off in a situation where the role of green energy sources is rising in the world, Respekt writes.

In reaction to minority shareholders' protests, CEZ came up with an alternative plan for CEZ to be divided, with the nuclear and coal-fuelled half completely going to the state, in exchange for the shareholders' higher stake in the other, "clean" half, including the control of the profit-making energy distribution network. If so, the dilemma on the new nuclear blocs would become a matter of the state only, Respekt writes.

When the CEZ-dividing plan appeared last year, Babis was resolutely against it. He believed he would gain control of CEZ after ANO's general election victory and tackle its financial twists and turns by himself. From the beginning, he criticised the performance of CEZ general director Daniel Benes and his predecessor Martin Roman, accusing them of corruption and loss-making machinations. In his capacity as finance minister, he made unsuccessful attempts to sack Benes, Respekt writes.

Last year, Babis stopped his attacks against Benes, who ranks among the allies and confidants of Zeman. As far as the nuclear tender is concerned, CEZ continues the preparations based on the previous government's instructions, Respekt writes.

The decision of whether the nuclear blocs will be built, who will build them and who will pay them is up to the government. However, Zeman and his people have been interested in the issue since the beginning, Respekt writes, once again mentioning the trips Nejedly made to Rosatom for his own money beyond the official protocol and without the government's mandate last year.

On a visit to the Dukovany power plant last year, Zeman said he would not be against the new bloc's construction being entrusted directly to the Russians, without an international tender, which Hungary had also done.

Babis, on his part, promised "a standard international tender" before, Respekt writes.

Although there is no evidence to prove it, suspicion exists that Babis might swap Zeman's support for his nascent cabinet for [Babis's] promise that the cabinet would not complicate the nuclear contract, Respekt writes.

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