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When the Incumbent is the Target: Corruption Arrests in the Czech Republic

- June 17, 2013

The following is a guest post from Vincent Post, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, whose work focuses on Czech politics and the legacy of the communist-era secret services in post-communist Europe.


Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas had a rough week. Last Monday, he announced that he and his wife were getting a divorce. In addition, floods continue to affect large parts of the Czech Republic, and after a second round of rain storms this week, Moravia in the Eastern part of the Czech Republic is struggling as well. Late on Wednesday evening one of his key advisers, Jana Nagyová, was arrested along with seven others in corruption investigations headed by the Police Department for the Investigation of Organized Crime in collaboration with the state prosecutor. Most of those arrested have close ties to Nečas and his party, the Civic Democrats (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS). The events, which have rocked the Czech political scene, are a fascinating case for political scientists studying corruption in East and Central Europe. Nečas has resigned his post in the wake of this scandal.

The police action is amongst the largest in Czech post-communist history. In addition to the arrests, a large number of documents as well as some 6 to 8 million USD and several pounds of gold were confiscated in searches not only of private residences but also of the Government Office and the Ministries of Defense and Finance. More details on the nature of the indictments is coming out very slowly, but it would appear that three different cases are being brought. Nečas’ key adviser, Jana Nagyová, is involved in all three. She is accused of having offered lucrative positions to three ODS former MPs (who have been arrested as well) in exchange for them surrendering their mandates and ceasing their opposition against the Prime Minister and his tax law. In addition, she is being accused of illegally ordering Military Intelligence to have the Prime Minister’s soon to be ex-wife followed. The current and former directors of Military Intelligence have been arrested as well. In a third case, corruption charges are being brought against two ‘godfathers’ – entrepreneurs and lobbyists with close ties to the ODS. The Prime Minister himself has not been indicted but is implicated in all three cases.

In the absence of specifics, speculation started instantly as to what exactly had happened and how it would affect the government coalition, which has been on shaky ground for some time now.

The current coalition relies on an unstable and small majority, there have been ongoing conflicts both within and between the coalition parties, which have done poorly in regional and presidential elections after taking office and which face dismal electoral prognoses. In view of these circumstances and the ongoing infighting, speculations about the premature end of the government had been rife for some time. Nonetheless, while the PM has now resigned, the coalition partners seem eager remain in office, replacing only the PM, something that the Czechs have done before. The opposition is calling for new elections but it is not clear what outcome upcoming meetings between coalition leaders and the Czech President will produce. It is also not clear whether Nečas, no longer protected by parliamentary immunity, may himself become the direct target of these investigations in which he is implicated.

Nečas’ ODS continues to insist that the cases have little merit, that police failed to keep the public informed, and acted in a disproportional manner, damaging the Czech Republic’s reputation abroad.

However, this criticism of the police and the state prosecutor will not save the ODS leaders as it simply underlines how they were out of the loop. Although these arrests affect politics at the highest level and jeopardize the continued existence of the current coalition, the political leaders of the Czech Republic appear to have had access to very little information about what is going on. Nečas seems to have been unaware that arrests were imminent until right before they happened, and he was missing-in-action for most of Wednesday as this news was breaking. Those close to him did not know where he was, media wrote that he had disappeared, and there were rumors that Nečas had suffered a nervous breakdown. Whatever happened, Nečas did not address the media until late Thursday afternoon, hours after the arrests had taken place, claiming that he had been ‘working all day’.

This episode offers some insights in the politics of high-level corruption in post-communist Europe and presents an interesting case from the point of view of the research that is being done at McGill by Maria Popova and Manuel Balán. For starters, the events paint a stark contrast between the Czech situation and prosecutions and investigations elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where corruption investigations have targeted politicians who are out of office and/or in opposition.  In this case, the Czech ‘Department for the Investigation of Organized Crime’ has managed to start an investigation that has reached right into the heart of the current administration without the incumbent prime minister being in a position to prevent it (so far). This may be in line with Manuel Balán’s finding that corruption scandals originate from competition within government coalitions. Thus, rather than signal that state institutions are working efficiently to purge themselves from corruption, the corruption scandal may simply indicate that certain factions or actors within the ODS or its coalition are using law enforcement to gain more power within the government coalition.

In addition, prosecutorial independence may be an important factor. It is clear that corruption is amongst the most salient issues across the post-communist region, but we know less about the dynamics of corruption prosecutions and how they are affected by the independence and integrity of the judiciary.  We know that former prime ministers of Ukraine (Yuliya Tymoshenko), Romania (Adrian Năstase), and Croatia (Ivo Sanader) are serving prison sentences after being convicted on corruption-related charges, while their counterparts in Macedonia (Vlado Buckovski) and Bulgaria (Stefan Sofiyanski) have had their lower court convictions reversed on appeal. However, it is quite tricky to evaluate reliably which prosecutions were genuine attempts at tackling corruption, and which represented settling of political scores (on the Tymoshenko prosecution, see Popova’s paper here).  In addition, more research is needed to understand the conditions under which the prosecution and the judiciary would be motivated and capable of pursuing high-level political corruption.  Based on data from Bulgaria, Popova has argued counterintuitively that a highly insulated judiciary has lower incentives for tackling high-level political corruption.  More research is needed in this area, and the recent events in the Czech Republic might form an interesting case. For the moment, it remains to be seen whether they are the product of a strong and independent institution that is not vulnerable to political pressures, or whether they are the result of political forces seeking to undermine Petr Nečas and his government.