The parliamentary election in the Czech Republic is less than a month away. Political analysts in Ukraine call the October 20 vote a “turning point” for both the country’s future and its relations with Ukraine. Despite his resignation, lifting of parliamentary immunity, and corruption scandals, the pro-Russian politician, ex-minister and multi-billionaire Andrej Babis is confidently leading in the election race. A total of 28 percent of the population, according to preliminary opinion polls, are ready to cast a vote for his centrist party ANO (the name translates from Czech as the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens). The second place with 18 percent of support is occupied by the Social Democrats. The Communists are projected to come third, and are trusted by as much as 14 percent of Czechs.
The Day discussed corruption in Czech politics and the Kremlin’s influence on the Czech Republic with Ondrej CAKL, the project leader of Transparency International Czech Republic, who is currently monitoring electoral campaign spending in this parliamentary election.
What are the first results of your monitoring? So, is the parliamentary election in the Czech Republic “dirty”?
“The election will be very intensively influenced by the new electoral court we have now, which is regulating the situation of political finance. There is one or two main new features which the political parties need to obey or comply with. The first one, we have now a new state bureau or state branch for actually oversight of all political finance, they are now in the position of controlling the compliance with the law. The other one is that for this year for the first time, we have the limits of how much money the parties can spend. And those limits are actually now oversighted by the bureau, so we are supposed to see if the parties are really not spending much more.”
300,000... AND NOT A CENT MORE
What amount are we talking about?
“It’s 90 million crowns (300,000 euros) for each party [in 2017 the population of the Czech Republic is 10.56 million. – Ed.]
“That means that in our situation we now face a new era in political campaigning. Most strong parties in Czechia are now not those traditional ones which were somehow trying to fundraise money for their campaigning. Now we see that kind of oligarchization where the businessmen are actually setting the movements or parties. They own the media, and then they own the businesses, and they are now going to politics.
“Actually the strongest movement in the Czech Republic now is this which is called ANO, which is based by, at the same time, one of the richest businessmen Mr. Babis. And most likely, he is going to win the election. He has around 30 percent of support of the voters at the moment.
“But if he wins the election, it would be a lot of trouble to set the new government, because the other parties are somehow collecting against him. And at the same time, it would also bring a big clash of interests in this person, and also in this movement, because he is the owner of media, of businesses, and at the same time, the regulator in administrative branch.”
And this oligarchization of politics in the Czech Republic, which you are describing, where did it begin? Is this just about the Czech business, or foreign – say, Russian – as well?
“So far it seems there are two strong influences. One is this inner, like, for example, Movement ANO, because Mr. Babis basically built his businesses in the Czech Republic. And there are more concerns about the foreign funds in the presidential election, the analytics are afraid of influence from other countries.”
How strong is the Kremlin’s influence on political parties in the Czech Republic currently? After all, the politician you are talking about – Andrej Babis – also declares pro-Russian views.
“The political influence would not go through the parties at the moment. What we are facing now is their influence in the agenda or in the discourse. So, we face Russia and pro-Russian propaganda in media, in social media mainly. Also, some not perfectly clear funding of some fake news servers and things like that.
“So, this is the place where now we can analytically state, ‘yes, this is, let’s say, Russian influence or FSB influence of messing up with our democratic system.’ I don’t think it’s through the parties at the moment.”
Have you really failed to detect during the monitoring suspicious donations to party accounts from individuals who are affiliated with Russian oligarchs or companies? Or, for example, loans like the one received by Marine Le Pen [a loan of nine million euros, received by the National Front in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank after all the banks in France refused to finance the party]?
“Not that I am aware of. I cannot say such a thing and confirm it by some data.”
IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC, PARTIES ARE PROVIDED WITH PUBLIC FUNDING
You may know that we are planning to reform our electoral system here in Ukraine. And the experience of the Czech Republic in the context of public funding for political parties and control over the inflows into political forces’ campaign funds – that experience is very similar to what we are advised to do. But as far as I was able to find out while preparing for our interview, not everything is so good and simple with it. For example, despite the fact that political parties report on their finances, no audit has been conducted, and no political party in the Czech Republic has been ever punished for any discrepancies in the reports. Is it true?
“Formerly, after the election, they were supposed to give their financial report to the commission in the parliament, and they were doing that. So, this was the obligatory process. And the civil society could ask to have to see it.
“In the commission, there were also politicians, so the oversight was not so strong. So, in this regard it was not really functional, and that’s what the new electoral court now changes. Now it is obligatory to have transparent accounts before the election. And we have to have four of them, so it’s actually even us as in Transparency International: we are monitoring transparent accounts and we can actually observe if they are spending correctly and in right amounts.
“I think there is another feature which may be interesting, that the political parties in Czechia are also state-funded. So, once you are elected, you get quite reasonable amount of money, which is supposed to somehow defend democracy, because even the smallest parties, once they get some electorate – three percent of the voters – if they vote for them, they get the money for each vote. And that means that even they don’t enter the parliament, they already get some funding from the state. And then, more chairs in the parliament means more money. So, you can somehow build the party just from the state funding, you don’t have to necessarily fundraise from business if you want to play fair.”
How long has this system operated in the Czech Republic?
“The whole system stays from the early nineties, just after the Velvet Revolution. I think it’s from 1991 or 1992, when this system of state funding went to act, and from that it was never changed.”
Can you give us a few tips on some of the nuances of this system, in the event that such a system will be introduced in Ukraine?
“Recommendation? I would need to know more about the state of election. I mean, election court now, I’m not so much aware of, but I could really say there should be independent bureau, not parliament, but state branch which is independent and which is strong in oversight of the political finance. And there should exist transparent accounts for the campaigning where it’s the only account a party can use for spending the money on campaigning. I think those two things are essential for improving the democratic system.”
But it still has not really helped you to get rid of the abovementioned Kremlin’s influence on the domestic politics of the Czech Republic. For us, this issue is very important. How do you think, what barriers can be put in place to avoid the risk of politicians being corrupted by foreign countries, corporations, etc.?
“If I understand your question right, you say that even our political system is not strong against the financing from outside the country, for example, from Kremlin influence. But it’s illegal in Czechia, no political party can have the money from outside funds. That’s strictly illegal. So, if someone would investigate and find out there is some money going to the party from some strange offshore, or whatever, that would be the end of it.”
Yes, but do we really lack evidence that political activities of President of the Czech Republic Milos Zeman are financed by the Russian Lukoil?
“But it’s not a fact which you can prove. You have to reconstruct perfectly the movement of the money, and I don’t think that any legal system can be avoiding it. It’s not in the system itself. And those connections of Mister Zeman and foreign funding are still done in the way that you cannot really prove that perfectly correct. And so far, no one put to prove that, although there are strong hints or strong analyses which are leading that way.
“So, that’s much more on investigative journalism, much more on police investigation, and all those other tools you have in democratic system which are part of this system to avoid that, but not the legal system. The legal system cannot do more than just put it as illegal, which it is.”
DEMOCRACY REQUIRES PROTECTION FROM... CAPITALISM
You graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy. It is a pretty interesting line of work. Why did you decide to fight political corruption?
“I think that democracy is very interesting and very new. So, according to Karl Raimund Popper, who was the philosopher of the democratic system, we are now really just at the dawn of the new era of establishing democracy as the system, and it’s really new after thousands of years of totally different way of governance. Democracy is still fresh and new and not understood correctly, and we will have to work on democratic systems for the next hundreds of years till they start to be functional. That’s why I think it’s good to be a part of that, because I still think that the democratic system is the most interesting and most fair in a government of a country. So that’s why it makes sense to try to support it and develop it, although it fails, although it has so many troubles, and although it’s so strangely connected with capitalism. And that’s where the money comes in, and that’s where Transparency International is needed, because it is so much focused on money in the democracy.”
And what do you think, why does corruption have such a strong influence in democratic systems?
“Because in liberal capitalistic models market is supposed to be fair and democratic. That’s why it’s so influential towards the democracy. For a lot of people, free market and free capitalism means the best model of democracy. And that’s actually incorrect, because the market is not the same as the state, and state is not a form of company. If you rule the state, it’s really a very different thing than if you rule the market or if you rule the company.
“The Western countries are much more developed in democratic governance, and yet they are still facing big corruption cases. So that gives you the impression that corruption is always there. That’s why I think the democratic system, where the power is in the society, and it’s the most spread-out way, or distributed way of decision-making, is also one which could see the best fight against corruption, because the voter always has the chance to change their representative, and just get him out of the corrupted money if possible. Of course, everything must work best, but still, the democratic idea is one which is possibly, potentially most strong against corruption.”