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BY PETER SCHUTZ

"At the speed of sound"

The Gripen affair in the Czech Republic invites a number of associations, none of them positive.
Coalition SNS party leader Ján Slota's statement that Hercules makes the best cargo transport planes and that Slovakia should buy some, in light of what happened in Prague, looks like a serious stumble for the lobbyists of Lockheed Martin, who haven't yet grasped that just because a man is the leader of a government party in Slovakia, it doesn't mean that he is right in the head.

The Gripen affair in the Czech Republic invites a number of associations, none of them positive.

Coalition SNS party leader Ján Slota's statement that Hercules makes the best cargo transport planes and that Slovakia should buy some, in light of what happened in Prague, looks like a serious stumble for the lobbyists of Lockheed Martin, who haven't yet grasped that just because a man is the leader of a government party in Slovakia, it doesn't mean that he is right in the head.

The manner in which Czech politicians declared their love for the Gripen fighter jet in 2000 was more "European", but even there you had a deputy prime minister running around Prague wearing a tie with a Gripen logo on it. Now, ahead of the Slovak Defense Ministry tender for transport aircraft, the most important thing is the statement by Transparency International that multinational exporters from the 30 most advanced countries "in all probability" use bribery to seal contracts abroad. The BAE systems company, which in Slovakia won a tender for the MOKYS army communications system and sold the Czech Republic its fighters in a consortium with Saab, has been investigated several times in England for its deals in South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The path the Gripen took into the Czech arsenal is thus rather unexceptional. The love of Czech politicians for the plane did not hold the public's attention for long, despite such "trivia" as the claim by senator Michal Žantovský to have been offered a Sk60 million bribe. The scandal came into the spotlight only when Jaroslav Tvrdík replaced Vladimír Vetchý as defense minister due to the latter's refusal to change the tender conditions.

Tvrdík since November has been Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico's "advisor for the Czech Republic". Another of the Slovak PM's advisors, Jan Kavan, is the star of a TV documentary program where, with the naivete of a child, he tells two people [Swedish undercover journalists] whom he has never met in his life how corruption works among Czech government ministers. It is clear that [former Czech PM Jiří] Paroubek is sending his best men to help Fico, but - just to be on the safe side - the Kavan-Tvrdík duo should be screened by the State Security Council.

In 1998, Miloš Zeman won the Czech elections by campaigning for "clean hands". The fact that he did not fulfill a single one of his promises to jail privatization thieves can be blamed on the "opposition contract" his socialist ČSSD party signed with the opposition right-wing ODS. But it is more difficult to explain why social democratic governments in the Czech Republic (Zeman, Špidla, Gross, Paroubek) have expanded political corruption to levels reminiscent of Italy in 1993, where scandals destroyed the entire political scene. Or Poland recently, where a serious of huge scandals destroyed the socialist party.

The Gripen affairs is far from a major scandal, and is more another link in a never-ending chain in the Czech Republic: recovery of the Russian debt through a mafia group, the attempted murder of a journalist who uncovered enormous corruption at Kavan's Foreign Ministry, the massive overbudget construction of the D-47 freeway, the privatization of Unipetrol, the Kubice report proving political connections to the murder of the gangster Mrázek, bribery at the land fund, the abuse of Euro-funds, the Gross affair, the Biolieh case...

It's an impressive list, although far from complete. Prague journalists regularly say of the Swedish documentary film that it contained no information that was new to them. Perhaps the worst news from the Gripen affair is not that corruption is expanding at the speed of sound, but the thick layer of insensitivity and apathy that has formed around Czech society in recent years. And not only around Czech society.


Sme, March 5

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