Setting a low bar

FOR the second time, a Slovak court has ruled that it is not possible to prove that Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babiš worked as an agent for the communist-era secret police, the ŠtB. 

Andrej BabišAndrej Babiš (Source: Sme)

Babiš has long maintained that he never worked as an agent nor knowingly collaborated with the ŠtB. Among his explanations for why he, under the code name Bureš, appears in a number of old files, is that the ŠtB was an unreliable organisation, staffed by untrustworthy people who may have simply put his name in the reports to gain credit for recruiting a new agent. This does seem plausible, and to argue this point his lawyers called untrustworthy people who used to work for the ŠtB to testify on his behalf before the court.

Read also:Babiš wins over ÚPN, for goodRead more 

In short, regardless of what the court ruled, it is impossible for Babiš to prove he is innocent of the allegations. His job during the communist era negotiating international business deals on the part of the regime, frequent trips abroad, family ties, and his rapid ascent to wealth after 1989 all fit a strong circumstantial mould. Notably, Babiš did not prove that he was not an ŠtB agent, but was able to demonstrate in the eyes of the court that the files were not sufficient to prove he was.

In the end, none of this matters very much. Czechs simply do not care whether Babiš ever worked with or for the ŠtB. Well before this latest court case was resolved, they voted for him and his ANO party in droves during the 2013 election. Today, he is the country’s most popular politician. The general public long ago moved on from despising ex-communists to hating the post-communists – meaning the people that took advantage of the chaotic 1990s to gain wealth and permanently corrupt the political system.

While Babiš did use the post-communist transition years to make himself a billionaire, he showed little desire to intervene directly in politics until recently. This has allowed him to campaign as a political outsider arriving to rescue the Czech people from the dirty politicians and oligarchs who have prevented progress in the country for all these years.

Coming to grips with history, in a transparent way, is necessary, but the Czech Republic and Slovakia have not always shown a willingness to do so and may have missed their chance. The Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN), the organisation charged with handling Slovakia’s old ŠtB files and the one which Babiš sued to clear his name, was not created until 2007. The same year the Czechs created a similar organisation, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR).

This is in sharp contrast with how the Stasi archives from the old East Germany were opened to the public almost immediately and a million people have accessed their own secret police files in the years since. The Stasi Records Agency was created the very day Germany officially reunified.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the late creation of the ÚSTR and the ÚPN meant that they immediately took on a political connotation. The political right were tempted to use the organisations to link today’s left to communism and tarnish their ideological positions, while today’s left – feeling under attack – could be tempted to protect fellow leftists if only to gain tactical advantage in future elections.

At this point, whether Babiš did or did not work for ŠtB is no longer the most interesting question. More relevant is why it does not really matter to so many Czech voters?

Rightly or wrongly, a sort of informal statue of limitations on crimes committed during the communist era has set in. Most people are much more troubled today by the things that came afterwards, things that still have a much more profound effect on how politics, social affairs and business are practised today.

Babiš is no angel, but he just needs to convince voters he is more righteous than the competition – and in the Czech politics of recent years that is a low bar to clear.

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