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INTERVIEW

Babiš: I am not a crook, read the story of Chirac or Berlusconi

Despite a mounting list of scandals Andrej Babiš, the billionaire ex-finance minister of Slovak origin, and his ANO party remain the frontrunners in the Czech Republic’s October 20-21 general election.

Andrej Babiš(Source: Sme)

Babiš placed his Agrofert agro-chemical conglomerate in a trust earlier this year, but is still the trust’s beneficiary. That company, the country’s largest private employer, also owns the MAFRA publishing house. The interview took place in early October at ANO headquarters in Prague, just days before Mr. Babiš received fraud charges from police related to his Čapí Hnízdo resort and the Slovak Constitutional Court ruled on his alleged ties to the communist-era secret service, the ŠtB. In the Čapí Hnízdo case he is alleged to have intentionally used his family to collect EU subsidies earmarked for small firms to develop the resort, before reabsorbing that company back into Agrofert.

We need to start with Čapí Hnízdo

Andrej Babiš: Did you visit Čapí Hnízdo? You have to go there. The investment is close to €40 million, and we are talking here about less than €2 million in subsidies. If I weren't in politics, you would never hear about Čapí Hnízdo. The politicians are constantly lying about this investment. This is public, 40,000 people are visiting the place

It’s not public. A national forest is public. It’s private and for profit, isn’t it?

AB: Okay, but [the candidate of Social Democrats for prime minister Lubomír] Zaorálek, who doesn’t know anything about economy or how to run a company, said this is kept private, which is a lie. Our politicians, and some journalists too, are repeating that this is only my family ranch or whatever. There are 68 employees. The farm pays more to the state than it got. And this is a 10-year-old case, which of course is organised to influence the election.

Read aslo:Babiš did not re-write the past

What is not 10 years old is the discovery your family were the owners. That was a secret until much more recently.

AB: The owners were members of my family. It occurred within the law. In 2008, there were 140 companies, receiving 3.8 billion crowns in subsidies, which had anonymous shares. If I wanted to cheat and commit fraud it would be much simpler to do it in the British Virgin Islands.

So why not just say your family was in charge years ago? If there was nothing to hide, why were the shares anonymous?

AB: No one asked about it. My family did not want to make it public. And it was not against the law. Find me one project financed by EU money where the proportion of money is 5 percent from the EU and 95 percent from private ownership. You will never find such a project, never. Now there is a campaign against me from all these anti-Babiš websites which belong to ex-journalists from the media I bought.

So you don’t regret keeping the owners a secret?

AB: No. Tell me why the European Anti-Fraud Office [which is still investigating the case] is so interested in such a small amount. Everything is politics.

Last year in January the European Commission requested an audit of the Čapí Hnízdo subsidies. You were finance minister then, and the independent auditor, Evžen Mrázek, was under the supervision of the ministry. You fired him in February and replaced him before he could do the audit, right?

AB: I never fired anybody. There were seven deputy ministers. I fired two of them. I have nothing to do with this. There were several audits. There is nothing. All audits have confirmed that the money was given by the rules.

So it is just a coincidence that the chief auditor, one month after the European Commission requested an audit, lost his job, and then the audit occurred after that?

AB: I don’t even know what I am speaking about. I have nothing to do with this. All of this stuff comes from anonymous leaks by Mr. [Lukáš] Wagenknecht, who is somebody who is really ill. He should look for a psychiatrist. He is constantly lying. [NOTE: Lukáš Wagenknecht is a former deputy finance minister and auditor that has become a prominent critic of how Mr. Babiš ran the finance ministry.]

You fired Mr. Wagenknecht though, yes?

AB: I did fire him, too late. I should never have hired him. He is a real danger. He is always fighting against Czech interests. He is a fanatic. He is constantly flying to Brussels, this Čapí Hnízdo investigation is his work. I am sure this is his revenge because he was fired.

He told me that you fired him from a deputy minister job, but offered him another job as a political appointee instead and that he turned you down.

AB: It was a job as somebody that is not under the law for state employees. I made a big mistake in taking him in. He is a fanatic. So is Čapí Hnízdo the most important thing for you?

It is important.

AB: Why?

Because you facing prosecution would be a pretty big deal.

AB: Maybe you need to read the story of Chirac or Berlusconi.

But Berlusconi was a crook.

AB: I am not a crook. I am just saying that in the past there were some cases where the police were used, that this is not the first time the police were used to change the political situation.

What makes ANO a good choice to change the political situation?

AB: I am not corrupt.

The other guys are corrupt?

AB: Yes, and it is very funny when they are speaking about conflict of interest. All tenders my company applies for are public. The only criteria is price. And of course, subsidies, they are constantly lying about the subsidies. Every Czech farmer got the same subsidies, 5,500 crowns per hectare.

You have a lot of farms though.

AB: Well yes, but these Czech journalists forget to write 100,000 hectares are rented. Most of the subsidies go for rent. Why did they come with this Čapí Hnízdo now, in the last days of the possible request? This is just a game to keep this affair in media everyday. Our independent [public-service] Czech Radio and TV, do you know who nominates these councils? The traditional parties. They are inviting only my enemies on TV. Only ex-employees of my media, who hate me. I broke not only the political system, but also the media system. All media belonged to German investors. They didn’t care about the journalists. They just took dividends and the journalists were the voice that said you could or could not be in politics. MAFRA [the publishing house I now own] was for ODS, they were just writing speeches for ODS. Everybody is says that I am a danger of democracy, but meanwhile [leader of the far right SPD party Tomio] Okamura is fine.

I am not saying Okamura is fine. Are there parties you would not cooperate with in a government?

AB: Not with the communists, nor Okamura. [TOP 09 leader Miroslav] Kalousek also no. These traditional parties are playing this game left and right, but they are not left and right. They have had the same program. Power and money. Now they also have the same program, anti-Babis. The right destroyed the Czech banks, left privatized the banks, the right increased VAT from 5 to 15 percent. If [former Prime Minister and President Václav] Klaus had gone for a traineeship on how to build capitalism in January 1990. We would already have these TGVs, and highways, and dual system and direct democracy and parliamentary procedure. I am just saying that the state, and the government mainly, should be managed like a company. The biggest problem there is nobody managing the government. There are only two guys who have managed the government in the history of the Czech Republic, Klaus and Zeman, and I am not speaking about the quality.

Read also:Surprise bakery audits possibly connected to Babiš

Speaking of Mr. Zeman, is he a good president?

AB: Mr. Zeman has of course people around him, who should not be there, who are making very negative publicity for him. Of course, unfortunately, he did not try to unify the nation. When he won against [former Foreign Minister Karel] Schwarzenberg, the people who voted for Schwarzenberg have continued to fight against him, and of course he has given them a lot of reasons to do so.

So do you support Mr. Zeman for reelection in January?

AB: We said we would have an ANO referendum after the elections.

Is it possible there will still be an ANO candidate?

AB: No. We don’t have anybody.

Besides being against corruption, are there actual policies that differentiate ANO?

AB: Of course, today they will announce my results as minister of finance. I accomplished my promise and the debt will be 73 million crowns lower than when I started. There will be a surplus in budget.

If you won the election, would you run a balanced budget every year?

AB: It depends. The problem is that the growth is made by consumption and exports. We need to make growth by investments. So we did not the finish the base highway infrastructure yet. We still don’t have the ring road.

So you would run deficits to finance infrastructure?

AB: I am sure that we can have a surplus. We can reduce the number of ministers. We can reduce the cost of government. We can use the base management approach like central purchasing, IT systems. We can be like Estonia, digitalisation. You don’t have any power over regional governors or mayors. Somebody has to manage things with them, give names and dates. This is nothing against democracy. This is just to manage the state and with the governors and mayors. We need an inventory of all the investment plans of everybody, mayor, governors, senior houses, port facilities. I don’t agree that we grow because of Europe, of course that matters, but we have growth in our own hands. We need to move tourists from Charles Bridge and Telč and Český Krumlov to other sites.

Like Čapí Hnízdo?

AB: Čapí Hnízdo is still losing money.

Should the Czech Republic join the eurozone?

AB: No.

Why?

AB: Because the eurozone needs to reform first. Everybody knows that Greece is bankrupt. The eurozone was an economic project that became political. Creditors have written off €100 billion for Greece and the eurozone has practically helped the European banks with €600 billion. We have very safe banks here, they are full of money. They are paying dividends. In the eurozone there are more negatives than positive.

Most Czech exports go to the eurozone though.

AB: Of course, there would be some positives, our companies would not have to hedge on currencies and so on. For Czech companies it would be positive of course. The question is what would be the conversion rate? For us the Czech currency and independent national bank is a good thing, because if there is a big crisis you can use the rate to help the economy.

Read also:Political prisoners are against Memory Institute reform

Eurozone membership would be good for Agrofert wouldn’t it?

AB: Yes, for Agrofert it would be good probably, but I am not here for Agrofert. The up front fees, the bank union, that they would force us to buy the bonds of Italian, or I don’t know, Greek banks. Our commercial banks prefer to buy bonds of the Czech state.

What do you think about what we are seeing from some other governments in the region, like Hungary and Poland? They are not exactly giving the Visegrad Group a strong reputation globally right now.

AB: Europe is criticising Poland. If there is some not democratic procedure I am sure that the Polish people during the next elections, they will express their opinion. If Europe is criticising Poland, fine, but what about Turkey?

Turkey is not in the European Union.

AB: No, but it is in NATO. Europe is criticising Poland but is giving €3 billion to Turkey because it was not capable to solve the immigration problem. We should really be objective.

What about Mr. Orbán ?

AB: Mr. Orbán was obliged to build a fence because central Budapest was full of immigrants. He was right. Frontex is not functioning and Europe could not solve the problem. The Hungarian people are also free, they have free elections.

And Mr. Fico?

AB: I know Mr. Fico, but my partner was [Finance Minister Peter] Kažimír. Mr Kažimír, [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schauble and the UK were my partners on the reverse charge tax policy. We were on the same boat. On the other side was France. I met [French President Emmanuel] Macron in 2015, he is fine, but he should probably concentrate on France.

You are not excited by his plans for reforming the European Union?

AB: No, we don’t need any minister of the eurozone. He promised to decrease taxes in 2018 and France needs lots of reforms. So he should concentrate on France. Small countries like the Czech Republic can propose solutions, not only big nations. Luxembourg is also small and Mr. Juncker is always proposing something.

©Sme

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