Nicholas Watson in Prague -
The October 25-26 general election in the Czech Republic should see a radical shift in the country's political landscape, though sadly probably not in certain attitudes of politicians toward scrutiny and openness.
One prevalent attitude amongst Czech politicians of a certain age is that their past is not a subject for discussion - and definitely not by impertinent young journalists who appear more willing to do their job than supine predecessors.
Czech Labour and Social Affairs Minister Frantisek Konicek, who was appointed to President Milos Zeman's "cabinet of experts" that took over after the government of former prime minister Petr Necas collapsed in June over a bribery and spying scandal, took exception to a reporter of the online news site Aktualne.cz asking him about his previous involvement with murky offshore companies. "You are behaving like a moron. That is all. Goodbye," Konicek said before ending the interview, which was published on October 15.
Grungy-looking and self-assured, much about the female journalist in question, Eliska Bartova, might be expected to infuriate a man of Konicek's past and pedigree. Born in 1953 and one of the country's old guard of politicians, he has served in several governmental posts during the Czech Republic's tortuous and corruption-blighted post-communist years.
Yet the questions the reporter put were pertinent to the current election, in which Konicek is standing as an MP for the president's Party of Citizens' Rights - the Zemanites (SPOZ), and appropriate for the minister specifically.
On October 8, the Czech branch of anti-graft group Transparency International released a report that highlighted the links between offshore companies, public tenders, EU money and Czech politicians. Since 2008, it found that offshore companies, most of which have opaque ownership, won public tenders in the Czech Republic worth almost CZK200bn (€7.8bn), as well as 277 of such companies receiving some CZK6bn from European funds, of which half has already been paid out. The Czech Republic is one of the last remaining European companies to allow bearer shares, which are anonymous and serve to hide the real ownership of companies.
"The level of non-transparency and opacity is beyond our imagination," David Ondracka, head of Transparency's Czech office, was quoted by Aktualne.cz as saying. "We realized that there are almost CZK200bn in public and government contracts over the last five or six years which went to companies that are offshore, which actually efficiently hide the real beneficiary owners."
As part of its election campaign, Konicek's party SPOZ has promised to abolish bearer shares. Yet Konicek himself reportedly owns bearer shares of a company called Karlstejnska and has held senior positions at various companies, like Cyprus-based energy company Equity Brokers, whose true owners are hidden behind bearer shares.
Transparency's Ondracka says that while politicians linked to such offshore companies have not necessarily committed any crime, their involvement in firms that might be committing tax evasion, or worse manipulating public tenders, is highly problematic.
Asked whether working for such a company until only a few months ago represented a conflict of interest with his current position as a minister and candidate, Konicek refused to comment, then snapped that he was merely "a manager at a subsidiary of a company that was operating, creating jobs and paying taxes here," before ending with the statement that he has "no right to say - and I am not interested in - who is their shareholder."
Czech voters might not have heard proper answers from Konicek to the questions put to him, but they will get a chance soon enough to tell him if they feel that matters.
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