Slovakia's Constitutional Court on October 12 ordered a lower court to re-examine claims that Andrej Babis, favourite to become prime minister in the upcoming Czech election, collaborated with the Czechoslovak communist-era secret police.
The court's acceptance of a request made by Slovakia’s Institute of the Nation’s Memory spells double trouble for Slovak-born billionaire-turned-populist-politician Babis in the run-up to the October 20-21 vote. On October 9, Babis, leader of the ANO movement, confirmed police had charged him with fraud in the Capi hnizdo (Stork Nest) case centred on a €2.3mn EU subsidy obtained a decade ago. Analysts will watch closely to see if the latest blow to Babis dents ANO's popularity in the opinion polls.
However, with the latest surveys showing only a slight reduction in the party's popularity since news broke of the Stork Nest charges, some observers are wondering whether the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Babis has Donald Trump-like Teflon qualities, as nothing seems to stick. That was also the case in the spring when he was fired from his post in the ruling coalition as finance minister amid claims he had exploited a loophole to evade taxes, using bonds issued by his Agrofert corporation, the country’s largest private employer.
The Slovak Institute of the Nation’s Memory, which holds parts of 63-year-old Babis’ secret-police files, claims there is evidence that Babis was an informer working for the plainclothes secret police force, State Security (StB), which operated during the four-decade-long Communist-era former Czechoslovakia.
Babis refutes the allegation and Slovak courts have previously ruled that there was no proof of its veracity. The Constitutional Court verdict returns that question to a regional court in Babis' city of birth, Bratislava.
The institute's claims centre on the 1980s when Babis was a member of the Czechoslovak ruling Communist party and a representative of a state foreign trade company. Responding via his spokeswoman after the verdict was released, Babis stated: “I never signed collaboration with the StB and never collaborated with the StB.” He added: “Of course I am bothered that this issue is returning to the beginning after five years and will be abused in a political fight... a few days ahead of an election.”
Babis has previously conceded he had meetings with StB officers in the former Czechoslovakia, but says he only ever discussed the economic interests of the country. Having cleared his name after launching a lawsuit, he now faces the prospect of having to fight another lawsuit to again obtain a favourable verdict.
Quiet recapitalisation of Agrofert
After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which toppled Czechoslovak communism, Babis went on to reside in the newly-created Czech Republic from 1993, where he built up the agrochemicals, foodstuffs (and now also media) empire of Agrofert. His enemies say Babis has never satisfactorily explained how he quietly recapitalised Agrofert using an obscure Swiss entity. On the campaign trail, Babis insists that his business practices are entirely clean and that a big priority for ANO in government - where it is currently the main junior partner to the Social Democrats (CSSD) - is dismantling business, political and organised crime networks that facilitate corruption.
Another concern for Babis' critics is his closeness to Czech President Milos Zeman who often serves as an ally of the Kremlin. On October 11, Zeman told the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg that Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region is a “fait accompli” and that there should now be dialogue over Russian compensation for Ukraine. That sparked a row with the Czech Republic's CSSD prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, who responded that the head of state "had no mandate" to make such remarks. It also reminded some observers that a country led by a Prime Minister Babis and President Zeman could very much come under the sway of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Other critics reject that analysis, saying that any shift of alliances away from the West would be far more moderate.