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Czech Republic: Political Malaise Deepens

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 30 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Czech politics is beset by malaise. President Vaclav Havel spoke about this situation in his New Year's speech but little has happened since to improve it.

"Absolutely nothing is happening. No progress is being made in anything," said one Central European diplomat.

Among the causes are mutual intolerance and mistrust among the country's leading politicians, both within the ruling center-right coalition and between the coalition and the opposition.

A leading Czech TV political commentator blames the conservative Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, and the parliamentary chairman and social democratic opposition party leader Milos Zeman.

"The antagonism between Klaus and Zeman will drive this country to the grave," he told RFE/RL.

In addition to recent scandals over the abuse of academic titles and parliamentary immunity, the potentially most explosive continuing issue is "spy mania." It has plagued the Czech political scene on and off for years and last November brought down Stanislav Devaty, the acting head of the country's counter-espionage agency (BIS).

Devaty was forced to resign amid allegations that he had allowed BIS to spy on prominent political figures, including Agriculture Minister Josef Lux, a Christian Democrat (KDU-CSL). Devaty has yet to be replaced.

The social democratic speaker of the lower house of parliament Milos Zeman claimed last year that his party was "receiving unconfirmed information that BIS was collaborating with the Interior Ministry to create a unit to monitor and discredit politicians." Zeman subsequently warned that the country is on its way to becoming a police state. Interior Minister Jan Ruml countered that the allegation was "incredible and outrageous."

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said such statements as Zeman's could be expected to come from the lips of a radical anarchist but certainly not from one of the three highest ranking officials in the country.

Zeman responded saying he had 52 pages of BIS documents to prove his allegations and that he intended personally to hand over the materials to President Havel. Zeman did it only recently, following Havel's hospitalization for lung surgery and a subsequent bout of pneumonia. Havel eventually announced that the documents "do not contain a single sentence which would give the slightest cause for feeling that we live in a police state."

The parliamentary commission supervising BIS activities subsequently reviewed the documents and said yesterday that they are almost certainly all fakes and that the only two which could be regarded as genuine do not confirm any violation of the law by BIS. The commission also said that it determined who might have participated in preparing and disseminating the material. More immediately important, the commission confirmed that the documents fail to justify Zeman's claim that the country is heading toward becoming a police state.

When the affair erupted, Zeman called for Ruml's resignation. Yesterday, it was Ruml's turn to point the finger. He called on Zeman to take political responsibility for unleashing the affair and to apologize to both the public and Havel. Ruml says he may still call for Zeman's resignation as the speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Apparently among those suspected of preparing and disseminating the fakes are people with secret police backgrounds who had in the past been associated with a publication in Brno that specialized in publishing old Communist secret police documents and lists of former secret police agents.

One of those is an ex-convict, Milos Demeter, whose girlfriend, Lenka Kralova, is a reporter for the country's main independent TV station, Nova. The commission questioned Kralova in the presence of the acting head of BIS, Jaroslav Jira, who says he is now convinced the affair was initially aimed at harming BIS. But commission chairman Jaroslav Basta, who was dismissed from BIS some four years ago and is the Social Democrats' shadow defense minister, says he believes the provocation was aimed at the Social Democrats.

An article today in the Prague daily "Dnes" quotes Jira as saying BIS is looking into whether foreign intelligence agencies might have been involved in the case. The paper says that BIS's annual report last year accused Russian intelligence of trying to discredit the Czech Republic in a bid to reduce the chances of Prague join NATO.

But "Dnes" quotes Ruml and Minister without Portfolio Pavel Bratinka, who are in charge of co-ordinating police and BIS activities, as saying they do not think Russian espionage is involved.

"For the time being I want to believe that behind these fakes is a group of people who want to get even with someone. The Russians, according to my information....see that we are perfectly capable of producing our own scandals," said Ruml.

But some analysts say Slovakia, especially its espionage agency, the Slovak Information Service (SIS), may have a considerably greater interest than Russia in undermining Czech political stability. The Czech lands have traditionally been the standard by which Slovakia's economic and political development is measured. In light of the current Czech political malaise, those analysts say, Slovakia, despite its own political turmoil and economic problems, may not look quite so bad as its domestic and foreign critics claim.