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Czech Republic: Havel Caught In Controversy On Czech Anniversary

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 28 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Czechoslovakia has been consigned to the history books, but the anniversary of the republic's founding on October 28, 1918 is still marked as a national holiday in Prague.

Today's 80th commemorations should have been occasion for an extra dose of celebration, but Czech President Vaclav Havel finds himself caught up in a geopolitical scandal that has soured the mood and threatens to affect Prague's relations with an influential neighbor.

At issue is Havel's sudden decision last week to revoke his intention to award former Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk with the Order of the White Lion, the highest Czech honor that can be conferred on a foreigner. The orders are traditionally given out on October 28 in a ceremony televised nationwide from Prague Castle.

Zilk, who began his career as a journalist and retired as one of Austria's most respected local politicians, seemed a natural for the award. A personal acquaintance of Havel's, Zilk had close links to Czech dissidents and intellectuals during the Communist period. But some claim he also had links to the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.

The German newspaper, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, first broke the story last week and it caused an instant sensation. The paper charged that from the years 1953 to 1969, Zilk worked as an informer for the Czechoslovak StB in return for payment. Subsequently, Vaclav Benda, the former head of the Czech Office for the Documentation and Research into the Crimes of Communism, also alleged that he had information proving that Zilk had cooperated with the former Czechoslovak Secret Police.

Zilk has vigorously denied the accusations, calling them "vile." And he has challenged the Suddeutsche Zeitung and Benda to produce their evidence. Neither has done so.

Havel says he is keenly aware of the damage caused to both the Czech Republic and Zilk over the withdrawal of the award. But he says he was put in an impossible situation and was left with little choice.

In an interview on Czech state radio on Monday, Havel accused the Suddeutsche Zeitung's Prague correspondent, Peter Brod, of attempting to "blackmail" him. According to Havel, Brod told Havel's office he would publish the material compromising Zilk on the day of the award's presentation if Havel went ahead with the ceremony. Havel added that "certain unspecified circles in the Czech Republic" are behind the whole case and he expressed suspicion at the timing of the revelations.

Brod has denied threatening the president's office. And speaking to RFE/RL, he refused to comment any further on Havel's accusation.

Havel's political opponents, among them former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, were quick to disparage the presidential office for the debacle. This, despite the fact that Vaclav Benda, one of Zilk's principal public accusers, comes from Klaus's own party.

Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) hope to do well in next month's Czech Senate elections -- well enough to enable the party, along with the Social Democrats (CSSD), to change the constitution to limit the president's powers -- a goal they both share.

No one has suggested publicly that Havel's political adversaries may be behind the Zilk affair. But Czech journalist Jan Bednar notes that Havel is not short on enemies, both in and out of politics.

Bednar and Havel's spokesman, Ladislav Spacek, among others, say the timing of the revelations may not be coincidental. Benda was in office as head of the Czech Office for the Documentation and Research into the Crimes of Communism when Zilk traveled to Prague just last year to be awarded the keys to the city by Prague Mayor Jan Koukal, a prominent Klaus ally and ODS figure. Yet no allegations against the former Austrian politician came out at the time.

But Bednar says that in large part, Havel's office is to blame for not ordering a background check of Zilk, which could have pre-empted this very public embarrassment.

"I think there was clearly a mistake on the part of Havel's office. The people who were supposed to be awarded should have been checked in advance -- long in advance, rather than at the last moment and that's clearly a mistake on the side of the office," Bednar said.

But Havel spokesman Spacek told RFE/RL that the presidential administration has no legal authority to demand background checks on the individuals nominated for special honors. Even if it did, he notes, it would be no easy matter.

"According to existing laws, we cannot do background checks on candidates for state awards....but the structure of the archives of the former secret police is extremely complicated," Spacek said. "You've got the archive of the former counter-intelligence agency, the archive of the espionage unit, the archive of the military intelligence unit, and other archives elsewhere.

There does not exist an easy procedure for doing a background check on an individual."

Spacek says the situation could repeat itself unless Czech legislation is changed. But he notes, "that's not up to the presidential administration." For now, the accusations against Zilk hang heavy in the air. But no evidence to support the accusations against him have come to light.

Spacek says that as far as Havel is concerned, the matter is not closed. The Czech president has asked the Interior Ministry to look into any material it may have on Zilk. But as far as he knows, the archives haven't yet yielded any files.

"The rules are set by the Interior Ministry, not by us. So, in many respects, we will be dependent on them," Spacek said.

So it has come down to a waiting game, although observers say that as far as Czech-Austrian relations are concerned, and Havel's reputation, the damage has been done. As the Czech daily Lidove Noviny pointed out this week: while the Czechs celebrate their separation from the Austrians 80 years ago, this case, ironically, is likely to drive another wedge between the two neighbors.

Czechoslovakia may be gone and its Communist regime relegated to the pages of history, but its ghosts, real or imagined, still haunt the region.