The soul-searching has been stirred by Andrej Babis, a
businessman-turned politician poised to join a new coalition
government despite allegations — which he denies — of past
collaboration with the Communist secret police.
A strict interpretation of current law says this would bar him from
ministerial office, but a consensus is forming in the Czech Republic
to allow him to enter the government. A deal on a coalition
including Babis' party is expected in a few weeks.
The change of heart is the culmination of several trends.
First, the rules that have excluded tens of thousands of
collaborators were designed to end the sway of the shadiest parts of
the old regime on the young democracy, but it is now robust enough
that those rules may be no longer necessary.
Second, Czechs have recognized that the law was crude in banning
indiscriminately those who beat up people or snitched on friends as
well as those who were forced to agree to spy under the threat of
violence or persecution.
Finally, Czech voters are sick of official corruption and a
stagnating economy, and feel there are more pressing issues than
what may or may not have happened under Communist rule.
Babis, 59, who owns a swathe of chemicals and media companies worth
$2 billion according to Forbes magazine, won 18.7 percent of the
vote in last month's election, despite his widely reported past
He was a Communist Party member but denies having been an informant
for the Statni bezpecnost (StB), the Czechoslovak equivalent of old
East Germany's Stasi secret police. He admits only to have met
agents when he worked for a trading firm in the 1980s.
"I never signed anything," he said, accusing the current political
establishment of using the accusations to keep him from power. "This
matrix is afraid because I can't be corrupted by anyone," he told
Reuters in an interview.
Babis, born in Slovakia during the era of the Czechoslovak
federation, has gone to court to fight the Slovak Nation's Memory
Institute, which says it has a file proving he was a collaborator.
The dispute may take years to resolve.
IS QUARTER A CENTURY ENOUGH?
Bohuslav Sobotka, leader of the center-left Social Democrats and the
likely next prime minister, has come up with a plan that would alter
the screening requirements.
"I am convinced that (almost) 25 years after 1989, the time has come
to consider whether the screening law should be applied at all," he
said in a television debate.
The Communists, the third-biggest party in parliament, are proposing
scrapping the screening law altogether.
Sobotka's comments indicated the idea might have more traction than
before, or at least open the door to a less politically disputed
[to top of second column]
Last week Sobotka agreed with Babis that parliament should quickly
adopt a new public service law that would exempt ministers from
Another way to get Babis into government would be making him a
deputy prime minister, without giving him a concrete ministry to
run. Some lawyers say this could change the vetting practice while
formally obeying the law.
It would not go down well with some anti-Communists, and could cause
some ripples in his own party.
"The most important thing is the moral justification," said Mikulas
Kroupa, who heads Post Bellum, a group that collects memories of
victims of communist persecution.
"Should this country be governed by people who snitched, beat up or
in other way bullied their compatriots and loyally served the
totalitarian regime? It should not."
STRICTER THAN OTHERS
The Czech law is stricter than rules applied in some other
ex-communist states. In Poland, candidates for selected jobs merely
have to declare if they were former communist agents or not.
Slovakia scrapped vetting requirements in the 1990s, and Hungary
does not apply any vetting process at all.
The StB files have been criticized for their questionable veracity.
Another problem is that many were destroyed or vanished as security
services "cleaned up" their files in 1989, possibly giving some
collaborators a clean bill of health.
Vaclav Havel, the revered Czech dissident leader during the
Communist era who was elected president afterward, favored scrapping
the law after five years.
Petr Kambersky, commentator at Hospodarske Noviny, said it would be
wrong to change the law because of one man — Babis, but in general
it had served its purpose.
"It was a good law at the time through which democracy tried to make
sure that it is not undermined. Its defenders now argue by moral
reasons but morality should not be governed by law. It is despicable
that someone was an (StB) agent, but it is not a risk to democracy
[By Jan Lopatka]
(Additional reporting by Robert Muller, Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw
and Krisztina Than in Budapest; editing by Mark Heinrich)