Communist past returns to haunt embattled Czech PM

Robert Tait in Prague
Andrej Babiš Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

Only the fear of being unmasked as a collaborator seemed to cloud the businessman’s horizon as he signed up as an informer for communist Czechoslovakia’s secret police in jarringly jovial surroundings.

Over generous refreshments during a 90-minute meeting in a Bratislava wine bar on 11 November 1982, the agent soon to be known as Bureš was asked to report what associates were saying about the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose death the previous day threatened to shake the communist world and the east-west cold war confrontation to the core.

According to archived documents, the recruit, Andrej Babiš – today the Czech Republic’s prime minister and second richest man – was worried someone might see him with officers from the security services, hampering his career with a state trading company that enabled a privileged existence and foreign travel.

Whatever Babiš told his handlers about sentiments towards Brezhnev – a leader widely disliked in the former Czechoslovakia for ordering the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring – is lost to posterity. Document analysts believe the issue’s sensitivity led to his answers being fed to a special intelligence department which passed them to the ruling politburo, which possibly feared that Brezhnev’s passing could trigger a new uprising.

Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and neighbouring eastern European countries came to an end in 1989. Babiš’s concerns that his clandestine activities might one day come to haunt him proved equally prescient.

Last week a court in Bratislava – capital of the independent Slovakia that emerged, along with the Czech Republic, from Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993 – delivered a powerful political and legal blow by dismissing his argument that he had been wrongly identified as a former agent.

The verdict appeared to mark the final failure of a years-long campaign by the Slovak-born Babiš to prove he was the victim of a smear campaign by enemies designed to destroy his political career and his business empire, which encompasses about 230 companies in a vast conglomerate called Agrofert.

Babiš had argued that, far from being a collaborator, he was in reality a victim of the communist-era security services, known as the StB, who he said blackmailed him into cooperating to maintain his children’s education and his right to travel abroad. He even produced the agent who supposedly recruited him in that 1982 meeting, Lieutenant Julius Suman, to testify in court that his security file had been deliberately falsified to conceal Bureš’s true identity.

That was initially accepted by a Bratislava court, which ruled in 2014 that Babiš had been wrongly listed as a communist agent. But the ruling was overturned last year by Slovakia’s constitutional court, which said Suman’s testimony was inadmissible because the StB was a “criminal organisation”.

It also said Babiš was wrong to sue Slovakia’s Nation’s Memory Institute, which merely held the documents in its archive. Last week’s verdict, which is final, confirmed the constitutional court’s ruling.

The development deepens the troubles of a politician already facing fraud charges after being accused by Czech police of illegally obtaining European funds for one of his businesses. A leaked report from the EU’s fraud unit, Olaf, recently said multiple European and Czech laws had been breached in obtaining nearly €2m for his Stork’s Nest hotel and conference centre outside Prague.

It could further complicate Babiš’s attempts to form a viable government after his first attempted administration collapsed within a month after losing a parliamentary confidence vote.

Although his populist Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party easily won last October’s parliamentary election, most other parties refuse to enter a coalition with Babiš as leader, citing the criminal charges against him.

Miloš Zeman, the Czech president who was re-elected last month, has defied such resistance by inviting Babiš to try again to form a government.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Czech Communist party, which holds 15 seats in the 200-member parliament and opposes membership of the EU and Nato, is one of the few groupings to express possible willingness to support a Babiš government.

While communist sympathies may seem incongruous for a man today known for his $4bn (£2.9bn) fortune, lavish lifestyle and a pragmatic political approach seemingly bereft of ideology, they would not have seemed unusual in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s when the end of the cold war seemed a barely remote possibility.

Babiš, 63, is the son of a senior communist official who served as Czechoslovakia’s representative to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) in Geneva. He is believed to have joined the communist party himself in 1980, a move possibly driven as much by career ambitions as political convictions.

Radek Schovánek, an expert in communist-era security files for the Czech defence ministry, said Babiš served the StB as an informal “trusty” before becoming a fully fledged agent. There was little doubt from Babiš’s 12 surviving security files – others have been destroyed – that he joined willingly, Schovánek said.

Among Babiš’s recorded achievements were informing on an individual who illegally imported western video recorders, “corrupting” his colleagues.

Schovánek, who testified as a witness against Babiš at the original Slovakian trial, said his activities could have been far more extensive than what is revealed in the files, which were made available in the early 1990s.

“It’s a joke to claim he was a victim,” he said. “Falsifying the files was impossible. There were very strict rules regarding the paperwork of secret collaborators. We have analysed all the information that Babiš gave them. It was accurate and according to the rules, everything was in order.”

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