Corruption — ah corruption

By March 21, 2010Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, March 21 (UPI) — “You must continue to write about corruption,” the young man says to me in the tram, holding his fist up in a supportive way. I look at him, “I saw your photo in Hospodarske Noviny” — the prominent Czech daily, somewhat like the Financial Times — which had run my column in Czech. The weekend talk shows and news are full of it.

This fight is for them, for the younger generation — and for the victims of Communism. This issue must not slip into oblivion.

The threatening phone calls, the distasteful e-mail — some from people I know — 20 days of attempted intimidation only make me more resilient. Corruption is hurting a great people and a great country. The scourge of corruption is bad for business, the judicial system, investments, public policy and academia.

Turning a blind eye does nothing. It evolves into Nazism, communism, genocide — Rwanda, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar — it destroys the life blood of society. Hearing nothing, seeing nothing and saying nothing emboldens those who are getting away with it. The corrupt are strong, because we behave weak.

And trust me, all you corrupt ladies and gentlemen; the silent majority — and plenty of your colleagues — are not on your side. They are sick of it. They talk to me in meetings, on the streets, by e-mail, on the phone and in blogs. I hope they will show you in the May elections that their patience has run out. They should send out a loud and clear message.

They will see the honest politicians on the ballot including former Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla; former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg; former Minister for Europe Alexandr Vondra; Senators Dienstbier and Sequens; and former Social Affairs Minister Petr Necas among them. The Czechs will decide which political party or coalition will govern.

I do have an opinion on this; and it will not be to some folks liking.

Politics is reality. It is never an easy choice. I will be attacked for my stance. Though I prefer center-right politics and limited government, in a battle of former prime ministers I would pick Social Democrat Jiri Paroubek over Conservative Mirek Topolanek. If I ask the people to take a stand, I must as well — with all the consequences it brings.

I have my idiosyncrasies. I was asked in an interview with the Czech daily Hospodarske Noviny if I am not engaged in a double standard for being close to Slovak oligarch Tom Chrenek. Tom is a member of the Prague Society. I have known him for 10 years. He is generous and benevolent. He has never asked me for bribe. He has never offered me money to set up a meeting for him. He has never asked to be in a photo with our well-known guests. He helps students, young folks and our not-for-profit projects — selflessly. He has asked for nothing in return. Maybe more of you should meet this Tom Chrenek. He is my friend. Full stop!

Czech Defense Minister Martin Bartak evidently thinks he is beyond reproach. The very first article about his machinations appeared in Mlada Fronta Dnes — the Czech Republic’s biggest serious daily — Feb. 17. The daily has run a series about the alleged shady dealings of Bartak. A manager is caught on camera saying a 7 percent fee must be paid. This tape is in English and can be viewed online. A transcript of the tape was carried Feb. 18 on the front page of Mlada Fronta.

Mlada Fronta later quoted parts of my previous column.

Bartak should resign.

If Bartak doesn’t resign, Czech Prime Minister Fisher should remove him with the support of party leaders Topolanek and Paroubek. A Parliamentary Investigation should be launched.

Recently, the name of former U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Victor Jackovich has fallen in conversations with diplomats, government folks and journalists in connection with Steyr Pandur (light armored vehicles) deal. Steyr is the Austrian company and subsidiary of General Dynamics. It is the primary focus of the arms deal series in the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes.

Jackovich was the main U.S. broker for the Steyr/General Dynamics Pandur deal. He met with U.S. Embassy officials and the Czech government. He should say whether he was present and viewed corrupt practices. Jackovich has not responded to my request for information.

A government source told me there is a tape that allegedly has a high-ranking Defense Ministry official asking Steyr for a bribe. Another former government official told me the tape is in the hands of the British intelligence (they have been monitoring the Czech Defense Ministry because of a British Aerospace fighter jet deal. British Aerospace has recently paid a British government fine for this deal).

I will be filing a Freedom of Information request with the British government and other agencies on the Steyr matter.

And even though Counselor John Law of the U.S. Embassy in Prague has publicly distanced himself from me in Mlada Fronta, I will not be deterred. I have repeatedly sought to confirm his actual official English statement. Law has ignored my messages and e-mail. And let me be clear Mr. Law, you are going to Afghanistan — and I have a long memory.

Thankfully, the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic and its Executive Director Weston Stacey have publicly stated that corruption is a serious problem in Czech. A special anti-corruption task force has been recently set up. Slowly, Western businesses are also getting tired of corruption.

As Ronald Reagan once prominently said, “You can run. But, you cannot hide.”

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)