News Brief

Czech protests target PM over corruption allegations

Czech opposition parties massed supporters across the country Tuesday night to pressure Prime Minister Andrej Babis to resign over accusations that he illegally used his political influence to enrich his business empire, allegations brought by the European Commission that Babis has dismissed as “disinformation.”

The accusations are laid out in a confidential report written by the European Commision that investigated how companies over which Babis had control received tens of millions of Euros of EU funding while he was prime minister. The companies which he controlled before he became the nation’s leader include the Czech Republic’s largest agro-industrial company, Agrofert and the largest publisher, Mafra.

The EU report concluded that although Babis had allegedly placed his companies in a trust in 2017 after taking office, he retained influence over business matters. The report said that the Czechs should return 17 million Euros of European subsidies that were inappropriately directed to Babis’ companies during his tenure as prime minister, or face the loss of some EU subsidies.

It is unclear how the report was leaked, but the ensuing scandal has roiled the country since last week. In an interview for Seznam Zpravy Babis said that the report has been written by a “snitch.” The leader has staunchly rejected the accusations, calling the EU report and the media coverage are based on “nasty lies and disinformation.”

“Czech Republic will not be returning any money. And it would be good if the media stopped lying about it,” Babis said in a speech to parliament on Friday. “They are spreading lies. I have not broken either Czech or European laws, and so I am shocked to again see these reports. No money will be sent back. It is not true.”

Jakub Zelenka, one of the journalists who broke the story, tweeted that the PM has ‘bombarded him with text messages’ accusing him of lying and ordering him to ‘delete his phone number’.

In a style similar to Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, Babis lashed out at the watchdog organization instrumental in bringing the potential conflict of interest to the EU’s attention and sparking the investigation, calling Transparency International a “corrupt organization.”

Babis had often been compared to former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, who notoriously mixed politics with business before being convicted of tax fraud. Eric Maurice, manager of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, said that the accusations against Babis are even worse than Berlusconi’s cases, according to Hospodarske Noviny.

The report is the second sensitive case for the Czech leader. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) investigated another cased linked to 15 million Euros, which Babis received to build an agricultural complex known as ‘Stork’s Nest’. Czech police then investigated the case and concluded that Babis and six other people should be prosecuted.

Tuesday’s protests were organized over fears that the Czech judiciary may be pressured to bury the accusations against the prime minister.

Czech Justice Minister, Marie Benesova, who was controversially appointed only a few days ago, said that she still trusts Babis and that she cannot see a reason to change her opinion.

Czech government now has two months to respond to the report.