Friday, September 8, 2017

Babiš and the briar patch

I wrote in my initial report from here about the corruption case surrounding Andrej Babiš.

He’s one of the richest people in post-communist Europe and a member of parliament, and he was the minister of finance until her resigned under the pressure of some apparently incriminating evidence about involvement in corruption.

The police now say they have enough evidence to take him to trial, so they’ve asked the parliament to hand him over for trial by suspending his immunity as a member of that body.

It wasn’t clear whether parliament would go along, but in the end they did, by an overwhelming vote: 123 out of 134 present in favor of suspending Babiš’s immunity, with four against (and apparently 7 abstaining).

For Babiš’s colleague Jaroslav Faltýnek was handed over by a vote of 120 out of 133, with five against.

(The quotes and data here are from Lidové noviny.)

In the parliamentary debate, Babiš’s substantive defense seems to be that the money wasn’t misspent, but was all used for the intended purpose of developing The Stork’s Nest, rather than being stashed away somewhere in Panama. “If I wanted to commit subsidy fraud, there’d be nothing easier than setting up an offshore firm somewhere in Cyprus. Nobody would have traced it there.”

It’s probably true that the money was used for the operation of the Stork’s Nest. It’s also true that, without the subsidy, the company would have had 50 million fewer crowns, so in effect the money from the EU did end up in the owner’s pockets. If the police are right and the basis for the subsidy was a fraudulent claim that the company was independent, then the owner is Babiš and he got money to which he wasn’t entitled.

The political defense is that this is a targeted prosecution: Czech politicians have been getting away with this sort of thing basically forever, so to go after Babiš now, two months before the election, is just the police putting their thumb on the scale.
“I don’t see any criminal case in this. I see an entirely different matter. I see the election,” continued Babiš. According to him what’s at stake is whether he’ll be in power after the election and whether after the election there will still be, clinging to life, “an incredible corruption hydra,” which is made up of a caste of politicians. Babiš judges that the case is meant to liquidate him in politics.
This is a harder argument to counter than the previous one, but if we follow it to its logical consequence it also leads to the end of all law. “We can’t prosecute you because we didn’t prosecute others who did similar things earlier.”

At the same time, it would be good to understand the political and social forces that are leading to this prosecution apparently going ahead where so many previous ones have been squelched.

In the U.S. we have probably gotten ourselves into a similar mess with our failure to follow up on potential criminal prosecutions in the mortgage fraud that proliferated during the housing boom and subsequent bust 10 years ago.

At any rate, the surprise of the day was Babiš himself calling for parliament to let him stand trial. “You won’t silence me, you won’t scare me, you won’t stop me, and you won’t get rid of me. Feel free to hand me over. I ask for my immunity to be removed, so that the truth can come out.”

It’s hard to know what’s going on here. From some of the accounts I’ve seen in the press, some degree of malfeasance is almost prima facie: Babiš is on record saying he didn’t know who owned The Stork’s Nest, and now there’s paperwork showing that it belonged to his company all along.

Is there a strong case that he’s innocent, and he genuinely wants to stand trial and prove that?

Is this some sort of Brer Rabbit trick? Instead of saying, “Don’t throw me in there!” when he really wants to go, he’s saying “Throw me in there!” so that the parliament won’t do it.

Or is it as simple as a calculation that he needs to take his chance on this? With less than two months to the election, he has to look like he’s confident of his innocence, or he’ll lose the election, and then he’ll be in real trouble. If the trial moves as slow as is likely, it won’t be very far along by election day, and then Babiš will be prime minister. And what—You’re going to take the actual prime minister to court over a trifling $2.5 million?

Anyway, he’s in the briar patch now. We'll see how long he stays there, and what it does to him.

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