1 beer, 1 vote

Vladimir Zelezny finds refuge in his recent Senate win

For the Czech Republic, the significance of the recent Senate and local elections lay in a single contest. That contest was significant for two reasons. First, it was the only Senate race that produced a first-round victory: Vladimir Zelezny, director of the country’s huge private TV giant Nova, ran as an independent candidate to defeat incumbent Senator Milan Spacek. Second, Zelezny’s quick victory serves as proof that in the Czech Republic, serious challenges to democracy and to democratic institutions remain. This is best seen from facts concerning the race itself. First is the fact that Zelezny is currently charged with committing three criminal acts: one count of tax evasion and two counts of damaging creditors.

If he’s convicted, he faces a total of up to 20 years in prison. Zelezny has already been found guilty by an international arbitration panel of fraudulent business dealings, in which he dumped CME, his U.S. partner and investor in Nova. As a result, Zelezny has seen all his assets, including paintings and castles, frozen or seized. In fact, his pay as a senator should be withheld as well. Meanwhile, a second arbitration decision is expected in the next few months, in which the Czech Republic, again as a result of Zelezny’s antics, is expected to have to pay up to 20 billion Kc – 8,000 Kc ($270) for every family, in damages to the U.S. investors. Second, Zelezny has nothing to do with the southern Moravian region of Znojmo where he ran and won. Zelezny targeted Znojmo because it has the highest regional unemployment, as well as Nova’s highest ratings of any region in the country. Huge pre-election billboards featured the Nova logo hanging behind his head like a halo, while his own personal TV program, Call the Director, just happened to air on the same day as the elections.

As opposed to Senator Spacek, who waged his campaign by talking to citizen’s groups, church groups and organizations, Zelezny’s style was different. He simply arrived at a local pub, asked the people what they wanted, reached into his pocket (where did he get the money?) and paid for them. In truth, it’s difficult to deny the effect of buying new soccer uniforms for the local team or a beer and sausage for everyone in the pub, in a poor region. Asked why not a s ingle ad against Zelezny appeared in the local press, Spacek’s campaign manager Pavel Liptak replied, If we wanted to place an ad against him, we were simply told that it was impossible, that they didn’t want to lose an important client.” Zelezny has claimed refuge not only within his country but within one of its governmental institutions. Why? As a senator, he gets immunity from prosecution. My plans are well known,” says Zelezny, who says that as a senator he has no intention of giving up direction of the country’s largest TV station – a conflict of interest that no democratic country would tolerate. Zelezny’s election thus has grave consequences for the public’s perception of politicians and hence for politics in the Czech Republic.

Though the Senate has served as a check on Parliament’s powers, it is under fire, with a public approval rating of less than 20 percent. Most of the public and many politicians feel the Senate should be abolished, viewing it as a needless extension of the corrupt and expensive political status quo. Therefore, unless the Senate revokes Zelezny’s immunity, its days may be numbered. Senate Chairman Petr Pithart, who is among the top three candidates for president, now needs to show his mettle and initiate such a process. Furthermore, the Senate should quickly sponsor a law lifting automatic immunity for any senator accused of criminal acts committed prior to assuming office. In the Czech Republic, as in all other post-communist countries, the greatest threat to democracy will always be an uneven playing field, whether it be due to poverty, corruption or a weak justice system.

Wherever there is such imbalance, a powerful and greasy TV director will always beat out a good man, because for the average Czech voter caught in the middle, a beer and sausage will buy their vote. The fact that they, their children and grandchildren will be paying off the consequences means nothing to them. Now it’s up to the Czech Senate and government to explain to our allies at the upcoming NATO summit just how and why we allow convicted criminals to seek immunity inside our governmental institutions and what, if anything, we are going to do about it.

– The writer is a Prague physician and publisher of The New Presence.


The Prague Post13.11.2002

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