I have only personally encountered Andrej Babis – the billionaire Prime Minister considered the Czech Republic’s answer to Donald Trump – once. It was during, of all places, a lingerie runway show at Prague Fashion Week. Even amidst the booming music and assorted fashionistas, the buzz that greeted Babis was unmistakable. The only other thing which generated anywhere near as much interest that night was when an outfit malfunction left one of the models more exposed than planned – the crowd watched in astonishment as she carried on nonplussed. This strange occurrence seems as good a metaphor as any for what has befallen Babis in the months since then. Already scantily clad, his affairs are now laid bare for all to see, as he tries to ignore the public’s gaze with steely determination. And while the show goes on, in Prague at least, the Babis drama offers a tantalising insight into what might well be the next phase of Europe’s political evolution: having watched the populists rise, we now see one wobble and possibly even fall.
The Czech Republic, for those who haven’t been following, has been gripped by protests as thousands of voters took to the streets in outrage at a bizarre scandal unmatched in Europe since Jeremy Thorpe went to see a man about a dog. Babis – the former owner of a Czech conglomerate with business interests across Europe – is currently under investigation for fraud, with the EU alleging that one of his businesses was used as a vehicle to illegally access EU subsidies. The protests exploded when a Czech news website ran an interview with the Prime Minister’s son – Andrej Babis Jnr – who had quite a story to tell.
One of the big questions in the investigation has been around the ownership of the ‘Stork’s Nest’ hotel and conference centre, through which the EU subsidies were allegedly obtained. Babis Snr claimed it had been owned by his family members (and therefore he wasn’t responsible for any alleged fraud). Babis Jnr, though, cast suspicion over this, claiming that he signed papers relating to the ownership of the complex, but did not know what they were about.
Junior also made the more incendiary claim that he had been abducted by his psychiatrist’s husband – a Russian national and associate of his father – and encouraged to take an ‘extended holiday to the Crimea’ (outside of Czech/EU jurisdiction). According to the journalists, Babis Jnr tried to contact Czech police from the Crimea, only to be fobbed off. The Prime Minister has, of course, denied the story, saying that his son is mad, and (perhaps pre-emptively) that his daughter is bipolar too. That hasn’t played well with the public.
Opinion on the scandal itself is split in the Czech Republic thanks to a popular perception that, when it comes to EU subsidies, businesses would be foolish not to take advantage of loopholes. But the idea that the Prime Minister might involve mentally-ill family members in his dealings, risking their safety to protect himself, has gone down less well.
Two weeks ago, Babis Snr survived a no confidence vote in parliament, prompting further protests. But the feeling is that the clock is ticking. Crucially, the scandal has dented his image as an anti-corruption crusader standing up against self-serving elites. It didn’t help when – days before the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring – he made a pact with the Czech Communist Party to help him form a government following fraud allegations earlier in the year.
Czech politicos fear that, in order to deflect from the scandals, Babis may ramp up his anti-migrant, anti-Western and anti-Brussels rhetoric – aping Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Babis is lucky, in a way, that his adversary is the EU, which allows him to tap into growing Euroscepticism within the Czech Republic.
Euroscepticism in Central Europe is complicated, but relates to the importance of national identity in a region where so many people had theirs suppressed under communism. Czechs who feel their cultural and economic identity is being warped by the EU – and especially Germany – naturally feel resentful. Swapping one homogenous bloc for another is not what many had in mind when the Iron Curtain came down; the political scientist Ivan Krastev says that the process is often viewed in the East as having been a ‘colourless revolution’.
It’s exacerbated, too, by disparities in living standards within the EU. Czechs resent, for instance, the rhetoric that Western Europe subsidises the rest of the continent – particularly when Czechs, many of whom work for companies owned by German investors, are paid far less per head for their labour than their Western counterparts. It’s not difficult to see how Babis could stoke these resentments to cling on to power.
This is the cultural split dividing Europe today. But while populists in Hungary and Italy seemingly go from strength to strength, the events in the Czech Republic show us that Europe’s new strongmen aren’t invincible.
Current polling indicates that Babis’s party will likely be forced into coalition, or perhaps out of office altogether. The question, though, is whether this new generation of populists will act when cornered. Will they step aside gracefully like the governments of old, or will they move further towards extremes in order to cling to power?