Wealth and Power: Andrej Babiš and Donald J. Trump

Cartoon by Jack Swanepoel, published in Sunday Times, Johannesburg, July 13, 1997

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM/ROME, Jun 11 2019 – When I recently visited the Czech Republic I noticed an increasing Czech opposition against their wealthy Prime Minister. Andrej Babiš has been endowed with the nickname Babisconi since he, like the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is accused of purchasing and using various means of communication for his own propaganda purposes. Apparently, this endeavour has so far been quite successful, since according to my Czech friends Babiš is still popular among a majority of their compatriots.

Like Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Poland´s Kaczyński and Hungary´s Orbán, Andrej Babiš challenges his nation´s legal representatives and even tries to change legislation to favour him in his efforts to avoid mounting accusations of wrongdoing. Billionaires like Trump, Berlusconi and Babiš came to power by declaring that their wealth made them immune to corruption, claiming that their goal was to ”drain swamps” created by corrupt, ”professional” politicians. To prove their capacity to achieve a change for the better they referred to their success as entrepreneurs. However, all three soon fell victims to an urge to continue enriching themselves.

The Czech Republic is at the very core of Europe and a man like Andrej Babiš appears to be a result of the country´s liminal position between a ”capitalist” West and a formerly ”socialist” East. Babiš is a billionaire who like Trump brags about his wealth and popularity, while using xenophobia as a means to gain support. Extremely wealthy politicians like Trump and Berlusconi have been accused of gaining their fortunes through connections with organized crime, while Babiš is said to have benefitted from the oligarch-controlled environment that emerged from a crumbling ”Eastern Block”.

On the 5th of June, 120,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Prague protesting against what they considered to be Andrej Babiš´s shameless power abuse. It was the biggest protest since 28 November 1989, when 500,000 demonstrators convinced the nation´s Communist leaders that they had to resign. However, street protests do apparently not bother Andrej Babiš. Like Trump, Babiš claims that after his victory in the last elections (he obtained close to 30 percent of the votes, three times more than the closest contender) he is confident that his ”base” remains strong and loyal, while he believes the opposition is just a paper tiger whipped on by fake news.

Before entering politics, Babiš was an entrepreneur and he is now the second richest man in the Czech Republic, with an estimated net worth of about US$ 4.04 billion. Since 2011, Babiš heads the recently founded populist party ANU, which proclaims its goal is to rid the Republic of corruption and fight unemployment. ANU, which has an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform, also promises substantial tax cuts for all.

In spite of his ruling party´s intention to abolish immunity for politicians, such immunity has so far saved Babiš from being convicted for fraud. He has been under investigation by both the Czech Police and OLAF (Office européen de Lutte Anti-Fraude) the European Anti-Fraud Office. Among other crimes Babiš is accused of using an anonymous company, unlawfully controlled by himself, to obtain a € 2 million subsidy from the EU. In 2017, Babiš was, upon request from the Czech police, stripped of his parliamentary immunity. However, after a few months, as a result of his re-election as Prime Minister, Babiš regained his parliamentary immunity.

Babiš is constantly accused of conflicts of interest, recurrent intimidations of opponents, as well as his alleged past role in the communist secret police. In 1980, Babiš joined the generally dreaded Communist Party and has since then on been accused of being an ”influential” agent for the Czechoslovak Secret State Security Service, StB, and working closely with KGB, something he vehemently denies.

When the trading firm Agrofert in 1993 was ”re-capitalized”, Babiš suddenly emerged as its sole owner, supported by so far undisclosed financing. Under Babiš´s leadership Agrofert gradually developed into one of the largest companies in the country, acquiring and developing various agricultural, food processing and chemical industries. In 2011, Agrofert Holding consisted of more than 230 companies, mainly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia (Babiš is a Slovak by birth) and Germany. In 2013, Agrofert purchased the media company MAFRA, publisher of two big newspapers, owner of a TVnetwork and the Czech Republic´s most popular radio station.

Babiš is known to oppose the power and influence of both the EU and NATO. His conflict with the latter organisation emanates from his disappointment over its refusal to sink ships ”trafficking human beings”. He stated that NATO

    it is not interested in refugees, although Turkey, a NATO member, is their entrance gate to Europe and smugglers operate on Turkish territory.1

He has also rejected EU refugee quotas stating:

    We must react to the needs and fears of the citizens of our country. We must guarantee the security of Czech citizens. Even if we are punished by sanctions.2

Even if Babiš repeatedly has assured people about his close attachment to Western Europe and the US, he is accused of furthering Russian policy goals and business interests. An often quoted example is that he granted a Czech government loan guarantee to a Russian company with a record of defaults, though owned by a close friend to Putin.

Is Andrej Babiš emergence in politics part of a trend where business interests and a global financial system facilitate kleptocracy? Where internal and foreign policies are crafted to pursue rulers´ personal agendas and enrichment? We are witnessing Trump´s blatant lies and coverups, well aware of the fact that much of his wealth was created through deals with Mafia dons like Vito Genovese, Anthony ”Fat Tony” Salerno, Paul Castellano, John Staluppi and Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo. Contacts generally mediated through the ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn. No one involved in huge construction projects on Manhattan, or within the gambling world of Atlantic City, could avoid making deals with the ”mob”. This business model did not change when the Trump Organization began to cooperate with money laundering oligarchs like Kazakh citizens Mukhtar Ablyazov and Ilyas Khrapunov, as well as several other shady characters from around the world.3

The dirty connections between politics and business are revealed from all over the world. Kleptocrats from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Angola are siphoning wealth to offshore companies. Cyprus and other places are currently emerging as havens for dirty Russian money. A year ago, Malaysia´s former Premier Minister Najib Razak was arrested by Malaysia´s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) accused of transferring US$10.6 million to his personal bank account. The money originated from complicated schemes orchestrated through an investment group funded by government developement grants. These are just a few worrying signs and indications of a wave of greed and ruthlessness sweeping the world. Occasionally, hidden horrors of this criminal realm flare up when some journalist or whistleblower is brutally murdered, like Daphne Caruana Galizia on Malta, Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul, or Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow, just to mention a few of the most famous cases, representing numerous other believers in freedom of speech who are killed, tortured and silenced all over the world.

Investigative journalists have often good reasons for fear. But – are powerful and wealthy people fearless? Apparently not. I assume most of them fear to lose their power and money and thus be exposed as being pathetic and defenseless. Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote The Art of the Deal for Donald Trump, stated:

    Fear is the hidden through-line in Trump’s life – fear of weakness, of inadequacy, of failure, of criticism and of insignificance. He has spent his life trying to outrun these fears by “winning” – as he puts it – and by redefining reality whenever the facts don’t serve the narrative he seeks to create. It hasn’t worked, but not for lack of effort.4

1 Czech minister Babiš criticises NATO´s stance of refugees,” Ceske Noviny, 20 Septenber 2015.
2 “Babiš: ´I reject the EU refugee quotas´,” Prague Monitor, 4 August, 2016.
3 Cooley, Alexander and John Heathershaw (2018) Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia. Princeton: Yale University Press
4 Mayer, Jane (2016) ”Donald Trump´s Ghostwriter Tells All,” The New Yorker, July 18

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.