Czech regulator on the brink as crisis surrounding energy office escalates

Alena Vitásková, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic has had a fair few embarrassing episodes recently where politicians rub shoulders with top managers from state institutions and bodies.

Alena Vitásková,  photo: CTK
There was the sacked head of the prison service, who was later reinstated when a new justice minister took over. That was preceded by the head of the national police service, sacked for abuse of power and then cleared of any wrongdoing and found a cushy job in Bratislava in part compensation. An embarrassing interlude had two heads of the police with pretentions to the top post at the same time.

Now there is the case of the independent Czech energy regulator, Alena Vitásková, with events on Monday making her demise now look imminent. Not that she’s likely to go quietly. The feisty Vitásková will probably appeal to the Czech president and a whole series of European bodies that her Brussels-backed status as an independent regulator has been abused.

Monday’s events started with Vitásková dismissing one of her top officials in charge of regulation. Jan Nehoda had taken it upon himself to break an embarrassing deadlock over Vitásková’s refusal to clear around 42 billion crowns in 2016 payments for renewable power subsidies as his boss reportedly soaked up the sun on a foreign holiday.

Vitásková had taken a stand over the Czech government’s long term inability to get European Commission clearance for those renewable subsidies, a failure she blamed squarely on the current minister of industry and trade and his predecessors. She has long cast herself, to the irritation of most politicians, as the champion of the consumer against so-called ‘solar barons’ or exploitative energy companies.

The government replied somewhat inconclusively later on Monday with a ruling that Vitásková’s position comes within the scope of the new civil service law, the long delayed piece of legislation meant to ensure Czech civil servants are not political appointees but might have some skills to do the tasks set out for them.

The ruling in effect paves the way for Vitásková to be sidelined or sacked by the government. As it previously stood, she could only be dismissed by the president, Miloš Zeman, who has in the past backed some of the energy regulator’s crusades and apparently seen little need to curb her wide ranging interventions.

Vitásková is currently in court charged with allowing solar power facilities to be licensed before the plants were operational, allowing the owners to cash in on millions of crowns in extra subsidies. The verdict is due towards the end of February. Another legal front against her advanced last week with Czech police recommending charges be pressed for abuse of position over the appointment of a former state attorney at the energy regulatory office. Police argue she did not have the required qualifications under the law.

The civil service law states that no-one convicted of a criminal offence can occupy a top public position, so Vitásková’s conviction will likely pave the way for her removal. A lot of those in top government positions and in the energy sector will breathe a sigh of relief if they think they have her truly buried.