Havel comes out in support of controversial new fighter jet tender


President Vaclav Havel stepped into the dispute over new supersonic jet fighters for the Czech air force on Tuesday, saying his country's geographical location and responsibility as a NATO member meant he was in favour of the controversial tender. But many analysts are still unconvinced that the Czechs can afford billions of crowns for new planes, saying the country should concentrate on ground forces instead. And some have questioned the legitimacy of the tender itself. So is President Havel getting out of his depth? Rob Cameron reports.

President Havel's comments coincided with a press conference in Prague called by the British aerospace giant BAE Systems, which together with Sweden's Saab are offering the Czechs up to 36 state-of-the-art Gripen fighters. BAE announced that the tender would cost less than 75 billion Czech crowns - far below the 100 billion quoted by politicians who oppose the deal. The price includes training and spare parts for three years, and BAE also promised to buy steel and other supplies from Czech manufacturers under the government's much-vaunted offset programme.

All that sounds fine, but the problem is BAE is the only consortium left in the tender - days before the deadline four rival consortiums - two from the U.S. and two from Europe - suddenly dropped out, amid rumours that Washington in particular was less than convinced the deal was transparent. This has added fuel to the fire of critics who say the Social Democrat government has seriously mishandled the tender. Among them is Jiri Pehe, an external adviser to President Havel.

"I think that the way this tender has been handled by the government is very unfortunate. No matter what the government will do or say now, it's words will be tainted with the way the tender has developed. I think the fact that American companies have withdrawn from the tender basically in a way that should provoke a lot of questions, that in itself is worrisome and I think that the government has simply not managed to persuade the public and the international community that the tender has been transparent and open equally to all interested parties."

But was it not just a case though of sour grapes on the part of the American firms and the Eurofighter and so on, that it was BAE Systems-Saab which came up with the better deal, and better offset programmes?

"I don't want to question whether the Swedes and the Brits have come up with a better programme, I think that's probably true. On the other hand the government has a job to do, and that job is basically to persuade the public and the international community that this is indeed true. We may indeed have the best deal, but the public and the international community will be convinced I'm afraid that the whole tender has been tainted with corruption."

And Jiri Pehe told me amid those accusations of corruption President Havel was perhaps unwise to come out openly and support the purchase.

"I think personally that in this situation when we basically only have one competitor left, it hasn't been very wise of him to support this. Even though he - I think - spoke of the need for fighter jets and didn't explicitly support this one particular company, the fact that he did it in this particular situation makes it look like he's supporting that particular company. And for the president of the country that is not probably the best policy."

The Czech government is currently studying the BAE proposal. Saab, which makes engines for the Gripen, said if the contract is signed soon the first jets could be delivered by 2004. Until then the government will have to do a lot of convincing that the deal is really worth it.