Misha Glenny: Organised crime is an important part of Czech economy – and corruption is its twin sibling

Misha Glenny, photo: archive of Misha Glenny

UK journalist Misha Glenny is an expert on organised crime and cybersecurity and has written a number of books, including the hit title McMafia. He studied in Prague and did a lot of reporting from the city in the late 1980s, including during the Velvet Revolution. At present he also heads a committee guaranteeing the independence of editors and journalists at the Economia group, which publishes titles such as Hospodářské noviny and Respekt. Czech Radio’s Lenka Kabrhelová sat down with Misha Glenny recently and began by asking him about the nature of corruption in this part of the world.

Misha Glenny,  photo: archive of Misha Glenny
“Corruption is endemic around the world. There are specific types of corruption and criminality, and Central and Eastern Europe are prey to a specific dynamic.

“You can also see elements of it in Russia and elements of it in southeastern Europe, although they manifest themselves differently.

“But here the generic – which was the same with Russia, the same with southeastern Europe, the same with Poland and Hungary – was that transition after 1989 was very rapid.

“It was very rapid. And Czechoslovakia, like all the other Central and Eastern European Countries, did not have the democratic institutions and mechanisms to manage such a rapid transfer from socialism to capitalism.

“As a consequence, informal structures emerged to manage that. And that included organised crime.

Illustrative photo: Daniel Diaz Bardillo,  Pixabay / CC0
“For example, if you were an entrepreneur on the make, you couldn’t rely on the police force to look after your interests.

“So in that case you would get an informal group to do it, which sociologists refer to as a privatised law enforcement agency but we more colloquially as the mafia.

“So organised crime and the structures of capitalism were intimately connected from the very beginning.

“Here one of the dramatic things was the number of young women who were persuaded or forced to go into the sex industry.

“There were specific regional reasons for that. The East Germans with freshly minted Deutsche Marks, their West Marks, in their pockets liked to come down and pretend that they were Germans, as it were.

“Russians are very strategic thinkers and they knew that Hungary and the Czech Republic were striving very fast to get into the EU and so this was going to be a bridgehead into the EU for their activities.”

“There was a lot of economic insecurity, which led to much of this industry.

“But also the Russians are very strategic thinkers – there organised crime was absolutely central to the emergence of capitalism – and they knew that Hungary and the Czech Republic were striving very fast to get into the European Union and so this was going to be a bridgehead into the EU for their activities.

“That’s exactly what it became and I wrote about this in McMafia specifically, through the eyes of a policeman, Macháček, who was anti-corruption and was thrown out of the police precisely because he was warning about what was going on. And for the Russians, what’s not to like about Prague and Karlovy Vary?

Photo: Vintage Books Publishing House
“If you’re going to have an external operation, have it somewhere where after six months or so you can understand what people are saying. AND you’re in Prague.

“Just to finish on that, combining with that of course was the culture of petty corruption that had been encouraged during communism.

“And indeed before that in the Habsburg Empire – if you go to Austria, the same forms of petty corruption are visible as you see here.

“I think it’s totally appropriate that the Czechs absorbed all the bureaucratic language.

“I always thought ‘štemplovat’ [to stamp] was one of my favourite words here and that of course comes from Austria-Hungary.

“And it’s that vast bureaucracy that encourages corruption and that was a continuum through communism and then out the other side.”

Where do you see the Czech Republic in terms of when you map the global crime situation?

“If you go to Austria, the same forms of petty corruption are visible as you see here. I think it’s totally appropriate that the Czechs absorbed all the bureaucratic language.”

“I would say it’s at middle level, because it generates or facilitates organised crime but it is also a consumer of the products of organised crime.

“I look at organised crime as a global phenomenon, as a serious business, an international business.

“You have what I call production zones like Colombia or Afghanistan, for cocaine and heroin.

“You have distribution zones like Mexico and Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic is to an extent part of the distribution zone.

Smuggling of untaxed cigarettes,  photo: ukhomeoffice,  CC BY 2.0
“Not as much as Poland; Poland is very, very important in the smuggling of untaxed cigarettes – much more than the Czech Republic.

“But the Czech Republic is also a production zone in terms of a lot of the women who were trafficked into brothels in Western Europe came from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and so on.

“But it’s also a consumer zone. In terms of narcotics, the only thing that you could take during communism was Captagon, which was essentially crushed up codeine.

“But other than that it was very rare. I once came across somebody who had some marijuana here, during the communist period. Once. In a long, long period of time.

“But now of course marijuana is extremely common here, so you have that.

“The only drug that you could take in Czechoslovakia during communism was Captagon, which was essentially crushed up codeine.”

“I’m glad to see that the Czech Republic is one of the countries that is attempting to have a more rational approach to narcotics used for recreational purposes, particularly marijuana, which is really the biggest one of all.

“So it’s in that middle phase of both benefitting from the products of organised crime, distributing it, and being a production area.

“Organised crime is an important part of the Czech economy and its twin sibling, as it were, is corruption.

“The more corruption you have, the more space opens up for organised crime.

“There is quite a lot of obvious corruption going on in this place as well, so you know that behind that there is also criminal activity, because the two of them are related.”

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin,  photo: archive of the Presidential Executive Office of Russia,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0
When we look at organised crime, how much is it intertwined today with politics?

“Strangely enough you may have to wait a while. I’m thinking of writing a book, McMafia 2, which I would subtitle The Rise to Power.

“Because I think what you’ve seen happen in the world is…the German word is ‘salonfähig’ meaning it’s acceptable.

“It’s a sort of acceptability at high political level.

“When you have Putin in the Kremlin and Trump in the White House you know that, to some extent, crime and corruption have become completely embedded in society.

“You have a mighty battle going on.

“When you have Putin in the Kremlin and Trump in the White House you know that, to some extent, crime and corruption have become completely embedded in society.”

“There are lots of people now – journalists, lawyers, NGOs, individuals who have been the victims of criminal or corrupt practices – who are fighting back.

“You can see a similar movement in climate change.

“It’s become clear that the polarisation that we see in every country in the world and in the Czech Republic, although it’s always specific local specific cultural traits, is coming down to a very specific ideological battle.

“And at the heart of this ideological battle is the future of the planet and you don’t get more important than that.”

Illustrative photo: Andrys Stienstra,  Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Back to the Czech Republic. You mentioned polarisation and the whole theory is that media contribute to polarisation as well. Now you’re taking on the role here of ombudsman at Economia and you still see the Czech Republic through the eyes of the media, because you can understand Czech.

“That’s right, I read the media.

“When I’m here I tend to read Lidové noviny, I tend to read Právo and I tend to read Hospodářské noviny. Those are three papers I tend to read, if I’m buying them at a kiosk.”

As you take over this role, in what state is the Czech media?

“It’s OK. It’s not a disaster.

Zdeněk Bakala,  photo: Czech TV
“There are countries where it is a disaster and here it’s not.

“Quite specifically why I took on this role is that Zdeněk Bakala, who as you know owns Economia, wants to demonstrate that he is not interfering with the publications in his company.

“Believe you me, if a journalist comes to us and says, Look, Mr. Bakala is putting pressure on us to write the story in a particular way, then I and the other committee members have every intention of calling that out.

“Of course I know that those who oppose Bakala, or who don’t like the politics of his publications, will probably say that we’re all stooges.

“To which I would say, first of all let me assure you I’m not.

Misha Glenny,  photo: Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0 BR
“Because I’m not doing this to become rich and I’m not doing this because I’m a friend of Mr. Bakala – I’ve met him once and other than that I know very little about him apart from what you Google.

“But I do like his publications. I’m particularly fond of Hospodářské noviny.

“As I pointed out to the committee, I’m probably the only person who used to read it during the communist period as well, when I could get it, because it was very difficult to find.

“I think the journalistic standards of his publications are on the whole pretty admirable, so I’m happy to be associated with that.

“If everyone else is saying, This is just a ruse, then I would appeal to other owners of newspapers, including the prime minister, to set up similar organisations – and I’m quite happy to that for them as well – who will scrutinise whether there is undue proprietorial pressure on their publications.”