Police reform threatens future of Czech government

Robert Šlachta, photo: CTK

A plan to reorganize the Czech police fight against organized crime and corruption has provoked what some members of the coalition government are describing as its most serious crisis to date. And the crisis now looks like deepening with an analysis of the consequences of the reform reportedly paving the way for the interior minister to push ahead with it.

Robert Šlachta,  photo: CTK
The announcement of the proposed police reform came like a storm out of a clear blue sky. When police president Tomáš Tuhý announced the plans this week to merge two of the country’s main crime fighting units into one large body even the head of one of the elite units was taken by surprise.

Robert Šlachta, the director of the key police squad, the Unit for Uncovering Organised Crime, said he had not even been consulted about the planned changes. And some of the country’s top state prosecutors said they were taken aback by the proposals and the likely impact on ongoing investigations and cases. Many point out that the proposed reforms appear to have been framed in the vaguest possible terms.

And the plans to merge Šlachta’s unit with the Unit for Uncovering Corruption and Financial Crime from July 1 have resulted in his own resignation and that of some of his top colleagues. Some commenters say the only people who will be celebrating are the criminals.

But the reforms have also sparked a major split between the two biggest parties in the government coalition, the Social Democrats and ANO, and in particular between interior minister Milan Chovanec and justice minister Robert Pelikán.

Robert Pelikán,  photo: Czech Television
The justice minister says he will consider resigning if the reforms are pushed through. And ANO leader Andrej Babiš has warned that the coalition government could collapse over this affair. The Social Democrats say politicians should give the police a free hand to pursue the reforms.

David Ondráčka is the head of the Czech branch of Transparency International and has been closely following the events which appear to go to the heart of the debate about whether the Czech Republic is really determined to combat crime and corruption. I asked him whether Šlachta’s unit has been performing well:

“In my view this particular unit was functioning very well. It opened up investigations into high profile cases, a lot of issues which were previously so-called untouchable. It does not mean that there is no room for criticism or you cannot look critically at their work but the quality of their work and the quality of their internal enthusiasm behind those cases was very visible and it was very unique if you lose that then I believe it’s a great loss for the country.”

David Ondráčka,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
And Mr. Ondráčka says a similar reform to that proposed in the Czech Republic was carried out in neighbouring Slovakia with disastrous results:

“Instead of more professionalism and efficiency we see the leakage of more information, a very high number of departures of experiences investigators and a very high level of politicization of corruption and financial crime investigations.”