Prime Minister agrees to Unipetrol probe but on his own terms


The scandal over the privatization of the petrochemicals firm Unipetrol, following accusations of corruption directed at the ruling Social Democrats, has taken an unexpected turn. After firmly rejecting calls for a probe into the privatization process, some of which came from his own coalition partners the Christian Democrats, Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek suddenly changed his mind. An investigation will take place and it will most likely take place on the Prime Minister's own terms.

Just 48 hours ago it appeared that the Prime Minister was losing ground over the Unipetrol scandal. His party was accused of having taken bribes and sold Unipetrol to PKN Orlen of Poland under highly unfavourable conditions for the Czech Republic. A Polish Parliamentary commission investigating the circumstances of the privatization suggested the Czech Republic had lost billions of crowns in the privatization. The opposition Civic Democrats and even the Prime Minister's coalition partners, the Christian Democrats, demanded a probe. The Communist Party was also inclined to support an investigation and the Prime Minister's Social Democrats were increasingly isolated. However within 48 hours the Prime Minister appears to have turned the tables.

By-passing the Christian Democrats, he met with the Communist Party and the smaller coalition partner, the Freedom Union, to discuss support for an investigation commission on the privatization of the whole Czech petrochemical sector - a much broader task. The results of the probe should be made public by January 31st of 2006.

News that the Social Democrats and the Communists would pool their 111 votes in Parliament in support of a broad investigation of privatization in the chemical sector has evoked plenty of negative reactions. The Christian Democrats who were left out of the talks -accuse the ruling party of forming a hidden alliance with the Communists. The opposition Civic Democrats say the Prime Minister is trying to water down the Unipetrol case in an investigation of the whole petrochemical sector.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
With elections due in June of next year, it was inevitable that the Unipetrol case would become a highly politicized one. Freelance journalist Will Conroy, who has been following the story here in Prague, says that the web of speculation, accusations and hidden interests will be hard to untangle - but after all that has been said and revealed an investigation should take place.

"I think they need a commission, there's no question about it but whether it will be effective is very open to question, particularly in light of the Polish commission which has produced conclusions which really are not well grounded and can be targeted as just kicking up more dust."

How is this scandal regarded abroad?

"It is quite bemusing, certainly to readers in England, because it is just not typical that so many hard allegations can be publicly made with no evidence. There's been a few libel cases triggered by this already -whether they will come to a conclusion in court is again open to question - but, yes, there's an awful lot of very strong allegations flying around with very little evidence to back them up."

Do you feel that the case has been politicized because of the upcoming elections?

"It seems that there are business and political interests in the background which are generating a lot of these allegations. Whether any of them are legitimate is something which the commission should get to grips with -but, yes, there are a lot of hidden interests in the background."

Do you feel that the commission can come up with a simple black and white, yes-or-no answer that will satisfy the public or do you feel that what's actually said in the media will influence voters far more than something that will be produced in January of next year by the commission?

"I think that, looking at the results achieved by past commissions, we can expect an opaque conclusion to the whole affair and perhaps it won't actually affect the electorate so much because I think they have come to expect a certain level of "mystery" -shall we say -as regards what happens during these privatizations."