Rusnok cabinet forced to backtrack on latest high-profile dismissal

Jan Burian, Jiří Balvín, photo: CTK

The Rusnok cabinet has been forced to backtrack on the latest in a series of high-profile dismissals. The head of the National Theatre Jan Burian, who was sacked on his first day in office on Thursday, has been reinstated on the orders of the prime minister. Nevertheless, the affair has sparked widespread condemnation and once again raised the question of the government’s right to make radical changes ahead of its vote of confidence in the lower house next Wednesday.

Jan Burian,  photo: CTK
The rumble of discontent against the Rusnok caretaker administration grew to a roar on Thursday night just hours after the shocking dismissal of the new head of the National Theatre, the country’s leading cultural institution. “Arrogant”, “outrageous”, “unacceptable” were some of the terms used by politicians right and left of centre. A dozen of the theatre’s leading actors said they were resigning in protest of the move as did its entire management. Beset from all sides by journalists, politicians and cultural experts, Culture Minister Jiří Balvín made a flimsy attempt at defending his decision saying that Mr. Burian had not been selected for the post by the standard procedure - an open competition.

He also admitted that the speed with which the new head of the National Theatre had been sacked was so that he could not take steps to implement a radical overhaul which was in the pipeline and which put the theatre’s trade unions on strike alert. Mr. Burian himself suggested that his sacking might be linked to the results of a financial audit he had commissioned, the results of which revealed a number of unlawful practices which would have led to the sacking of some people in middle-management.

Jiří Balvín,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
Cultural experts asked to comment on Mr. Burian’s sacking expressed outrage over the decision describing him as one of four professionals in the country who was up to the task of managing a cultural institution of this magnitude. The other three they said were tied up in other prominent cultural institutions and no amount of searching or open competitions could secure a better man for the job. Widespread opposition to the dismissal of the National Theatre head led Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok to revoke the sacking on Friday morning, ordering the culture minister to reinstate Mr. Burian to the post. However, he remained defiant at a press briefing several hours later, firmly defending his cabinet’s actions on all other counts.

“The personnel changes made by members of my cabinet were all urgent and totally justified – with one single exception and that is the regrettable case of the National Theatre. The culture minister wanted to implement the accepted standard of holding open competitions for key posts. Since the cultural sphere does not seem to require it, there is no point in trying to enforce it. As regards the other changes made, they have my full backing. And as regards our legitimacy –that comes from the Constitution of the Czech Republic.”

The National Theatre,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
The uproar caused by the latest in a series of high profile dismissals is grist to the mill of his cabinet’s critics. Centre right parties –who see the Rusnok cabinet as the protracted arm of President Miloš Zeman – are determined to bury the administration in next week’s vote of confidence. And left-wing parties, who are clearly also concerned about a possible shift in the balance of power in favour of the president, have made it clear they disapprove of the manner in which the Rusnok administration has assumed power without waiting to gain proper legitimacy.