Topolánek’s Tuscan holiday becomes national cause célèbre

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

There’s usually at least one big news story that breaks the torpid waters of the so-called “cucumber” or silly season, that time of year when Czech editors and reporters are desperate for stories because the country’s political and social elite are all off on holiday. Well, this year, ironically, the holiday is the story – the holiday taken by Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolánek at a villa in Tuscany. So what’s so controversial about it?

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
There was initially little interest ten days ago when paparazzi photos of Mr Topolánek, his partner, fellow MP Lucie Talmanová, and his advisor and friend Marek Dalík first appeared in the tabloid Aha! They showed the trio on holiday at a “luxury villa” and also a yacht in the Tuscan town of Monte Argentario, about 150km south of Florence.

Mirek Topolánek of course was famously photographed in the nude at Silvio Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia; in these photos he remained decently clothed. What was controversial, however, were the snaps of his fellow holiday-makers - a number of powerful Czech businessmen and lobbyists including the head of the electricity giant ČEZ, the richest firm in the Czech Republic. This, the papers said, was all rather suspicious.

Photo: MF Dnes,  30. 7. 2009
The story rapidly spread to the front pages of the mainstream media, and the photos remain front-page news 10 days on. The Civic Democrat leader held a special news conference on Friday, at which he told reporters that Tuscany was simply where Czech politicians and businessmen hang out these days, and there was nothing suspicious in the meetings. The people he met in Monte Argentario, he said, were the same people he met on a weekly basis in Prague.

He accused the left-wing Social Democrats of being behind the whole affair, because the photos were commissioned by the former head of the intelligence services, Karel Randák, who is known to be close to the Social Democrats' head of marketing Petr Dimun.

Mr Randák admitted being involved in obtaining the photos, but says he wasn’t asked to do so by the Social Democrats. Mirek Topolánek was asked to provide evidence of Social Democrat involvement, but he refused, saying the Randak-Dimun link was sufficient. (It should be pointed out that he blamed his naked Sardinian photos on a left-wing consipiracy because they appeared in the left-leaning Spanish daily El Pais.)

Many questions, however, remain answered. For a start, it's not clear who owns the villa. Mr Topolánek said it was rented for one month and about 20 people took turns in using it. Czech journalists, however, have been nosing around Monte Argentario, and Italian estate agents told them the villa was definitely not for rent. They said it was sold to a "Czechoslovak” company in the spring.

Commentators, however, say who owns the villa or the yacht is largely irrelevant, and only distracts from the real issue - why was Mirek Topolánek spending his holiday with a coterie of powerful Czech businessmen? Some speculate there is a connection with a recently approved Czech law on emissions trading, under which ČEZ will earn tens of billions from selling unneeded carbon credits. That would explain the presence of ČEZ chairman Martin Roman and the company's chief lobbyist.

The Communists, meanwhile, are convinced that the presence of a senior Social Democrat - Milan Urban - in Monte Argentario is evidence that the major parties are planning to divide influence over powerful state-owned companies like ČEZ after the October elections.

Answers to all these questions remain elusive. But one thing's for sure: for Czech newspaper editors struggling to find stories at the height of the "cucumber season" Topolánek's Tuscan holiday is a godsend.