Who wants to be a millionaire?

Yes, it's reached the Czech Republic, the quiz show that has had viewers the world over glued to their TV screens. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has now been launched in its Czech version, by the independent TV station NOVA, and Czechs too can enjoy that minute chance of becoming an instant millionaire. The prizes may not be quite on the scale seen in some countries, but it's clear that despite--of perhaps because of--forty years of communism, Czechs are as keen on speculation, risk-taking and gambling as any of their neighbours. But it's precisely this new gambling culture that's at the centre of a growing row. A financial scandal has erupted involving the multi-billion-crown Czech lottery, run by the private company Sazka, and as David Vaughan reports, some of Sazka's practices are beginning to raise eyebrows even in the corridors of power:

Czech TV, Sunday evening and the news has just ended: the winning numbers in the Sazka lottery are announced. This week we're told that the jackpot is a huge 26 million crowns. The lottery is big business, and last year Sazka's total turnover was a staggering 12 billion Czech crowns. So it's hardly surprising that heads turned when a few days ago Czech Television broadcast a programme suggesting the lottery's management was riddled with corruption and malpractice.

Ever since, the air has been filled with rumour and speculation: was it really true that top Sazka executives were paying themselves up to a million crowns salary a month? was some of the revenue earmarked for advertising really being ploughed into firms closely connected with the management? and why was only fourteen crowns in every hundred going into supporting Czech sportsmen and women, the purpose for which the lottery was set up in the first place?

Sazka's management has not hesitated to defend itself. It says it puts more money into Czech sport than outlined by the law, and last week it put out full-page ads in Czech papers explaining its position. In fact even some of Sazka's fiercest opponents think it's unlikely that any illegal practice will actually be pinned to the company.

Culture Minister Pavel Dostal argues that it is simply a question of ethics, and in this respect, he blames his own colleagues in parliament. In 1998 they passed legislation that in effect took all control of lotteries out of the hands of the state and into the hands of the private sector, giving the managers a degree of freedom unparalleled even in that haven of free markets, the United States.

A number of Czech MPs have now decided to launch their own investigation into the way Sazka is run, but they will face the almost impossible task of putting the genie back in the bottle. The Czech Republic is paying the price for naivety and inexperience in a market that depends on personal greed for its very existence.