Britské listy Interview 667. Křetínský, Tykač and the others. How oligarchs control the Czech Republic and soon will control the West as well

4. 6. 2024

čas čtení 15 minut
This is an interview about the growing activities of Czech oligarchs Daniel Křetínský and others outside the Czech Republic, in particular in the West, and their attempts to present themselves as benign supporters of Western democracy. The interview is conducted in Czech, an English translation is here below.

 

The upper house of the Czech Parliament, the Senat, has held a conference, organised by the independent senator Marek Hilšer, on the influence of oligarchs on Czech society. It was also attended by Radek Kubala, an analyst of the Reset organisation, with whom Albín Sybera discusses this topic. A full English translation is below.

It will soon be three years since the populist billionaire Andrej Babiš was narrowly ousted from the government in Czechia. However, the country has largely remained just as oligarchical as it was at the height of Babiš's days as Czech premier when the country was engulfed in a populist wave overseen also by nationalist then President Miloš Zeman.

The Czech oligarchy's prevalent grip on power is sustained in part because not just food and agricultural sectors, the main domains of Babiš's conglomerate Agrofert, but perhaps even more importantly key segments of the Czech economy, including telecommunications and energy have long been dominated by oligopolies such as PPF and EPH, which Czechs feel in the high energy and data prices they have to pay for essential services. At the same time, politicians and public institutions are too weak to implement meaningful legislative changes which part of the Czech electorate hoped for in 2021.

Moreover, Czech oligarchs have come to dominate most of the local media market and boosted by the energy crisis are making an extraordinary expansion westwards. As for Babiš, his personal power vehicle, the populist ANO party is currently projected to win back the government office. The next Czech national elections are scheduled for the autumn of next year.   

In this Britské listy interview, BL and Visegrad Insight editor and bne Intellinews reporter Albin Sybera talks to Radek Kubala, an analyst of the Re-Set platform about the conference on the oligarchisation of the Czech Republic, which took place at the Czech Senate under the auspices of independent Senator Marek Hilšer in May and where Radek Kubala was one of the keynote speakers.      


 

Albín Sybera: Dear viewers of Britské listy, welcome to the next episode. I'm joined today by Radek Kubala, a researcher with Reset.

Radek Kubala: Hello, thank you for having me.

Albín Sybera: We're going to talk today about a topic that comes up a lot in Britské listy, not just in Britské listy, and that is the oligarchisation of the Czech Republic. I would say it is a topic that may have lost a little bit of its impact after the 2021 elections with the departure of Andrej Babiš from top politics, but perhaps all the more so it is a topic that is still just as relevant, at least in terms of how we can continue to see today that Czech citizens continue to pay some of the highest fees in the energy sector, in telecommunications, in sectors that could be said to be monopolised by certain companies, such as PPF, EPH, you name it. At the same time, these are companies that are very active in the Czech media and are some of its key owners. And in this situation, Radek Kubala attended a conference in the Senate, which was devoted to the topic of the oligarchisation of the Czech Republic. And Mr Kubala, would you like to summarise this for our audience, for the readers? Summarise the most important points from the conference?

Radek Kubala: I can, I can. The conference was held right on the Senate floor, and it was organised by the independent senator Marek Hilšer. I think it was a good move on his part, because rarely is such a topic discussed  at such a high level, and it takes a certain type of courage to bring it up at all, even though it is such an important topic. And I think it was a good conference. There were quite a few people in attendance, but  I was a little disappointed that there weren't as many senators. In addition to Mr Hilšer, Senator Jitka Seitlová, a People's Party senator, and David Smoljak from STAN attended, but otherwise it did not generate such a response. Nevertheless, it was really rather good. The topics that were discussed there were, on the one hand, the topic of supervisory institutions and which ones work or rather do not work, institutions in our country that should prevent oligarchisation or help to regulate it in some way. There were also case studies. I presented a case study of Daniel Křetínský's EPH company and how it contributes to the oligarchisation of the Czech Republic.

There were also presentations on the topic of how large building companies influence the entire construction business and the entire housing policy. There was also the question of the concentration of ownership in agriculture. But we also talked a lot about the media, about how the whole Czech Republic is affected by the oligarchisation of the media, what impact this has on journalism and society as a whole. We also talked about the situation in Slovakia with Markiza TV, which is linked to PPF, and also about how difficult it is to trace the poorly functioning register of the real owners in the Czech Republic, how difficult it is, how completely non-transparent it is, how sometimes it is difficult to trace any owners at all, or to find out the degree of oligarchisation in the Czech Republic.

So there were a lot of interesting contributions. And as I say, I think it is very important that this topic is being raised this high up in the Senate.

Albin Sybera: Maybe before I ask you about your own contribution, there have been a lot of studies in the past few years about how the Czech Republic is basically a very kleptocratic country. In the sense that there is a large concentration of property in a few hands and at the same time these properties are very often tied to business with the state. Very many of these studies come from abroad, whether it is The Economist or other reputable organisations, so I want to ask: In the Czech Republic today, it seems to you that in recent years this situation, in terms of domestic production of such studies, is it somehow improving, or is it I would say still an unploughed field, if I should put it in layman's terms? Is there a kind of debt perhaps, either from the journalistic sector or from the non-profit sector in this area in the Czech Republic?

Radek Kubala: I think that at least with the entry of Andrej Babiš into politics, it started to be discussed in some way, and even though the topic is primarily framed by the one oligarchic clique around him, it also opened up the space for a debate about other oligarchic cliques, Daniel Křetínský, PPF and so on, I think the discussion has gradually shifted a bit. Even the debate about the media. Not that it has shifted fundamentally, but it has simply at least opened up the space for these debates, which until then had been completely closed, So that it's shifting a little bit.

Albín Sybera: It's such a paradox that Andrej Babiš has become a symbol of oligarchization in the Czech Republic, so at least in some way he has helped it become a topic.

Radek Kubala: That's right, that's right.

Albin Sybera: Anyway, let's go back to your presentation, would you like to recapitulate it in some way within the time we have here?

Radek Kubala: That's not going to be easy. Anyway, I was  dealing with Daniel Křetínský's EPH company, particularly in terms of climate impact. This was part of our campaign that we represented in the Senate. We talked about how EPH came to be such a giant, that is, the connection to politicians, whether Mirek Topolánek or the Smer party in Slovakia.

But we also talked about the links to Russia, we talked about how Daniel Křetínský's media here influences the whole public debate and how he uses it as a tool of clientelism. So those are the aspects of his business that I tried to capture in my piece, I had 15 minutes, how he's using that network of contacts connected to politicians and how that has led to Daniel Křetínský becoming the second richest Czech.

Albín Sybera: If we look at Daniel Křetínský's background, he started out at J&T, which is, perhaps, the main symbol of privatization in Slovakia. Would you like to maybe just highlight some other key points there? In terms of some of the evolution of EPH, maybe some of the ways that EPH is trying to adapt to the reality after Russia invaded Ukraine?

Radek Kubala: They don't need to adapt much because Daniel Křetínský has been having a tremendously great time over the last two years. For one thing, he has made gigantic profits, especially because of the energy crisis he has helped cause, with the fact that he helped cement our dependence on gas, the price of which has gone up. That is why energy prices have also gone up. Here, I think we can clearly see some injustice, how oligarchisation is damaging society. Because here one group, one person and one company is managing huge resources for its own profit, while the rest of society is experiencing a huge decline in living standards, sinking into energy poverty. 

So I think it's very easy to see here in this example where this oligarchisation as a whole leads. So when some company, some person is able to bend the rules in their favour, in spite of society, it's just not right. And then we can ask, as Marek Hilšer said at the conference, I thought it was interesting if, instead of a democracy, we have ended up in a dictatorship of oligarchy. That is the key question that arises for me.

Albín Sybera: I would perhaps raise the topic here in the context of, let's say, the regional rise of EPH in the context of the energy crisis, when, as you mentioned, it has recorded record profits in its history. In the last few months we have seen, maybe even in the past two years, a huge rise of EPH in acquisitions in Germany, in Britain, in Holland, the latest of which we have just read about is that the owner of the British Post Office has recommended Royal Mail, the oldest operating postal service in the world, for takeover. 

It's one of Daniel Kretinsky's investment vehicles. So, of course, it still has to be approved by the shareholders, by the government, there's an election in Britain in July, so it doesn't necessarily mean that the takeover will happen. However, you also talked about how in the past EPH has been getting into an increasingly strong position in the Czech Republic by bending the law. I just remember here, for example, from the  Britské listy, we often wrote about how one of the companies, AVE, the waste company, in which Daniel Křetínský has been one of the key shareholders for a long time, has been bending the fees on waste, on the storage of waste in landfills, for a decade. Today, that company is under investigation by law enforcement authorities.

And when I read about Daniel Křetínský and the British Post Office  these things are rarely mentioned in those contexts, and would you say that this is one of those concomitant phenomena where it's key for oligopolies like EPH to have as much influence in the media through their ownership as they do right now in the Czech Republic, where they're actually probably the biggest media house on the market?

Radek Kubala: Yes, you could say that, he's trying to, in the UK, when we're talking about acquiring Royal Mail, he's trying to acquire the Telegraph publishing house, which is a publishing house that has quite a big influence on the whole environment of the Conservative Party and a spectrum of voters  in the UK. That would give him another tool in Britain as well. First of all, it would then give him better access to politicians and secondly to influence the debate there in some way, to set the agenda and so on. And I think, yes, that is most visible here. But I think that he, Křetínský, is trying to create the impression in the West that he is a great supporter of freedom, of liberal democracy.

So he's buying media to help preserve the culture of debate but here in this example in our country, as we can see, it's not quite like that. And it's hard to break through the image that he's building up in the West because he has much easier access to the media and that's because his strategy is based on the fact that he pretends in the West that he's part of this Western oligarchy of those like the rich who -

Albin Sybera: Oligarch, but a nice one?

Radek Kubala: Yeah, well. But realistically, in our country, we can see that he's a kind of Russian oligarch with a Czech passport, as we like to say. So I think it's gradually bubbling up to the West, the reality. More and more journalists from the West, people who are interested in this, are getting information about what's going on here. And it's not just a question of Britain and France, but for example in Germany there is a big debate about Křetínský now because he is buying part of the Thyssen Krupp steelworks, so he is in some public debate again. So, well, I think that the image that he is trying to cultivate will gradually reach the West, but the beginning was, he was able to give interviews, he was able to create that image and only over time the reality of his business will catch up with him in the West.

Albin Sybera: We're running out of time, and anyway, maybe just a quick last question, while you're here with us, I would like to ask, when you mentioned the narrative from Křetínský's side about how he's trying to defend some kind of freedom in his media, or at least freedom as he imagines it, we might have encountered something similar, at least judging by Pavel Tykač's statement, owner of Severn Energy Group,  when he bid for the publishing empire Mafra, which was eventually bought by former PPF manager Karel Pražák, one such thing that Pavel Tykač and Daniel Křetínský also have in common is that they are owners of key sports and football teams in the Czech Republic, Sparta and Slavia in Prague. We also see Daniel Křetínský actively involved in, or co-owner of, West Ham in Britain. Do you see that they can also use this sport as a kind of image tool to present themselves or to gain, so to speak, imaginary social points?

Radek Kubala: Definitely. With Tykač and Slávia, I think it's an effort to improve his position here in the Czech Republic in a situation where he will be applying for state subsidies for his power plants, so it improves his position. I see the West Ham thing with Křetínský as an effort to build his image in the West as a person who owns those famous clubs, who owns that famous football club and through that has some position in British society. So I think that's part of the image building. You can see that they themselves feel that things are going to get worse here, right? The oligarchs here are going to come under some criticism more and more, so they're trying to buy their social prestige, through just buying into the football environment.

Albin Sybera: I thank you very much, it is, I would say, an inexhaustible topic, so I will look forward to hearing from you again sometime in the future.

Radek Kubala: Sure, thank you very much for inviting me.

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Obsah vydání | 11. 6. 2024