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Czech report
by Euro Reporter
2014-06-18 12:07:41
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Corruption Redefined as Tourism in Czech Republic

In Prague's maze-like Franciscan Garden, an urban oasis hidden away in the heart of the Czech capital, a curious ceremony is unfolding. A man and a woman in smart black uniforms, pale blue and orange sashes draped over their shoulders, are preparing to grant their organisation's highest academic honour to a bunch of nervous novices. Tourists and office workers struggle to suppress their curiosity, squinting to read the ornate letters slowly being etched on large scrolls of paper in beautiful calligraphy. The words being formed read "Masters in Corruption Administration". "Corruption is not just money spent in the wrong way. Corruption is trust misused, and the web of power that's built with this very money," says Petr Sourek, founder of what he says is the world's first corruption tour agency. For a few dozen euros, Petr and his colleagues will take you on a tour of the landmarks of corruption and cronyism that have so blighted the Czech transformation from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist free market.

"I perceive it as a threat to our freedoms, because if these mafia-like structures are strong enough, they are able to intimidate citizens."  The tours - of which there are several - give visitors a glimpse of what happened to the huge sums of taxpayers' money that have disappeared into the pockets of crooked civil servants and shady businessmen.  It's a whistle-stop excursion past ostentatious villas, massively over-budget public construction projects and the echoey corridors of local government offices.  And at the end of the tour, members of the group are handed a unique souvenir - a joke "degree" in corruption administration - a nod at the many officials and politicians accused of buying or fast-tracking their academic qualifications, including - the ultimate irony - law degrees. Petr Sourek sees no problem in profiting from corruption. Quite the opposite. "It is exactly this contradiction that I set up Corrupt Tour to highlight," he says. "Corruption tourism is a business that feeds on what feeds on business. We recycle corruption." At one point we pause under the offices of Roman Janousek, a billionaire businessman whose influence in Prague was once deemed so great he was regarded as the city's "shadow mayor", and nicknamed "Voldemort", for allegedly selling city property, rigging public tenders and overseeing huge development projects - accusations he denies.

On 30 April Mr Janousek was sentenced to three years in prison for grievous bodily harm following a minor traffic accident, after which - prosecutors alleged - he deliberately rammed his luxury Porsche Cayenne into the other driver, who had emerged from her car to remonstrate with him. Mr Janousek protests his innocence and is likely to appeal. So how big is corruption in the Czech Republic? Big enough to bring down governments certainly. In June last year, police in balaclavas raided the government headquarters, in a sex, spying and bribery scandal that spelled the end for the country's Prime Minister, Petr Necas. The offices of several businessmen - including Mr Janousek - were also raided. It was a bitterly ironic end for a government that had done more than any other to free the hands of the detectives and prosecutors tasked with cracking down on high-level corruption. But corruption is notoriously difficult to measure with any accuracy.  The global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked the Czech Republic 57th out of 177 countries surveyed for its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how corrupt a country's public sector is perceived to be by its citizens.  It was down from its 2012 ranking of 48th place, but was still ahead of neighbouring Slovakia (61st) and did considerably better than Italy (69th), Bulgaria (77th) and Greece (80th). "It's the same problem as in many other countries which emerged from a communist past," says Adriana Krnacova, who headed the Czech branch of Transparency International from 2001 to 2007 and is now deputy interior minister. "We're a very young country. We've existed for only 20 years, and it would be very naive to think that after 20 years - actually one generation - everything would change," Ms Krnacova says."Most of the talented people from the Czech Republic and Slovakia left in the 1990s. Actually, politics was taken over by people who are not much friends of transparency," she adds. But there are tales that inspire hope.


Dog restaurant has tails wagging in Czech Republic

Pestaurace is the country’s addition to a growing list of dog dining ventures around the world. Pardubice: Bessie sniffs at the menu and chooses rabbit, licking the meaty sample while furiously wagging her tail in anticipation of the delicious things to come. The waitress at this new pop-up restaurant for canines puts Bessie’s order on a low table next to a water bowl, and the small fluffy white Bolognese devours her plateful. Pestaurace — a fusion of “pes”, or dog in Czech, and “restaurace” or restaurant — is the Czech Republic’s addition to a growing list of dog dining ventures around the world. These include a deluxe dog food delivery service in India, doggy happy hours in the United States and a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Germany (cats welcome too). The Czech take on the concept is a promotional picnic — bow-wow scores a free meal while the petfood company gets the word out about its fare. The freebie factor is a perk for Katerina Doubravova, an unemployed young woman visiting the Pestaurace tents at a dog show in the eastern city of Pardubice.“It’s a nice idea, even a dog can go out to eat,” she says, as Ashley, her English Setter, nibbles on a rabbit morsel.

“When she goes to a restaurant with us, she lies there and waits, so now we’ll swap roles.” Launched this year, Pestaurace hits the road for a cross-country tour in July at a time when petfood is booming in the former communist state. The pre-1989 command economy did not cater to non-essential commodities, meaning pooches dined on leftovers or homemade chow. But in the quarter century since they embraced the free market, Czechs are consuming more and more prepared foods, as noted by the ever-serious London-based Euromonitor International in a thick report on the issue. It said there was a “significant trend” to high-quality dog food, and the sector in the Czech Republic is posting constant growth. Pavla Sykorova, owner of an Alsatian named Nutty, is pleased by the variety now on offer. “She’s a bit picky, so I’m glad she’s eating and that she can choose,” Sykorova said over the din of barks and whines. Nutty takes seconds to polish off a plate of lamb she picked off the five-item menu, dabbed with samples to entice four-legged customers. But not everyone is salivating over the new-style canine cuisine.

“I consider this a show, but I’m not in favour of exclusive restaurants for dogs,” says Martina Mikova, whose charge is a Belgian Shepherd named Axim. “I think that at home a dog can eat with more peace and rest afterwards.” Axim disagrees: he gulps down his rabbit in a jiffy, and when Mikova lets go of the leash, he dashes behind the tents hunting for more. At the other table, a Parson Russell Terrier named Google nudges the menu. The waitress brings over a plate of rabbit, but Google does not bite. Teenage pooch-owner Franziska Slivkova puts the plate on the ground and feeds him herself. “He’s perplexed,” she says apologetically. Pestaurace consists of two adjacent party tents with the logo of the company, the Czech branch of Spanish animal feed chain Dibaq. Each features a black table, green blankets and cushions for dogs and black cube seats for their human companion. Chicken with vegetables, salmon with potato, lamb with rice and gravy, rabbit with rice and meatballs with poultry fat — all sweetened by some extra meat — are on the menu. For dessert, bow-wow can choose from four flavours of biscuit: game, lamb, veal or poultry.


Czech Republic considering complaint in MUS case

The Czech Republic is considering filing a complaint against the verdict of a Swiss court in Bellinzona in the case of the MUS coal mining company's privatisation. The Swiss court admitted that the Czech state as the MUS original owner had suffered damage by MUS former managers´ taking control of the company but it did not recognise any compensation for it, the weekly says.

If the Czech Republic failed with its complaint, it might negotiate about "sharing" - the division of the money seized in the case, on the level of both countries´ justice ministries. "This means that the countries agree to divide the confiscated money between one other," a source from the civil service told Respekt. All Swiss cantons would have to give consent to it, it adds.

The Swiss court in Bellinzona imposed prison sentences for fraud and money laundering on five former MUS managers, Jiri Divis (46 months in prison), Antonin Kolacek (52 months), Marek Cmejla (48 months), Petr Kraus (16 months) and Oldrich Klimecky (37 months), last October. The verdict is not valid yet. The managers, who plead innocent, plan to appeal to the Federal Supreme Court. The case involves frauds with MUS shares, which the managers were buying for the firm's money. They caused damage to the Czech state by buying the state stake in MUS for an inappropriately low sum of 650 million crowns in 1999, according to the indictment.


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