After Topolanek Will Europe Be Held Hostage in Prague Castle?

The fall of the Czech government in a no-confidence vote last week has left the European Union reeling. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek fell victim to the murky political culture in Prague that has left the ideals of the Velvet Revolution far behind.

Mirek Topolanek, from the far east of the Czech Republic, likes to say that he's a "guy with balls" -- and he acts accordingly. He once shouted "I'll kill you" at a journalist and he's raised his middle finger at political opponents. He has referred to the EU's Lisbon Treaty as "a pile of crap."

But since becoming prime minister two years ago, the tough guy seemed to have gotten himself under control. He deftly hammered out a coalition and steered his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) -- middle class and traditionally critical of the EU -- on a Brussels-friendly course. And since January, Topolanek has even proved to be a passable statesman as his country holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

Then last week, he relapsed. Topolanek declared in front of the European Parliament that United States President Barack Obama's multi-billion-dollar stimulus package was "a road to hell" -- and this just as Prague is set to host Obama at the US-EU summit later this week. At that moment the Czech prime minister was once again very much the provincial politician from Vsetín. The EU Parliament in Strasbourg was confronted with a man who had nothing left to lose -- the evening before, the parliament in Prague had suddenly withdrawn its support for him in a no-confidence vote.

Topolanek's outburst was greeted with consternation across Europe. Martin Schultz, German leader of the European Parliament's Socialist group, accused Topolanek of "leading the EU into a dead end." There are great concerns now about the Lisbon Treaty, the document intended to streamline the bloc's decision-making processes. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso urged all Czech leaders "not to hold the treaty hostage to domestic politics."

Topolanek already pushed Lisbon Treaty through the parliament, the legislature's lower house, in February, against the wishes of President Václav Klaus. However, it still needs to be pass through the country's senate before it can be ratified, and how the 81-member upper house will vote is anything but predictable. One thing is sure -- it's going to come down to the 35 votes held by Topolanek's ODS.

Pessimists like Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra say it's now going to be difficult to get the fractious senate to commit to an EU-friendly position. Optimists, meanwhile, hope that ODS representatives will take their cue from the general population's mood, since senators are directly elected by the people.

And the EU is in good standing with Czechs at the moment, with polls showing up to 60 percent in support of the Lisbon Treaty. "In these times of economic crisis," says Robert Schuster at the Prague Institute of International Relations, "there's a feeling that it's better to belong to a large community."

Deeply Divided Party

It would have been difficult for Topolanek to bring his party members in the upper house in line with his pro-EU stance -- even if he had known for certain he had a majority of the lower house behind him.

In fact it was two fellow members of his ODS party who helped oust Topolanek. Both voted against the prime minister, supposedly because they were unable to reconcile their political conscience with participation in a government that wants to implement the Lisbon Treaty.

That, however, is hardly the whole truth. The party is still deeply split between supporters of the president and those of the defeated prime minister. Topolanek is not the only one convinced that Klaus was behind the vote that brought him down -- the president has never made a secret of his animosity toward his rival. Klaus appears determined not to let Topolanek remain provisionally in office as a caretaker prime minister until the end of the Czech Republic's EU presidency. On Sunday Topolanek said that he was open to a deal with political rivals on an interim government, possibly led by someone else.

A Czech prime minister needs 101 votes in parliament in order to take office. To achieve that number it's necessary to win over independents or representatives who cross party lines. And that in turn means haggling, secret dealing and hushed conversations in back rooms.

An odor of corruption has clung to Prague politics for years, with the political class marked by unparalleled wheeling and dealing. The difference from the emphatically moral poet-president Vaclav Havel, elected directly after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism, couldn't be more pronounced.

'A Judicial Mafia'

Topolanek is a part of this opaque system as well. His government was dependent from the beginning on defectors from the Social Democrats' ranks -- and no one knows how exactly he drew them to his side. When public television wanted to show a report on one of these representatives, politicians close to Topolanek intervened and tried to prevent the broadcast.

Even when the corruption grows too conspicuous to ignore, it often goes unpunished. Such was the case with Jiri Cunek, Topolanek's former deputy prime minister, who came under suspicion of having taken bribes. The investigation made no headway, the attorney in charge of the investigation was changed, and the case was eventually filed away. Cunek remains the Christian Democrats' party leader.

"There's a judicial mafia at work," says former Justice Minister Marie Benesova, explaining that in the Czech Republic the highest prosecutor works directly under the justice minister. That, she says, means the executive branch of the government can directly influence the judicial system.

The Social Democrats, who called the recent no-confidence vote in parliament, have also had their share of scandals. Former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, for example, had to step down four years ago when he proved unable to explain how he had financed his luxury apartment in Prague.

"There was an enormous gap between the ideals of the 1989 revolution and the realities of politics after the collapse of communism," political scientist Robert Schuster says to describe the quagmire in Prague. The idealists from the old days have long since withdrawn. Their place has been taken, in Schuster's opinion, by careerists who want to get rich from politics. Not one of the dissidents who served prison sentences for their beliefs under communist rule is still active in politics today, Schuster says.

The so-called "opposition agreement" has also had a disastrous effect on Czech politics. After elections in 1998 left a stalemate between the Social Democrats and the ODS, Social Democrat Milos Zeman and then-leader of the ODS Vaclav Klaus came to an agreement: The Social Democrats would be allowed to govern, but the ODS, as the opposition, could take part in decision-making. Zeman had to negotiate every decision in advance and the conservatives were rewarded with various concessions for their consent. And politics began to move behind closed doors.

"We had an open political landscape after the fall of communism," Schuster says, "but then a lid went down on it." According to Schuster, back-room dealing still has a huge impact on the way things are done in Prague. And many of the politicians who engineered the opposition agreement are still the ones calling the shots.

On top of that, says Frantisek Cerny, former ambassador to Germany, the Czech Republic has a fatal inheritance from the days of communism: "Many Czechs believe they can cheat and rip off the government as much as they like." They have never learned to regard government as a caring institution. For them it is primarily an oppressor.