Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

CZECH REPUBLIC: Corruption Catches Anti-Roma Minister

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Nov 8 2007 (IPS) - Two corruption scandals were too much for Jiri Cunek, the conservative minister who gained fame and power for his uncompromising views on the Roma.

The minister had in the past declared he had entered the government “in the belief that I will manage to complicate the Czech social welfare system for the people who want to abuse it to such an extent that we will finally see hard-working Romanies (Roma, a minority that is believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century).”

At the beginning of last week Czech television broadcast a report in which Cunek, local development minister, senator, and leader of the junior governing Christian Democrats, was accused of collecting social benefits and housing allowances from the state in the late 1990s.

This was at a time when Cunek was holder of a bank account worth 130,000 euro (191,000 dollars). The minister responded to accusations saying savings are not considered income in social benefit calculations, but later announced he was tendering his resignation.

Cunek admitted he finally decided to do so after supreme state attorney Renata Vesecka declared her intention to reopen a previous corruption case involving him, and called for fresh evidence to be submitted.

Earlier this year the minister was also accused of accepting a 17,000 euro (25,000 dollar) bribe from a real estate company in 2002 when he headed the municipality of Vsetin, a town 270km north-east of Prague.

Neither the state attorney nor Cunek provided a credible explanation for the origin of the money, or how the minister had amassed his fortune.

The government was accused of covering up the case, with the opposition and the media reacting with disbelief over the closure of legal procedures.

Prosecution was halted on the grounds that the main witness in the case, Cunek’s former secretary Marcela Urbanova, lacked credibility.

No evidence was provided on the secretary’s lack of credibility, nor were charges brought against her for false testimony. Instead district state attorney Arif Salichov, in charge of the investigation, said the police and the state attorney’s office had manipulated the case, but also did not back these claims.

At the time Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek did not force the controversial minister to step down, fearing that the departure of an important coalition partner would mean the government’s collapse and early elections.

Yet another scandal preceded the two corruption cases that have cost Cunek what many had once predicted would be a meteoric career.

Last year, when still mayor of Vsetin, Cunek moved several Romany rent defaulters from the town centre to container-like houses in peripheral areas.

The former mayor claimed he had the right to put the rent defaulters in the streets but was good enough to offer them alternative housing. A police investigation later concluded that the former mayor had not violated the law.

But the minister’s actions were strongly criticised by the country’s ombudsman and by the Senate’s Human Rights Committee.

Cunek’s controversial methods brought him visibility and much popularity, and only a few months later the relatively unknown politician became leader of the Christian Democrats and later deputy prime minister and local development minister in the right-wing cabinet established January.

Capitalising on feelings shared by much of the Czech population, Cunek again sparked controversy last March when, responding to a question posed by the Blesk tabloid on whether non-Roma can get state subsidies, he replied: “For this they would have to get sunburnt, make a chaos in their families, put up fires on town squares, and only then some politicians would say – they are really miserable people.”

Cunek later apologised for his statements and said they had been taken out of context and misunderstood. Roma organisations insistently called for his resignation, but in vain.

Roma organisations have now welcomed Cunek’s resignation, but insist that all pending cases involving the minister should be thoroughly investigated.

“It’s a timely resignation,” Kumar Vishwanathan, co-founder of Life Together, a non-governmental organisation dealing with Roma issues told IPS. “I feel sorry for him as a person, but he is no person to be running the country.

“He has a lot of supporters among the crudely thinking part of the population, but many others have spoken out against his opinions, and the press has been quite balanced in the coverage of his actions,” Vishwanathan said.

The activist believes there will be more on Cunek. His organisation is supporting four Roma families who were expelled from the former mayor’s town.

“We think the courts will decide in favour of the four families; what we want to achieve is their return to Vsetin,” he said.

The country’s political scene has also been shaken by Cunek’s resignation. The opposition Social Democrats claim the senator’s departure is a sign of a deep government crisis, and are calling for a no-confidence vote in the lower chamber.

A similar vote was held in June due to Cunek’s first corruption case, but the opposition failed to win a sufficient majority in parliament.

Members of the ruling coalition have rejected the opposition’s calls, and Petr Tluchor, chairman of the majority ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS) deputies’ group has called the motion an “empty gesture.”

The Czech lower chamber’s 200 deputies are evenly divided between governing and opposition parties, but the cabinet enjoys the sporadic support of two former social democrats who left the opposition following last June’s general elections. ODS has the most parliamentary seats, 81, and its allies, the Christian Democrats and the Greens have 13 and 6 respectively.

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