news from the czech republic

Late last year, as France's six-month term in the European Union's rotating presidency drew to a close, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that his time at the helm be extended, while French officials hinted that the member state in waiting, the Czech Republic, would bungle its turn. The whispers were ignored, and the smaller nation assumed power--only to be embarrassed by a diplomatic crise. The Czech government had commissioned an artwork to celebrate the transition and decorate the lobby of the European Council building in Brussels. On January 12, Czech artist David Cerný unveiled a monumental sculpture whose twenty-seven pieces represented the EU's member states: Bulgaria a network of squat toilets; France obscured by a banner announcing Grève! ("Strike!"); Germany a series of interlocking autobahns vaguely resembling a swastika; the United Kingdom conspicuous in its absence. Bulgaria demanded that its latrines be removed from the display, while Slovakia (a sausage wrapped in the Hungarian tricolor) contented itself with a formal apology. If anyone doubted Cerný's lack of fealty toward his patron, it was soon revealed that he had pocketed the £350,000 fee meant to be shared with the twenty-six other European artists he was supposed to have tapped for collaboration on the piece.

For Czechs who followed the Cerný flap, there was little novelty in its combination of brazen swindles and crude political provocations. In early 2008, an investigative reporter named Janek Kroupa helped Vlastimil Tlustý--then a member of the conservative ODS Party who was waging an internecine contest against Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek--to stage compromising photos of Tlustý enjoying a bath with a young woman. Apparently animated by professional curiosity, Kroupa established a fictive detective agency as a front for shopping around the images to other ODS members to see if anyone in Tlustý's orbit had an appetite for blackmail. Jan Morava, then a 29-year-old ODS member of Parliament from a district just north of Prague, took the bait, trying to sell the photos to Mladá fronta Dnes, a national newspaper (in a deal prearranged by Kroupa). And in a remarkable twist, Morava told the "detectives" that by way of paying for the photos, he had a fresh commission to offer: he wanted to be photographed on the sly with another young woman, the 23-year-old daughter of Olga Zubová, a Green Party member whose support of ODS legislation was considered inadequate. Morava intended to use these images to suggest that Zubová's daughter was being watched, thereby pressuring the legislator to bolster her support of ODS. The entire scheme was finally exposed in September, when Kroupa had enough evidence--much of it footage from hidden cameras--to undermine Morava. Prime Minister Topolánek called for both politicians to resign and criticized the reporter's "provocative" approach to journalism. Morava broke into tears at the press conference in which he announced his departure. Tlustý rode it out and managed to remain in office. And despite the questions raised about his ethics, Kroupa seems only to have burnished his reputation with this manufactured exposé.

- The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt