The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

“Among all these crooks, I am the one to be here today!” – A Czechoslovakian Corruption Scandal.

 

Prior to the recent ‘student showcase’, my last blog post discussed the privileged position enjoyed by the political elite in communist Eastern Europe. This is a subject that relates to my own research into criminal networks during the communist era, as the desire for various luxury goods and services encouraged widespread corruption and the development of extensive illegal supply networks. I’ve recently been reading about one such illegal ‘supply chain’ established in Czechoslovakia and overseen by Stanislav Babinsky. In 1987, Babinsky, the manager of a catering and supply company who was locally known as the ‘King of Oravia’, was tried and convicted on charges including theft of socialist property worth $382,000 and the unlawful handling of state funds.

 

As corruption was so pervasive among the communist elite, high profile trials and convictions such as this were rare. On those occasions when high-ranking individuals were held to account for economic crimes, ‘justice’ tended to be politically motivated. Those unlucky enough to find themselves on the stand were generally targeted for one of three reasons: because they had fallen out of political favour (with corruption charges a useful way to remove someone from power); because they had lost their political protection, or because they were unlucky enough to be scapegoated for propaganda purposes, with convictions generally corresponding with the launch of a new ‘anti-corruption drive’. This was particularly true during the 1980s, following the launch of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s initial anti-corruption drive in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s later policies of encouraging perestroika and glasnost across the communist bloc, including well-publicised campaigns to ‘clean up’ corruption and economic crime. Even within the context of the changing political climate of the 1980s the Babinsky case is unusual, because of the high levels of media coverage it received. Developments were widely reported by both the Czechoslovakian media and in the international press, after a 15 page transcript of the trial was secretly smuggled out of the country.

 

The Babinsky trial was held at the Palace of Justice in Bratislava, where over the course of a three month period between 23 March and 30 June 1987, 800 witnesses were interrogated and 34,000 pages of documentary evidence were submitted. The trial involved a number of state officials who were accused of theft of state property, embezzlement, unlawful handling of state funds and gross negligence, to the cost of 2.2 million CZK.[i] Twelve individuals (all of whom held positions of varying political and economic importance) were formally charged and ten of these were convicted.[ii] However a much wider network of party and government officials were also implicated during the trial. High profile officials linked to the Babinsky scandal included Bohuslav Chnoupek, former foreign minister of Czechoslovakia; Peter Colotka, Slovak Prime Minister; Frantisek Miseje, Slovak Minister of Finance and General Kovak, head of Slovakian National Security – all of whom were named in testimony given during the trial.

 

Most of the attention at the trial centred around the testimony of chief defendant Stanislav Babninsky, the 59 year old director of Jednota, a stat­­­e ­­owned catering and supply business based in Dolny Kubin, a mountainous and predominantly agricultural region located about 120 miles north east of Bratislava. Known as ‘Kmotr’ (‘Godfather’) and nicknamed ‘The King of Oravia’ Babinsky had placed Jednota firmly at the heart of an extensive web of corruption and illegal trading, supplying money, luxury goods, services and entertainment to members of the political elite.[iii]

 

 

Evidence given at the trial revealed that between 1975 and his arrest in 1984, Babinsky had regularly supplied his various ‘connections’ with luxury items including ‘the best salami, smoked ham and whisky smuggled from Vienna and chocolates from Switzerland’.[iv] A second report detailed how:

 

“Babinsky and his accomplices delivered, free of charge, or at ridiculously low prices, consumer durables and fine foods to members of the political elite {including] … furniture (handmade and of special quality), artwork, watches, hunting rifles, a stereo system, gasoline vouchers, heating oil, electrical cable, beer, vodka, brandy and vast quantities of food, all from a special ‘diplomatic warehouse’”.[v]

 

Babinsky also detailed how he had organised construction of an elite holiday complex, Myln (‘The Mill’) in the nearby town of Brezovci, at a cost of nearly 4.5 million CZK, money which was all illegally sourced from state funds. Described as a ‘government rest home’ Myln was regularly used to host exclusive hunting parties, where guests could shoot at game from helicopters. Babinsky claimed that on one occasion 36,000 CZK had been spent on refreshments at a special bear shoot arranged for General Jan Kovac, Head of the Slovak Secret Police. Babinsky also revealed how he satisfied the seedier desires of his guests, who could ‘order’ prostitutes by calling the hotel reception and using the code word ‘Russian Reader’ – then, when asked if they required a particular volume, the numbers ordered would refer to the bust size favoured by the client! Babinsky claimed that Myln was the venue for wild sex parties and that ‘the immoralities that took place there made me want to throw up’, although he also claimed that the girls he employed were well treated, ‘rewarded handsomely [and] paid 1,500 koruny a night’, money that had been siphoned off from a fund designed to finance bonuses for ‘exceptional development of consumer cooperatives’ in the area.[vi]

 

Although Babinsky was referred to as a ‘power broker’ and a criminal ‘godfather’ by state media, during the trial he presented himself as victim rather than villain. Describing himself as ‘a man co-opted by the system to administer the ‘fringe benefits’ that those in power demanded’, Babinsky also perceived himself as a modern-day ‘Robin Hood’, insisting that he had never used his position for personal gain, but was motivated by the opportunity to secure higher levels of industrial investment and regional development from corrupt officials.[vii] He also claimed that he was merely a scapegoat for the crimes committed by those in power. Towards the end of the trial proceedings Babinsky openly wept, proclaiming ‘Among all these crooks, I am the one to be here today! And I had nothing out of it but hard work…’, and lamenting the fact that the crooked officials were the real criminals, for ‘enriching themselves at the expense of society’. Babinsky’s pleas were in vain however, and at the end of the trial he was sentenced to a total of 14.5 years imprisonment, along with nine other individuals.[viii]

 

So, what can the Babinsky case tell us? Firstly, the details which emerged during the trial testimony effectively demonstrate how deeply established corrupt networks had become by the final years of communism, illustrating the levels of privilege enjoyed by members of the political elite in Eastern Europe. Secondly, while the Babinsky case initially appeared to support enhanced efforts to reduce corruption in line with the changing political climate of the mid-1980s, its real impact was much more limited. True, Babinsky’s arrest came in the aftermath of Andropov’s anti-corruption drive, while his trial took place after Gorbachev’s reform programme had begun to influence the climate in Eastern Europe.[ix] When Milos Jakes took over the leadership from Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia in 1987 he also declared that ‘corruption in official ranks must be combatted’.[x] However, in many respects the Babinsky case actually highlights the limits of any serious attempts to root out corruption among members of the communist elite. At the time, Der Spiegel called the Babinsky case ‘one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Czechoslovakia’ but the political impact of the case was negligible.[xi]

 

Babinsky was guilty of the charges against him, but he was also clearly a useful scapegoat. While he was publicly vilified and sentenced to 14.5 years in prison, the higher ranking beneficiaries of his illegal efforts escaped largely unscathed. The identities of the state officials incriminated in his testimony were omitted from the indictment on the direct orders of Slovak Justice Minister Pjescak, who had already prohibited any tape recording of the trial, as soon as it became clear that high ranking officials were going to be ‘named and shamed’ in court testimony! On 3 July 1987, following publication of the court verdict, the CPCZ CC Presidium published a statement in Rude Pravda announcing the expulsion of ‘those guilty parties connected with the Babinsky case’ from the communist party. However, only two district officials were actually named in this statement (Deputy Interior Minister Jan Kovac and former Central Committee Department head Stanislav Dudek) with vague references to the expulsions of  ‘other (unnamed) members recently convicted of corruption’ and ‘reprimands ‘with warnings’ issued to five other anonymous state officials.[xii] The following day, Rude Pravda also carried a timely editorial criticising any ‘abuse of rank, position, bribery and nepotism’ and warning that in future any such activities would be exposed.[xiii] But these words were not supported by action: although a state committee was established to investigate Babinsky’s testimony, their closing report claimed that Babinsky had ‘cast unjustified aspersions on a number of innocent party members … a political provocation which the Western media had misused’, while a subsequent politburo statement also maintained that while a few guilty parties had been justly expelled, ‘other comrades named in the press had been falsely accused’.[xiv]

 

 

 


[i] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL Report SR/10, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß (‘Girl to Measure’), Der Spiegel, 26/1987 ‘Czech Aides Linked to Scandal’, The New York Times, 8 June 1987

[ii] ‘Premier Quits in Shake up of Czech Regime’, LA Times, 11 October 1988

[iii] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[iv] Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[v] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987

[vi] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[vii] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987; ‘Czech Aides Linked to Scandal’, The New York Times, 8 June 1987

[viii] Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987

[ix] Other high profile ‘casualties’ of the anti-corruption drive in Eastern Europe include the conviction  of Maciej Szcepanski, Central Committee member and head of the Polish committee for Radio and Television in 1984 on 35 counts of bribery and embezzlement and the conviction of Bulgarian Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade Georgi Vute in January 1987 for bribery and currency offences.

[x] ‘Officials Booted Out of Party’, Associated Press, 20 February 1988

[xi] Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[xii] ‘Communist Party Expells District Officials’, Associated Press, 4 July 1987 and RFE/RL Weekly Record 18-24 February 1988 (OSA Archives, 26-2-1988)

[xiii] ‘Communist Party Expells District Officials’, Associated Press, 4 July 1987

[xiv] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: The Party Metes Out Penalties’, RFE/RL 13, 1988; ‘Officials Booted Out of Party’, Associated Press, 20 February 1988

July 11, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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