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Opposition leader keeps up pressure

Ruling coalition politicians have reacted angrily to Social Democratic Party (CSSD) chairman Milos Zeman´s accusations that the Czech intelligence and an arms-export group (RND) tried to dissuade the government of Algeria from buying tanks from the Czech Republic. The government, under pressure from the coalition Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), recently rejected the planned sale of one hundred T-72 tanks to Algeria; the CSSD has supported the sale. Internal Affairs Minister Jan Ruml has called Zeman´s allegation "fabrications" and threatened to call for Zeman´s ouster from the post of Chamber of Deputies speaker. Other politicians have demanded that Zeman substantiate his charges or face political consequences.

However, it seems that regardless of whether Zeman will be able to support his charges with evidence, the emerging scandal is not going to damage him. On the contrary, it will hurt the coalition. At least one important precedent already exists. In November, prior to the Senate elections, Zeman said he had obtained documents from the Czech Counterintelligence Service (BIS) that suggested the agency had shadowed political parties. Zeman also hinted the documents showed that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had worked hand-in-hand with the BIS, although the law prohibits such cooperation. The CSSD leader said the Czech Republic was turning into a police state.

Zeman was never able to substantiate his charges. After several weeks he did hand President Havel several dozen documents, and the president concluded the documents did not support Zeman´s charges. The Parliament´s Security Committee also studied the documents and officially concluded that Zeman´s accusations could not be substantiated with the documents help.

In theory, voters should have punished the CSSD for Zeman´s irresponsible behavior. Some coalition leaders demanded that Zeman step down. In reality, Zeman was not only able to fudge charges of political irresponsibility--claiming that his documents were not studied properly--but the popularity of the CSSD continued to grow.

The CSSD learned an important lesson from the affair. With the public´s support for the coalition rapidly declining, it was not important whether Zeman could or could not prove his charges. What really mattered was that he was able to keep the coalition under pressure. Doubts were planted in voters´ minds. Had the coalition been more successful, voters would have probably turned against Zeman. But, given a growing series of banking and other scandals for which the government was seen as being indirectly responsible, many people accepted Zeman´s charges as being possibly true.

It is quite likely that Zeman will again be unable to come up with conclusive evidence that would support his latest charges. But given the state in which the increasingly disjointed and unpopular coalition finds itself, it probably does not matter. The purpose of Zeman´s charges is not to prove that the government acted unlawfully. The real purpose is to destabilize the coalition even more at a time when the parliament is about to begin discussing the state budget for 1998.

Given the way in which the coalition works, not all coalition politicians will condemn Zeman. The Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL) may see the charges as an opportunity to prove that there was more to the ODA-led attack on the sale of tanks to Algeria than just the ODA´s fears about the country´s ability to defend itself. The RND arms-export company that Zeman also accused of lobbying with the Algerian government against the sale of tanks is known to be associated with the ODA.

Clearly, Zeman´s latest charges are aimed not only at hurting the coalition as a whole in the eyes of voters but also at driving a wedge between the coalition´s civic parties and the Christian Democrats. Even if coalition politicians were able to convincingly show that Zeman, like in the BIS affair, is indeed again fabricating charges, the dynamics of Czech politics is currently such that the CSSD--and not the coalition--will in the end score with voters.

A majority of people are dissatisfied with the coalition. And many of them will simply believe what they want to believe. Zeman is again skillfully planting the seeds of doubt. His tactics may be condemned on moral grounds. But in practical terms, he is playing a risky but skillful political game that is likely help him achieve his political objectives.

Reuters - 30. 8. 1997