June 4, 2019 / 6:05 PM / 15 days ago

Czech protesters demand PM Babis's fall over investigation, business ties

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Czechs hit the streets on Tuesday to demand the resignation of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis over alleged conflicts of interest involving his former business empire and an investigation into a decade-old EU subsidy.

Demonstrators are seen during a protest rally demanding resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague, Czech Republic, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Bundas Engler

Organisers estimated 120,000 people protested on Prague’s central Wenceslas Square, making it one of the largest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in 1989.

Protests against Babis have swelled since the end of April just as Czech police concluded investigations into whether he illegally received a 2 million euro EU subsidy for a farm and convention centre a decade ago and recommended he face trial.

Protesters fear a newly appointed justice minister could interfere in the case, now in prosecutors’ hands. Babis has denied wrongdoing, calling the case a political manoeuvre.

The anti-Babis movement received further impetus from a leak of preliminary audit findings by the European Commission which determined that Agrofert - a business empire built by Babis and spanning chemicals, food processing, farming and media firms - should not have had any access to EU development funds in recent years because Babis had conflicts of interest.

“We will not act like it is normal that the prime minister of our country remains ... in such a conflict of interest that his personal problems damage the whole country,” organiser Mikulas Minar told protesters from a stage just below the imposing 19th-century National Museum.

“We are asking for the resignation of Andrej Babis.”

Demonstrators filled the 700-metre-long rectangular Wenceslas Square, scene of some of the most politically momentous gatherings in Czech history.

Waving Czech and EU flags, protesters carried signs saying “We’ve had enough!” or “We don’t want Babisstan”.

“We no longer want to tolerate that Babis is robbing us,” said Jana Tomesova, a financial adviser who travelled from the town of Pisek, about 110 kilometres (68 miles) south of Prague.

BILLIONAIRE BABIS

The outpouring of anger against Babis, the second richest Czech with $3.7 billion in assets according to Forbes magazine, continues a spate of protests in central Europe over fears about democratic backsliding in the formerly Communist region.

Babis has clashed with western European Union leaders over his tough anti-immigration policy but has been more pro-EU than nationalist counterparts in Poland or Hungary.

Despite allegations of conflicts of interest against Babis since he took office in 2014, his ANO party easily won the 2017 election with 1.5 million votes, almost three time more than the next closest party, on a platform to run the state with a businessman’s touch and fight traditional party corruption.

ANO remains the most popular political force though its support in a CVVM poll slipped to 28% in May from 32% in April.

Babis shifted Agrofert into a trust fund arrangement in 2017 to comply with new Czech legislation on conflicts of interest.

But the leaked preliminary audit - subject to comments by the Czech authorities before finalisation - said Babis’s move amounted to an insufficient separation from his executive powers as he was both the founder and beneficiary of the trust funds.

If confirmed, the audit will be troublesome for Babis politically and for Agrofert financially as received funds might have to be returned.

Babis has rejected the findings. He told parliament on Tuesday: “(It is) a doubtful audit, an attack on the Czech Republic, and I again repeat, (no money) will be returned.”

Slideshow (4 Images)

Separately, the head of the Greens party in the European Parliament urged EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager on Tuesday to investigate allegations that the Czech Republic was providing illegal subsidies to companies linked to Babis.

In a letter seen by Reuters, the Greens said they feared Agrofert might have received over 10 million euros ($11.2 million) in subsidies from the Prague government, which “might lead to a distortion of competition in the EU single market”.

The Commission was not immediately available for a comment.

Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague with additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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