A Tour of Corrupt Prague
Recent scandals in the Czech Republic inspired a new kind of ultra sightseeing
At Jungmannovo Náměstí, a small cobbled square in central Prague, a guide waits for customers for a tour that is sold as "entirely unique in the history of tourism". Edita Čechová, dressed in tall black boots, a black cloak with a large flat cap atop her flowing blond hair, works for Corrupt Tours which, according to its website, promises to give customers first-hand experience of "a wide range of corrupt businesses as well as the leading practitioners of corruption".
Her customers are all Czech. They shyly shake hands and are handed earpieces to amplify Edita’s performance as she guides them around what she calls the city’s "Monuments of Corruption". These include money-sucking building sites and the high-walled private residences of Czech lobbyists linked to kickbacks and shady dealings.
The Czech Republic has faced a series of corruption scandals in recent years, none more dramatic than the "sex and crime" scandal that forced Prime Minister Petr Nečas to resign on 17 June, after his chief of staff was charged with bribery of public officials and ordering the secret service to spy on, among others, the Prime Minister’s now estranged wife.
Not surprisingly, this has eroded public trust. According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM) in March, some three-quarters of Czechs believe that most or almost all public officials are entangled in corruption. Radim Bureš, Project Manager at the Czech branch of Transparency International, says that around a quarter say they have come across corruption in their everyday lives.
He says the procurement of hospital equipment is often severely overpriced because of kickbacks and if a company wants to secure a contract they might be asked for a bribe. Such incidents have meant that Czech Republic ranks 54th in Transparency International’s world corruption index, worse than Rwanda and Georgia, among the lowest in the EU.
Corruption is not funny
Corrupt Tours’ answer to this climate of disgust is biting irony. Tour guide, Čechová masquerades as an admirer of corruption, which, with mock pride, she describes as part of the "Czech national heritage", gesticulating wildly as she enthusiastically outlines the apparent genius of the scams. She wears an orange and blue scarf, the colours of the two biggest political parties, to symbolise that all politicians are involved.
Only after the tour does the trained actress slip out of character, telling me she joined Corrupt Tours because she wanted to fight the culture of graft with "a soft form of protest", using humour to expose the absurdity of the way public money is channelled into private pockets. "Corruption is not funny," she says, "but humour is a good way of pointing the finger."
Petr Šourek, who set up the company just over a year ago, glowers in the background during the tour. With the tall collar of his coat pulled up against the unseasonably chill wind, he looks like an impish count, as he backs up Čechová’s performance with sneering examples of documented corruption cases.
Šourek obviously delights in his self-appointed role as an exploiter of the exploiters. Corruption, apparently "limitless and renewable", is excellent "raw material" for his team’s theatrical performances. He exploits this rich seam to charge €27 for a place on the tour. Unabashed about pursuing protest as a business model, he explains with a grin, that "usually corruption feeds on business, so we thought we would reverse that trend and make money out of corruption."
The tour takes us to the grounds of a hospital that Corrupt Tours claims is "notorious for graft and sleaze". Here Čechová explains how the right connections can help you jump the queue. Then a metro ride takes attendees to the leafy avenues of Prague’s 6th District to a villa that belongs to Marek Dalik, a notorious lobbyist with close ties to former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. A U.S. cable published by Wikileaks suggested Dalik had asked for an €18 million bribe in return for helping secure the purchase of Austrian-made armoured personnel carriers from the firm Steyr. "Wave to the security cameras," says Čechová.
Aren’t the tour guides playing judge and jury here? No, says Šourek: "In most cases we discuss established cases, talking about what is known about them and what has been written about them. We are not here to say who is corrupt and who is not, because we don’t know, but we are here to talk about established facts and to ask the questions."
Transparency International’s Radim Bureš believes that Corrupt Tours is playing a positive role in the fight against corruption by making the issue more tangible for Czech voters. For years the problem has been cloaked in silence, but Bureš believes that culture is changing. "People are more ready to denounce it if a bribe is offered." He says that the performance of the police and judiciary has also improved and that parliament is moving towards more robust anti-graft laws.
Nečas’ shamed chief of staff, Jana Nagyová, is merely the most high profile of the public figures recently charged with corruption. A Social Democrat member of parliament was caught with 7 million koruna stuffed in a wine box and a minister was arrested and charged with doctoring an IT procurement project. If the media spotlight shames the Czech Republic, its proactive approach to tackling the problem is heartening.
Šourek, of course, maintains that as a "guardian of graft" he is disheartened. Complaining on his webpage that "more recently, some monuments of corruption we have been visiting have suffered slight damage. Corrupt Tours can’t be held responsible." He’ll never admit it, of course, but you get the impression that this impish count would be delighted to be put out of business. In the meantime, though, he has received mails and phone calls from all corners of the world suggesting he exports the idea abroad. There have been talks about setting up a corruption tour in Vienna. "This is such a universal issue," he says. "There is such a resonance. People get what we are trying to do."