Lunch with the FT: Andrej Babiš
Andrej Babiš is waiting with a pile of papers, a frown and a burning sense of injustice. The Czech Republic’s finance minister and deputy prime minister is upset at many things, but primarily, he is angry at me.
“I see that you are writing nonsense,” he says, before I have adjusted my chair. “It is not true, what you have written here.” He waves a wad of papers at me to make his point.
We are in the posh restaurant of an even posher hotel, The Augustine, tucked between the cobbled streets that wind around the base of the Prague Castle, the president’s official residence. Beyond the window, men stride by wearing dark trenchcoats while tourists with selfie sticks huddle in courtyards that date back to the ninth century.
Babiš, wearing a navy suit with a thick pinstripe, and a thin light-blue tie, is sitting in his regular seat. The Augustine is a short stroll from the finance ministry, and Babiš eats here at least four times a week, according to the staff, sometimes for breakfast and lunch in one day. He even receives a special discount.
The offending text he is pointing to is from an article I wrote, detailing the split between west and east Europe over the right approach to the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe.
On one side, Germany and other western EU nations called for a quota system to distribute migrants among countries. On the other, eastern states with populist, conservative leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Slovakia’s Robert Fico refused, calling instead for border closures and using increasingly strong anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“You have written that I demanded we shut the borders. This is not true. I only asked for the external [EU] border to be closed,” he says, exasperated. “And you said here,” he adds, peering over his thick-rimmed glasses, “that I said we should use the military to stop the migration. I didn’t say that. I said we should use the military against the smugglers. It is a big difference.”
Babiš is mistaken; I had not written that he had called for these things. But my protests fall on deaf ears and I quickly realise I am being subjected to a prepared tirade. “Adding me into this article with Orbán and Fico,” he goes on, “it is completely wrong.”
There are very few men in central Europe more powerful, or divisive, than Babiš. Born in 1954 in Bratislava in what is now Slovakia, he is that country’s richest son, worth €2.4bn. Agrofert, his agriculture, food and chemicals group, is the Czech Republic’s third-largest company by revenue.
Five years ago, he spent about €4.5m to found a fledging social movement called Ano — which stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” and is also the Czech word for “yes” — that promised to end corruption and cosy relationships between business and politics. Ano emerged from the October 2013 election with 19 per cent of the vote and the second-largest bloc in parliament. It placed Babiš as kingmaker in the negotiations to form a new government and allowed him to become deputy prime minister and appoint a chunk of the cabinet as the junior partner in a coalition with the country’s social democrats.
Four months before the election, Agrofert purchased a media group that gave Babiš control of the Czech Republic’s second-biggest newspaper, Mladá fronta Dnes; its broadsheet stablemate, Lidové noviny; the internet news portal iDNES.cz, with 4m monthly readers, and radio and television channels.
Journalists began referring to him as “Babisconi”, a reference to the scandal-tainted former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who used his vast media empire to influence Italy’s politics for close to two decades. Many in the Czech Republic think Babiš has built up a position of such strength that he is capable of a similar feat.
“Look, I am an immigrant,” he says, keen to continue the immigration theme. “And I lived five years in Morocco. I have lots of friends there. I have no problem with Muslims. But how many migrants will we take? We need to have a selection process outside of Europe. In Turkey. We need Ellis Island,” he says.
Over the past six months, this rhetoric has gone from fringe to mainstream in many EU capitals, as more and more western states break ranks and criticise the German-led plan of open borders in favour of tightening access to Europe.
“Finally, everyone is doing what I said back in May,” he says, with a sense of vindication. “I was right. It was clear that this quota is just another invitation to migrants, after Madame Merkel telling them to come.”
We have talked — or rather, he has talked and I have listened — for 30 minutes, during which time the waitress has made two attempts to take our order.
Finally, Babiš is ready and, with only a cursory look at the menu, he chooses the cream of chestnut soup with oxtail to start, and, on his recommendation, I do the same. He follows with an orange, pumpkin and pomegranate salad, and I order trout with barley risotto. After slight persuasion, he joins me in a glass of white wine. A toast. An entente.
Voters have taken to Babiš’s abrasive style; he is consistently ranked as the country’s most popular politician in national surveys.
His reforms and crackdown on VAT avoiders have raised hundreds of millions of euros in previously unpaid tax. And, on his watch, the Czech debt has shrunk, and investors are paying the country for the privilege of holding its debt. He has kick-started long-stalled infrastructure projects such as the first motorway to Vienna, and is targeting a balanced budget by 2019, a not impossible dream.
Yet ask any Czech politician and such achievements will almost never get mentioned. Despite an absence of evidence, many regard him as a crook, a swindler, a Russian sympathiser with a murky past who used public assets to gain wealth and then bought political power with the proceeds.
His acquisition of Agrofert, once controlled by the state, in the late 1990s through a secretive takeover involving Swiss-registered holding companies with opaque funding, raised eyebrows and a lawsuit, which was thrown out.
Political opponents have accused him of being an agent of the communist secret police, although a court ruled in 2014 that if he had been, he did not act knowingly. I spoke with Czech friends before the interview and the response was unanimous: “Babiš is bad news.”
“They are attacking me. In any way, from every corner,” shrugs Babiš when I put these complaints to him. “I am the enemy number one of this system. I mean, come on. I am not Babisconi. I don’t have any TV channels.”
This is untrue, I remind him.
“OK, fine, I have a music channel,” he concedes. “Look, I cannot use my newspapers. I am not crazy. I bought them for €90m and will not destroy my investment. My newspapers are completely independent. Of course, maybe — probably — there is some self-censorship, but that is not my fault.” Both editors and some senior staff quit after the takeover.
“I would be much more influential if I was not in politics,” Babiš argues. “Then I could use my newspapers. Then I could be lobbying, influencing politicians. I see now how they do this.”
The former Czech president Václav Klaus enters the restaurant. The two men, who openly detest each other, smile warmly and exchange a few words. As Klaus walks off, Babiš’s smile slides to a grimace and a withering look.
“This is . . . the most negative person,” he says. “Klaus, Kalousek. They all want to get rid of me,” he explains, referring to Miroslav Kalousek, leader of the opposition, whom Klaus is meeting for lunch.
Babiš entertains notions of conspiracies all around him, plots at every corner. Earlier, when I asked how he was, Babiš had replied that he was “still alive”. “A lot of people want to kill me,” he says, deadpan. However, not long after our lunch, the Czech authorities grant him his request for state police protection, citing threats to his life.
Of his political opponents, he says: “They do not like me because I am out of their control, out of the system. I came and changed the system. It is now more difficult than before for them.”
Babiš controls 47 MPs in the 200-person chamber — his election performance was so unexpected that he only met some of his MPs for the first time at the opening of parliament.
As our soups arrive with a flourish and a grind of the pepper mill, I ask if he accepts the argument that rich men should not be able to buy power in a democracy, and query whether billionaires make good finance ministers.
“It is not a normal situation, I agree with you. But it is not my fault,” he says. “Yes, I could take some marionette and manage from behind. But it is not fair. So I am in front, and everybody sees me, looks at me. I am now so transparent. Everyone is watching me so closely, from all corners. And I am not crazy to misuse my position.”
Babiš donates his ministerial salary to a foundation run by Agrofert that supports single-parent families, pays for his own car, and says he and his team fly on economy airlines.
“I have a clean table. I don’t do anything that is against the law, because everyone would use it. I have no interest. I am quite old. And at every stage in life you have a different motivation, and money is not really motivation for me now,” he says. “I cannot even consume money. I am not fit for such a life of aircraft and yachts and new cars and parties. I am not living that style of life.”
Transparency does not change the fact that he owns one of the country’s biggest companies.
“Sure, there is a conflict of interest,” he concedes. “But it is negative for me. I am now happy if my company does not win the contract with the state, for whatever. Because it is peanuts and there is no problem.”
Babiš is forthright, opinionated and often startlingly direct, with a streak of mild arrogance. He has earned the right, one may conclude, in the business world and at the ballot box. But he is also thoughtful, considered, charming, and often disarmingly self-deprecating.
“Unbelievable!” is one of his favourite words. The EU’s failure to tackle VAT fraud, his big bugbear, despite €170bn being lost each year, is “unbelievable”. As is the failure of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, to control migrant flows, and the terrorist cells operating in the suburbs of Paris and Brussels.
He wants the UK to stay in Europe, but has lost patience with Greece. “Greece should never be in the eurozone and it would be better for them to have their local currency,” he says.
But he saves special disdain for his prime minister and coalition partner Bohuslav Sobotka, a quiet, reticent man whose lack of charisma contrasts sharply with Babiš. The two have never met privately, despite running the country together for more than two years, supporting each other through gritted teeth rather than risk the outcome of a post-collapse election.
“Sobotka is in a completely different world. He has a different role in the government. He is in a nice position, with no responsibility for laws. The ministers have to do the laws,” says Babiš.
As our main courses arrive, I ask about what lies in the future. Many think he might be the country’s next prime minister. Others suspect he fancies a run for president. He is contemptuous of the suggestion.
“I want peace and quiet but not in the Castle,” he says, referring to the presidential office. “This is a representative function. I am a decision maker, I want to make decisions, to move, to build.
“I have in my life achieved all I want. I do not need to convince myself if I am good or not. The motivation is different now,” he says, almost melancholic. “Men always need what they do not have. So I have a big company, I am rich, I am successful in politics. So what I need now is more family life, more time for my children, and so on.”
Babiš lives with his partner of two decades and their two children, and also has two children with his former wife.
“I did not want to go to politics. I am very unhappy in politics. It has destroyed my life,” he says with a sigh, pushing the salad around with his fork. Such self-pity begs the question of why he ran in the first place, aside from his vague dreams of ending corruption, and “running the state like a business”.
“It is like twins. You have one part of your body that says yes, you are good, you did this for people. And the second says you are stupid, you have no time for your friends, your family, your business. You are quite old, you can die quickly,” he says solemnly. He is 61. “I am already too old, this is difficult for me. It is quite emotional.”
Babiš had been in hospital the previous day with a problem in one of his eyes he says is stress-related. He says he is putting on weight. The lack of sleep shows in his face, which bears deep wrinkles. I suggest that if it is all so terrible, why not just pack it in and retire with his billions?
“I could not resign. Are you crazy?” he says, life suddenly back in his eyes. “I would have to leave the country. It would be the biggest treason for everybody. I cannot do this. I have to finish it. A lot of people have a hope that I will change things. And I am changing things,” he says. “The party is connected to my person. The party is me.”
This is the inherent contradiction of Babiš. The billionaire finance minister who suffers hatred, fatigue and ill-health from a job he never wanted, but cannot contemplate walking away from. He claims to be immune to power, yet is aghast at the thought of losing it.
And what if he wins enough seats in the 2017 election to lead the country?
“Next time?” he says, strangely subdued for a few seconds. “I do not know. Let’s see. It depends on the result. I don’t know how long I will live, and what should be the last period of my life. For me it would be better to be vice prime minister that manages all ministers. And the prime minister can be for foreign policy, and representation, and speeches,” he says, chuckling. “That would be perfect.”
Time is ticking away on his luxury Bell & Ross watch. Babiš has cleared his salad rapidly, needing to make it to parliament for the afternoon session.
“Don’t write this stuff,” he repeats with a smile as he shuffles his papers and gets up to leave, as if remembering the reason he wanted to meet in the first place. “I am not Orbán,” he reminds me, folding his trench over his arm and moving towards the door. “It is not true.”
Henry Foy is the FT’s central Europe correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson