(The Guardian)Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and Czech Republic gripped by sleaze allegations involving senior politicians and governing parties
Ruling parties, political elites and former ministers in a string of EU countries are embroiled in cash-for-influence scandals that are exposing widespread allegations of corruption, triggering public revulsion and a voters' backlash.
Hunting parties, expensive gifts, drunken car crashes, secret police wiretaps, paper bags stuffed with money and public budgets being treated as private accounts all feature in the lurid revelations and allegations being leaked daily on to the front pages of central Europe.
Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and the Czech Republic are in the throes of sleaze allegations involving senior politicians and governing parties said to be funded by dirty money.
The scale of the alleged corruption, revealed by parliamentary inquiries, court cases, secret police files and whistleblowers, is such as to make David Cameron's alleged suppers-for-sale predicament look trivial.
Tales of criminality, thuggery, and vast amounts of cash flowing to politicians from companies, lobbyists, and middlemen are dominating the newspapers and blogosphere across central Europe. In contrast, successful prosecutions are extremely rare for a political class that often seems to operate with impunity. Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic are in the throes of major sleaze allegations involving senior politicians and governing parties said to be funded by dirty money.
In Austria a special parliamentary committee investigating political corruption is questioning serving and former ministers this week about a convoluted web of alleged bribery and profiteering from government tenders and skewed legislation.
In an election this month next door in Slovakia, the new prime minister, Robert Fico, won a landslide after support for his rivals on the right collapsed when secret police files about the buying and selling of MPs were unearthed by a Canadian journalist and posted on the internet.
The secret police files, codenamed Gorilla, featured wiretaps of leading financiers meeting discreetly with centre-right governing politicians to trade government tenders for cash.
In Croatia a trial of a former prime minister starts next month, promising to open a window on widespread political corruption over the past decade. Ivo Sanader is pleading innocent to charges that he and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ), which ran the country for most of the past 20 years, siphoned off nearly €10m (£8m) from privatisation proceeds into party funds.
Sanader is already being tried on two further sets of graft charges.In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in the middle of his re-election campaign, is having to contend with a judicial inquiry into his UMP party's finances, with allegations this week that it benefited from 800,000 euros from L'Oreal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, the wealthiest woman in France.
But the latest scandal to rock the region centres on a Czech businessman and a former Prague mayor who are accused of in effect controlling the city's €2bn budget between them.
The businessman, Roman Janoušek, had long been labelled the "shadow mayor" owing to his close links with city hall, but it was not until transcripts of what are believed to be wiretaps of conversations between him and his long-time ally, former Prague city mayor Pavel Bém, were published in the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes that the scale of their alleged rigging of the city finances started to come to light.
The conversations appear to include discussions about influencing sales of city and public property, arranging expensive gifts for city officials and fixing high-ranking official posts.
The recordings are believed to have been made by the domestic counter intelligence agency, the BIS, and shed light on the often dubiously overlapping worlds of Czech politics and business.
The tapes appear to confirm long-held claims that Bém, a national politician from the governing ODS party, and Janoušek, nicknamed Voldemort after the character in the Harry Potter books, headed a network which treated the city budget as their own.
The recordings are riddled with expletives, code words and eccentric nicknames such as "kitty", "pampered boy", "hummingbird", "Maori queen", "captain" and "Colombo".
The scandal reached a denouement on Friday when Janoušek's Porsche Cayenne was involved in a collision with another car. Witnesses alleged Janoušek hit the car then ran over its female driver. He then tried to escape on foot. His intoxicated lope through a park was captured on CCTV and later posted on YouTube.
Janoušek was arrested and was allegedly over the drink-drive limit and under the influence of drugs, according to a hospital source. It was later claimed he had not been handcuffed or taken into custody and was allowed to leave the police station by a back entrance to avoid the media.
Janoušek, who has long faced allegations that he laundered millions of dollars through a Swiss bank alongside other extensive allegations of corruption including rigging public tenders, was eventually charged on Sunday with causing grievous bodily harm as well as driving under the influence of an addictive substance. He could face 10 years in prison if convicted.
Bém, deposed as mayor two years ago, denied the allegations against him. He called the wiretaps "a brutal and incredible breach of privacy" and said he is the victim of a politically motivated smear campaign.
Petr Necas, the Czech prime minister and head of the Civic Democratic party (ODS), ordered Bem's party membership to be suspended while he tries to clear his name.
The wave of sleaze allegations and revelations is exacting a high political toll across the region.
In December Sanader's HDZ was drummed out of office in Croatia as was the centre-right in Slovakia earlier this month.
An opinion poll this week showed that more than 70% of Austrians had little confidence in the judiciary, believing that the courts were treating politicians with kid gloves.
The allegations mainly affect the centre-right Austrian People's party (OeVP), Christian democrats currently in a coalition government. Via middlemen and PR agencies, Austria Telekom, a national phone company and mobile operator, is alleged to have funnelled millions to the party and individual politicians. The party has slumped to 23% in the polls.
Separately, a court in Liechtenstein last week ruled against providing papers requested for an Austrian investigation of former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, the focus of kickback and tax evasion claims.
It is a hard life being a politician in central Europe, the OeVP's parliamentary leader, Karlheinz Kopf, complained this week. "From the moment you decide to enter politics, you can't be expected to live like a total eunuch and have no social life at all," he said.
Ian Traynor in Brussels and Kate Connolly in Berlin