|Written by: Klára Smolová & Kateřina ZapletňukováWhat happens when two influential people team up in a relationship? How do they combine personal life with professional confidentiality? Why are such couples still a rarity in the Czech Republic? Some “powerful pairs” share their experience.
|Laws are lacking
David Odráčka Photo: V&V
problems RELATED to conflict of interests have been debated in the Czech Republic for over 10 years. Politicians agree that the current law on conflict of interests that was adopted in 1992 does not work. According to David Ondráčka of the Czech division of Transparency International, the main problem is that the law does not call for any sanctions against those who do not abide. The current law concerns only parliamentary deputies and senators, and they don’t respect it. “Under the current law, only members of parliament can initiate a procedure against their colleague who failed to disclose his/her income declaration. This, however, has not happened a single time during the past ten years,” says Ondráčka. He adds that Czech politicians show little political will to change the situation although discussions about a necessity of a tougher regulation appear in the media.
To speed up the process, Transparency International worked out its own version of the law on conflict of interests. It calls for making politicians, including municipal and regional authorities, disclose their income, shares in companies, securities and real estate on the internet. Currently the public has access to these documents only one day a year in parliament. Among other things, the draft requires that prominent public figures reveal all their activities as well as the activities of their partners. This requirement is in place in many Western democracies, including Great Britain and Germany.
Member of Freedom Union-Democratic Union Hana Marvanová says that the Transparency International’s initiative is quite timely. “I support the direction in which Transparency International is working and think it is high time to change the law,” she says. However, the reaction of her fellow party member Jan Hadrava in a recent interview shows that the issue is very touchy. “The law should concern more people, but there should be a limit. I know from my experience that regional authorities are very sensitive towards new responsibilities,” he remarks. Transparency International is now negotiating with parliament members from various parties to gain support and present the proposal in parliament this fall.
CURRENT PRESIDENT Václav Klaus faced criticism when his wife economist Lívia Klausová was a member of the supervisory board of Česká spořitelna during his term in office as prime minister. Klausová was elected a board member in 1992. The wife of the head of the Civic Democratic Party was also in the supervisory board of ZVVZ Milevsko and electricity giant ČEZ. Education Minister Petra Buzková was prepared to resign in 2002 when her husband was investigated in the Česká spořitelna case. At that time, police investigated seven members of the former bank’s board of directors on suspicion that they were responsible for damages to Česká spořitelna in 1997 worth CZK 850 million. Lucie Pilipová, the wife of right-wing Freedom Union politician Ivan Pilip, managed the nonprofit organization Nadace Bohemiae while her husband was education (and later finance) minister. Speculations were rife that Pilipová’s organization received funding thanks to Pilip’s political influence. People accused Jana Bobošíková, a well-known television moderator, of using her husband’s money to finance her project Interview21, which in turn provided the couple with influential connections.
Do media like to propagate scandals surrounding prominent couples, or does the negative attention they receive have any real grounds? Two-career marriages, where each member has power and influence that may eventually collide (for better or worse), will always be under society’s magnifying glass anywhere in the world. But in the Czech Republic it seems that the number of high-profile couples is relatively low. Although two-career marriages were commonplace in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime, when we decided to interview couples made up of partners that have real weight in contemporary society we found very few that were ready to talk. Still, conflict of interests is an issue that they all have to deal with one way or the other.
Are there barriers?
The Czech Republic still lacks an efficient law on conflict of interests (see sidebar, left), as the current legislation is too lax, and does not prescribe any punishment. It may be due to this lack of real legal leverage that rumors and accusations are so widespread. How do prominent couples react to this negative publicity? Jana Bobošíková, who is known for her good connections with Václav Klaus and other politicians and businessmen, vehemently denies any possibility of a conflict of interests concerning her and her husband’s work. “My husband never bought anything from the state or privatized anything. He built his business from scratch. His customers are multinational companies,” says the journalist. Nonetheless, the company Polyconsult, which she manages, provides her husband’s company Sahm with marketing services (see sidebar on page 21).
Lucie Pilipová must constantly prove that the success of her three businesses is the result of her professionalism, and not her husband’s political influence. When asked to comment on accusations that a foundation she managed received money thanks to her husband’s lobbying, Pilipová says: “The case was cooked up. We have been receiving funding from one and the same organization for four years when my husband was appointed the finance minister. There was no connection there.” Pilipová adds that she decided to quit her post as spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry due to an impending conflict between her politician boss and her politician husband before this question arose (see sidebar on page 24). Petra Buzková and her husband Josef Kotrba openly say that a possibility of a conflict of interests in their professional lives is something they always keep in mind. “Luckily the Education Ministry does not interfere much with my business transactions. However, my wife’s position sometimes means ‘no entrance’ for the whole firm,” says Kotrba. His wife echoes him, saying “it’s not easy to refute all suspicions, but we’ve never faced a conflict of interests and plan to avoid it in the future.” (see sidebar on page 28)
In order to avoid suspicions, partners of Czech politicians and business people usually stay in the background, remaining mostly unknown to the public. Sometimes wives don’t even accompany their husbands to social events. Pavel Bobošík, an entrepreneur and husband of Jana Bobošíková, says that the situation is quite different abroad. Extensive traveling gave the businessman an opportunity to compare the attitude towards so called “power couples” abroad and in the Czech Republic. “Here the role of a family is not fully developed yet. In the West, a family plays a far greater role especially for people who occupy high positions in the society,” says the entrepreneur, whose high-profile wife always accompanies him to all social happenings.
While the Czech society frowns on such inseparability, in the West participation of both partners is a must. In the US for instance, a wife of a politician usually actively campaigns for her husband no matter whether she is a housewife or has her own professional career. However, Czech politicians’ wives try to stay aside from their husbands’ pre-election campaigns, as in the Pilip’s case. “I did not take part in pre-election campaigns on purpose. I have my own career and people know it,” explains Pilipová. “Besides, I thought that my participation in campaigns would not be beneficial for the public perception of a wife’s role. A common perception is calling for women to back their husbands, even to the detriment of their own career, because the man’s career is more important.”
The Czechs and “career”
In her interviews to various Czech newspapers, Lívia Klausová – who had to give up all of her business activities as she became the first lady – never hid her frustration over obstacles that her husband’s career caused her own. “Every woman faces a dilemma – to be a wife while making a career. I decided that I will not go against my will and waste everything I had learned before my husband went into politics,” she said in an interview in 2002. Although nobody doubted her professional qualities, critics insisted that the wife of a prominent politician should not hold such posts. Analyst Jan Schisser of Atlantik finanční trhy was quoted as saying “even if [Klausová] were the best economist in the country, I would have objected her becoming a member of a supervisory board.” To which Klausová responded: “What do I have to do? Stay home and embroider? Just because I met my husband at university and we happen to have the same profession? Some women would like to stay home, but not me.”
” A university-educated woman usually suffers when she just has to be a housewife. A career opens new horizons,” says Hana Maříková, a specialist in gender and sociology. But Czechs have a strange attitude towards career-building. A survey conducted in Prague by the Czech Sociology Institute in 2000 showed that one third of respondents from two-career families denied that they were pursuing a career. Sociologists concluded that the term “career” has a negative connotation for Czech people, who look suspiciously at other people’s success and desire to move up the social ladder. The majority of Czechs find it more acceptable when at least one of the partners, usually the wife, stays out of public attention and devotes her life to the family.
The contrary is true in, for instance, the United States. According to The New York Times senior staff editor Barth Healey, who is currently teaching at Anglo-American College in Prague, the American public is very appreciative of women who build a professional career alongside their husbands. “A wife who stays at home and cooks dinner is considered unimportant and uninteresting,” says Healey. Although high-ranking politicians and business tycoons do live under a microscope, in modern history one can find only a few cases were a couple was accused of abusing their positions. Why? “There are laws in the United States stating that politicians above a certain level have to disclose their tax returns. By disclosure of tax information you can find connections that maybe a couple would not like to admit,” explains Healey. He feels that this is a very transparent system, which (in theory) allows anyone who uncovered signs of collusion or misuse of power could file a lawsuit against any politician.
A mentality shift
The Czechs are convinced that families where both partners focus on their career are more vulnerable and easily broken. Family psychologist Šárka Gjuričová says that this is not true. “A husband and wife can create a working team where their professional success is part of their emotional attachment. Such unions may be very strong,” says Gjuričová. Psychologists say there are two models of partnership, including a family where one partner is more dominant while the second plays a submissive role and a so-called “symmetric” model that unites two people with an equal share of self-esteem.
Politician Ivan Pilip, whose wife Lucie co-owns and manages three companies, says that such a partnership is quite natural to him. “I agree that my wife is considered influential. But I think it is more natural when such strong personalities live together rather than couples where one partner is a businessman, politician or a manager, while the second one stays at home and takes care of the family.” His wife in turn says that her career is connected with ongoing efforts to persuade people of her right to it. “Proving my own professional efficiency and refuting speculations that my husband is orchestrating behind my back has become an every day matter of course. I am reconciled to it.” Petra Buzková has a slightly different problem. She has to put up with the fact that her husband, an influential financier, has difficulties breaking the image of a “husband” in business circles.
Although there has been no major case when a prominent Czech politician or businessman would be convicted of abusing his or her power for the benefit of a family member, the possibility certainly exists. The regulations on conflict of interests are so vague in this country that each couple’s responsibility regarding their combined influence depends on their professional and ethical views. As Lucie Pilipová sums it up: “I would recommend all influential couples to be careful. Their life is constantly scrutinized by the public and a mistake may have high costs.”
Bobošík’s free choice
Jana Bobošíková (38), a moderator of commercial TV Nova political talkshow Sedmička, formerly moderated the popular program “21” on Czech Public Television. She was also an economic advisor for former chairman of the Parliament Václav Klaus. Her husband Pavel Bobošík (40) is a partner of 250-employee strong glass company Sahm, with turnover reaching 500 million crowns in 2002. Due to his wife’s position, Bobošík’s career also became subject to public scrutiny.
” I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we really don’t care about what the public thinks about us,” says Bobošíková, who manages the company Polyconsult that develops marketing strategies for her husband. Both agree that whatever bumps they meet on their life-road are part of their free choice. The Bobošíks got married three years before the Velvet Revolution, and never planned to become a high-profile couple. “Our lives were supposed to unroll according to a typical Communist era outline,” says Bobošík. “We had no idea that there will be opportunities to do business and develop our personal ambitions.” Both husband and wife deny that their family life has anything to do with a conflict of professional interests. However, speculations about the two using each other’s influence and money were rife in the media. One example involved Bobošíková’s own project Interview21, which included news website and conference organizing.
Certain speculations also arised during the Czech Public Television crisis in 2001. Bobošíková was named news director by the new general director Jiří Hodač – however, she and her team were not respected by most of the TV employees who went on strike. At the same time, her husband became advisor to Jiří Hodač. According to Bobošíková, her husband was never paid for this job, but did it voluntarily. “My husband extended a helping hand to a person who was going through an existential and professional crisis; I don’t see any conflict of interests there,” she says excitedly. Still the couple is convinced that the Czech Television debacle lead to Sahm losing some business.
However, the negative experience seems just to have strengthened the 20-year partnership. Bobošík says that public attention is a part of life for leaders in a free society, and they should know how to live up to their own values regardless of the love or hate of the crowd. “If we were not relying on our own vision of the world, we would not have been a contribution to the society,” he affirms.
Together through good and bad
Ivan Pilip, the former Minister of Education and Finance, is now an ordinary member of the Freedom Union-DEU, focusing on economic projects in the hope that his future will be connected with EU structures. Lucie Pilipová is a successful businesswoman who stands by her husband through good times and bad. They are both influential and media-savvy. What is it like to live in such a marriage?
” When I was the executive director of the Bohemiae Foundation and my husband was an influential politician, paradoxical situations sometimes arose,” says Pilipová, recalling the mid-90s, when she organized foundation discussion forums. Sometimes her husband, at the time the finance minister, was among her guests. There were people who couldn’t understand his wife’s presence, as the events were meant to not include escorts. “It never even entered their minds that I was running the show,” Lucie explains with a chuckle. However, not all the stories involving the sphere of influence of one man penetrating the sphere of influence of his partner are so amusing. The Pilips had to face accusations of conflict of interests based on speculation about the finance minister’s alleged influence over the sponsorship of foundations. In such situations many politicians would force their spouses to give up their activities out of concern over their own careers. However, Ivan Pilip didn’t discourage his wife in her work.
” People said that Lucie was too visible. Such comments were usually made by people who wouldn’t have the courage to live next to such strong personalities,” Pilip says. He adds that living with a businesswoman and influential personage strikes him as natural. It is worth noting that Lucie herself senses when she should leave center stage. For example, she didn’t appear in any election campaigns, because she suspected that the public wasn’t ready for their “new-age” model for cohabitation. Although they did discuss intra-party squabbles at home, Lucie learned of the ministry’s strategic decisions from the newspapers. In order to avoid suspicions, she turned down several lucrative positions, even on supervisory boards she was invited to join as a highly qualified economist. However, the pressures she felt didn’t go away when she became an entrepreneur, organizing VIP events and catering. She had to prove that her firm wasn’t getting prestigious orders thanks to her husband’s intervention, but rather thanks to its merits.
The Pilips recently became partners in a firm dealing in real estate in Prague and on the coast of Spain. Since Ivan gave up all of his political posts, he has been tending to the Czech end, with Lucie managing the Spanish operation. This seamless cooperation proves that when an influential pair lives together it needn’t be overly complicated, provided that they adhere to certain rules of the game.
|Respecting your partner’s position
Petra Buzková, the current Minister of Education, cannot shun public attention. Considered “the favorite Czech politician” by many, she became subject to multiple attacks by fellow party members. Buzková’s husband Josef Kotrba, top manager at multinational consulting company Deloitte & Touche, needs to take his wife’s publicity into consideration even unwillingly. “Keep your books clean,” is the advice Buzková and Kotrba give to all couples that want to combine high-profile posts with a family life.
Buzková and Kotrba agree that they have a happy marriage, but as people recognize his wife’s face in the street Kotrba says, “for a certain time I had to fight being presented as a ‘husband’ at business circles.” The businessman acknowledges that publicity is the least agreeable part of his role as a partner of a leading politician. Buzková is not always happy about the media attention either. “I learned how to ‘plate myself’ and behave anonymously. At the same time, it’s hard for me to take when my family is being schlepped by the media,” she says.
Buzková is well aware that her political career combined with a marriage to a prominent financier may give raise to speculations concerning a conflict of interests. Her current position at the Ministry of Education does not have much in common with her husband’s business activities, but the two had to carefully consider their choices concerning specific posts. “I knew that my position [as Minister of Education] will not interfere with my husband’s activities when I accepted the job,” says Buzková. Kotrba, in turn, ruled out a career at companies partially owned by the government or relying on state orders.
The husband and wife, who have different political views, talk about politics at home, but never touch upon topics including confidential information on business clients or governmental affairs. It seems they know what it means building your own career and respecting that of your partner. “Our family is based on equal positions of both partners,” says Kotrba.