The minority coalition government of embattled Prime Minister Andrej Babiš relies on the support of the Communists, giving the largely unreformed, pro-Moscow, anti-NATO party a political say for the first time since 1989. In exchange for its tolerance, the Communists have won some major policy concessions, and party chairman Vojtěch Filip seems increasingly determined to scupper a deal to buy US military helicopters to replace the Czech Army’s ageing fleet.
On the same day Vojtěch Filip sat for an extensive interview with Czech Radio to make the case for cancelling a multi-billion crown deal to buy 12 US helicopters, one of the Soviet-era models they should replace made a forced landing in the Libavá military district.
All flights of Mi-24 battle helicopters remain suspended. And it’s not for the first time. After a November crash upon take off during a weight test, the fleet of Soviet choppers was grounded for a full three months.
So why do the Communists believe that the upgrade, set for this autumn – following a years-long assessment and tender process – should not get the green light?
“Well, it is a question of whether the Czech Republic even needs them. This Czech Army has exceptional experience and expertise, and we contribute that know-how to Nato. Our army’s many specialisations also concerns helicopters.
“And the Mi-170s and Mi-24s, transport and battle helicopters, respectively, are also in service in the US. I consider theirs to be both overpriced and unnecessary.”
Mr Filip argues that Mi-24s have been deployed successfully in Nato missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He would rather see the annual repair budget doubled for Czech state-owned firm LOM Praha, which fixes and maintains Soviet-era helicopters, also for other European countries, and employs a thousand local workers.
Could the purchase of 12 military helicopters for roughly a billion crowns each from the United States, be they Black Hawks from Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky or Venoms from Bell, affect his party’s support for Mr Babiš’s minority government, or even automatically lead to the Communists withdrawing their support?
“It most definitely could… But not ‘automatically’. It’s a question of negotiation, based on specific principles. I want to reduce the budget deficit, protect local jobs and Czech technological competency, and the production and service capacity of our companies in the military sector, such as LOM Praha or VOP.”
The Communists have used their role as kingmaker several times to win major concessions. Most recently, Mr Babiš’s ANO party was obliged to support a controversial Communist proposal to tax financial compensation awarded to churches in lieu of property that could not be returned in restitution.
Other parties in parliament had rejected working with ANO, because Mr Babiš faces fraud charges related to a 2 million euro European Union subsidy a decade ago and, as asserted by the EU in a draft report, is in alleged to be in conflict of interest over subsides to the Agrofert conglomerate he founded, now placed in a trust.
Though Mr Babiš caved in on church restitution, he has thus far resisted the Communist pressure when it comes to Nato, for example in rejecting their demand to cut troop deployments to the Baltics.
He too is seeking more favourable payment terms for buying US military helicopters. The question is, the optics of grounded Mi-24s aside, how much bargaining power Mr Filip can exercise to forward the Communists’ principles.