There’s an air of conspiracy about the whole thing – like in the old days, when the Czech Republic was still the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and people in Prague met to buy a manuscript banned by the state or a record by legendary rock band The Plastic People of the Universe smuggled in from abroad. The meeting point is in the centre of town; most of those present are young Czechs, plus one older couple. What little talk there is takes place in hushed tones. People check each other out. A group of teenagers giggles. Then the tour guides arrive, wearing red and blue caps and carrying big bags in the same colours. Smiling professionally, they tick our names off their lists of participants who registered online, collect our money – roughly €15 each, which for most Czechs is quite a lot – hand out wireless headphones, and off we go.
We soon arrive at the first attraction: the municipal offices of the city of Prague, originally built in 1926 as the headquarters of the Škoda Works by Pavel Janák, a well-known Czech architect. Although the building is imposing in architectural terms, the information coming through the headphones had most people in the group staring at the facade in disbelief. The city authorities have been using the building since 2006. Under the terms of their contract, signed for a 20-year period, €160 million – four times the original purchase price offered to the City of Prague – will be paid in rent to a company registered in a tax haven, whose owner is not known. In response to inquiries as to the city’s use of public funds, an official spokesman claims it’s cheap and emphasizes that when the contract expires, its terms ensure the city the right to buy the building.
It seems unbelievable, but this is no joke: the City of Prague is paying these huge sums to a dubious company. We’re talking real corruption, the specialized subject of this unusual guided tour operator, CorruptTour, which offers trips to places associated with cases of profiteering, embezzlement and fraud. As our guide tells us at the start of the tour, corruption in the Czech Republic is in rude health and is growing steadily.
CorruptTour was devised by the dramatist, artist and philosopher Petr Šourek. Taking his cue from Institutional Critique of the 1990s, he sees CorruptTour as a post-Conceptual action. The tours are cleverly staged, the facts carefully researched and communicated by trained actors with an ironic undertone. They are actually more like performances, falling somewhere between grotesque parody and matter-of-fact indictment, which – like Franz Kafka’s literary studies of a ruthlessly bureaucratic world – leave a very bitter aftertaste.
In spite of all the theatrical elements, the whole thing feels very normal and professional, from the logo to the slogan – and CorruptTour is actually registered as a business. It has been in existence for a year and currently employs eight guides, also offering tours in English and German. Some months ago, CorruptTour even became a joint-stock company. Shares designed by artists – each one a unique piece – are handed over in a special ritual. At short notice, an atypical location for the transfer of shares is decided on, with the parties agreeing to meet there dressed in black and disguised in sunglasses. The handover takes place very swiftly, again with a conspiratorial feel. This procedure, too, is inspired by the country’s current political reality, as the Czech Republic permits so-called bearer shares. They are not registered anywhere and can thus change hands unchecked, like a banknote: this is why they are banned in most countries. As well as Czechs, the shareholders of CorruptTour – and the shares are genuine – include a number of Italians and Austrians. ‘I’m proud to be making money from corruption, legally,’ Šourek says.
And Šourek may well make lots of money. The level of corruption in the Czech Republic is shocking, and it also affects the art world. Among other things, many of today’s art collectors in the country derived their money from very dubious sources. One alarming case in point is David Rath, the Social Democrat leader of the region of Central Bohemia, who was an unparalleled promoter of the arts and who initiated building the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region, a centre for contemporary art near Prague. In May last year he was arrested with a case of wine under his arm containing seven million crowns (around €290,000) and a pistol in his jacket. At his villa in Hostovice, another 30 million crowns were found under the floorboards (over €1.2 million) with a gun and ammunition. For years, Rath had been embezzling funds, mainly from eu subsidies. Allegedly, overpriced contracts were awarded to companies operated by Rath’s friends for public projects including the refurbishment of a hospital and the redevelopment of a museum, with sizeable kickbacks paid to the accused. It is suspected that as much as 40 percent of eu funds may have been diverted into the pockets of numerous politicians and their accomplices.
Back to our tour: around 700 metres from the municipal headquarters, as the crow flies, is the luxurious penthouse residence of Roman Janoušek. The tour guide shines her torch into its huge windows. As a friend and advisor to the former mayor of Prague, Janoušek is said to have been in charge of business operations and to have Swiss bank accounts containing as much as €100 million. Switzerland’s public prosecutor’s office has already examined charges of money laundering – only the relevant authorities in Prague have been strikingly inactive. From there, we go past the Defence Ministry – which loves to buy overpriced vehicles but cannot produce the contracts for these purchases – and on to another villa. ‘Now we stand here and stare in through the windows,’ says the tour guide. Yes, if the Czech public prosecutor’s office fails, one can at least spoil the inhabitants’ enjoyment of their fraudulently obtained prosperity by staring in through their windows.
There are various tours, all conceived by Šourek, a popular one being the ‘Ornithological Safari Tour’. It begins among the dreary concrete blocks of a Prague suburb, where several well-known politicians lived until quite recently in meagre two-room rented flats, and ends outside the swankiest villas in Prague’s most expensive neighbourhoods, the new nests of these ‘human magpies’, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper has called them. Faced with this wondrous increase in wealth over such a short time, one can only stand and gawp. Our tour ends in Hostovice outside Rath’s villa. As we get out of the bus, each of us is given an empty wine case. Our tour guide tells us to wedge it under one arm and walk round the house: ‘That’s the way it’s done in these parts,’ she says.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 155