Otto Jelinek, refugee from Communism, world-champion figure skater and Mulroney-era Cabinet Minister, was recently appointed as Canada’s ambassador to the Czech Republic. In the summer doldrums, there was virtually no reaction in Canada to the announcement, except citations from the official government press release. The appointment also coincided with a modest uptick in Canada-Czech relations. The Canadian government decided to end the visitor visa regime imposed on the Czech Republic because of Roma migration. In return, the Czechs will not block ratification of the Canada/EU free-trade agreement.
But the Jelinek appointment raises a number of fundamental questions. One of these is especially important: although his job in Prague will be to advocate for Canada, what and whom, in the end, will this new ambassador represent?
Two problems with the Jelinek appointment are relatively minor and would not trouble a government which places little importance on foreign policy and even less on the Canadian foreign service. Over the years, Canada has normally refrained from sending expatriate citizens back to their countries of origin for diplomatic duty. Although linguistic skills and cultural associations may be useful, family and other ties can be awkward or counter-productive to Canada’s main objectives in that country. Still, there is nothing hard and fast to this rule.
At first glance, it might seem logical to take advantage of a noted Canadian athlete of Czech birth, who, with his sister, won the 1962 World Skating championship. But the odd part is that Mr. Jelinek left Canada in 1994 to return to the Czech Republic, and spent the next 18 years there, becoming Prague’s chief international cheerleader. He then returned to Canada a year ago.
How does this time abroad affect his ability to advocate for Canada? How do the 18 years he spent away from Canada affect his ability knowledgeably to represent Canada overseas? Equally important, what are his residual business and personal connections in the Czech Republic, and how might they affect his ability to represent Canada and all Canadians? Did he give up his Czech nationality as a condition of accepting this appointment, and has he fully divested himself of all of his former Czech business interests?
One should also be troubled by the signal this sends about the continued devaluation of the Canadian diplomatic service under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The government’s assault on the foreign service has been lightly reported in the Canadian media to date, but it includes a massive sell-off of diplomatic premises abroad, the drastic down-sizing of Canada’s diplomatic presence and the elimination of programs which once sustained Canada’s reputation in many parts of the world. The recent strike by foreign service officers (now nearly resolved) has offered a glimpse at these stories, but it’s only the tip of a larger unreported iceberg.
This type of political appointment could easily be weathered by a healthy foreign service with adequate support (as American missions normally do with a professional ‘deputy chief of mission’ when their ambassadors are political appointees). In present circumstances, one fears that Mr. Jelinek will have slender resources to help him learn the ropes, and the government will have weak feed-back mechanisms with respect to his performance.
But it’s a third issue that raises the most questions. After entering the business community when returning to Prague in 1994, Mr. Jelinek had extensive business dealings with prominent international companies. His name was also associated with a significant corruption scandal which still reverberates in Czech politics. In 2001, the British defence firm BAE systems and the Swedish company Saab finalized an agreement for the supply of Swedish fighter jets to the Czech air force. BAE was alleged to have doled out millions of dollars in bribe money to various Czech agents, in a sorry tale that featured the usual array of ‘consultants’ and off-shore bank accounts. The Czech government eventually decided on a short-term lease deal rather than an outright purchase of the aircraft (ostensibly for reasons other than the scandal).
But after the lease was signed, investigations in the Czech Republic, Austria, Britain and the United States tried to get to the bottom of allegations of irregular funding rumoured to have sealed this and other defence deals. BAE subsequently paid over $400-million in penalties in the U.S. and Britain for this and other irregular contractual arrangements in a few countries, although it avoided the word ‘bribe’, and no one in the two companies paid a price. Although the lease deal remains controversial (in part because of its recent renewal), formal investigations about the original contract in the Czech Republic have now apparently ended.
Mr. Jelinek refused opportunities to clarify publicly his role in this affair. But with the Czech Republic still mired in other more recent corruption scandals, it would be unfortunate if Canada’s top representative found himself involved in a continuing controversy.
On the Canadian side, there are several obvious questions. Was this matter investigated thoroughly by the RCMP as part of the security screening for the position? Was he interviewed and his role clarified? Was the RCMP in touch with Czech authorities still on this case to find out who knew what and when? And why has there been no public clarification of an issue of ongoing significance in Prague? Or was there any security screening at all?
Two other questions are especially significant, given his new position. What are the implications for Mr. Jelinek’s diplomatic immunity as Canadian ambassador if Czech investigators were to invite his testimony? And finally, how does someone so enmeshed in Czech business affairs for the past two decades suddenly change directions and become the lead spokesperson for Canadian interests?
The Jelinek appointment raises too many questions. The Canadian public should be asking for answers.
Daniel Livermore is senior fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A version of this post also appears on the blog of the Centre for International Policy Studies