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From the December 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 12)

Scandals Haunt President of U.N. General Assembly

Jan Kavan: Where the Heart Is

Andrew Yurkovsky, World Press Review senior editor

Jan Kavan
Photo: Lehtikuva/Reuters News Picture Service
In New York and elsewhere, he is known as president of the U.N. General Assembly, a largely honorary though prestigious title.

In the Czech Republic, however, Jan Kavan—former foreign minister and current member of Parliament—enjoys a more ambiguous reputation. There he may go down in history as “the missing deputy”—the absent vote that causes the government to fall or legislation to founder. His legacy could prove still more dubious, given his link to a figure charged in attempting to kill a prominent reporter.

Ten years ago, Kavan, who spent the 1970s and ’80s in exile in London, was caught up in the scandal surrounding secret files compiled by the old communist regime. While a student, he was in contact with a diplomat in the Czechoslovak Embassy in England, a relationship that gave rise to charges of collaboration with Czech intelligence. In 1994, a Czech court cleared him of the charges, but a cloud of suspicion has remained. In defending himself, he gave contradictory accounts of his dissident past. President Vaclav Havel was said to have opposed his appointment as foreign minister because of his “remarkable talent for causing scandals.” Havel has called for Kavan to step down from his job at the U.N.

Kavan’s latest troubles began in July 2002, when Karel Srba, a former secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was charged in contracting the murder of Sabina Slonkova, a reporter for the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. Police linked Srba to Karel Rziepel, a thief who said he had been paid 200,000 crowns (US$6,825) by an intermediary to kill Slonkova. Rziepel apparently went to police after having misgivings about performing the job.

Srba joined the Foreign Ministry in 1998. Ironically, Kavan put him in charge of a campaign to root out corruption in the ministry, but Srba was forced to resign when Slonkova’s paper reported on irregularities in his management of state-owned property.  Recently, former Havel adviser Jiri Pehe dismissed Kavan’s attempt to distance himself from his former colleague: “Karel Srba was, of course, Kavan’s man first and foremost. The current president of the U.N. General Assembly cannot now demand that his name not be associated with Srba.”

While Kavan’s past activities are under scrutiny, his present whereabouts are a growing concern to colleagues in Prague. Because of his duties at the U.N., Kavan, a member of the Social Democratic Party, was unable to vote on an important tax package. The bill was defeated by a single vote, and the government nearly fell. Some Social Democrats doubt that he can fulfill his duties to legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic. 

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