The pin-up Prime Minister, the ex-waitress, the sex club and the shady property deal

The Czech premier is standing firm over a scandal that could split his government apart. Tom Anderson reports
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The Independent Online

It was the stuff of a romantic film. He is the pin-up Czech Prime Minister, at 35 the youngest premier in Europe. She, a waitress he met in the parliamentary canteen. They fell in love and were married.

It was the stuff of a romantic film. He is the pin-up Czech Prime Minister, at 35 the youngest premier in Europe. She, a waitress he met in the parliamentary canteen. They fell in love and were married.

Now Stanislav Gross and his wife Sarka Grossova are mired in financial scandals, involving shady loans and a brothel, that have stunned the country and brought the government to the brink of collapse.

Mr Gross has been challenged by coalition Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek to explain how in 1999 the Prime Minister, a former train technician, could afford a £97,000 luxury flat in a well-to-do Prague district on his £692-a-month salary. According to media scrutiny of the premier's reported income since being elected to parliament in 1992, the numbers just don't add up.

Mr Gross claimed he used his savings and a bank loan. Last month, after pressure to clarify his story, he said his uncle, Frantisek Vik, had lent him £28,000. Then, in a further twist, it emerged that his uncle had borrowed the money from a journalist whom he hardly knew.

At the same time it was claimed that a loan to Mr Gross's wife for a £136,000 property deal to buy two luxury houses in Prague allegedly used laundered cash. The money was raised with her childhood friend Libuse Barkowa, who is being investigated for fraud and is the owner of a building that contains a brothel advertising itself as the "largest erotic club in Prague". The plot could hardly thicken more but, this being Prague, you never know.

The Prime Minister's struggle takes place in an atmosphere of secrecy and corruption that has deep roots in a post-communist country where legitimate bank loans did not become commonplace until the late 1990s.

The more cynical Czech commentators have suggested the premier's biggest mistake is that, unlike the many parliamentarians who were able to profit from the economic free-for-all of the 1990s, he was too inexperienced to succeed in the mad scramble for money.

Mr Gross's chief accuser, Mr Kalousek, is himself embroiled in a housing scandal. He is alleged to have bought a Prague flat for one-quarter of the market rate from his brother-in-law, who made millions when Mr Kalousek was a local mayor.

The Prime Minister has resisted calls to resign or offer further explanation, although he has promised to repay the house loan and that his wife would sell her business assets and become a "housewife". He told parliament he was "not impressed by the circumstances in which my wife sought credit, and accept criticism relating to this".

The lack of an apology over his own actions has dented his popularity among voters: a recent poll indicated that six out of 10 believe he should go. But the Christian Democrats are threatening to resign from the Czech coalition government unless the Prime Minister, elected in 2004, steps down. Mr Gross has responded by accusing his opponents of a dirty tricks campaign and a media witch-hunt aimed at destroying him. The collapse of the coalition would leave Mr Gross's Social Democrat Party with a parliamentary majority of one, and possibly reliant on Communist support.

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