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Geopolitics

Meet The Dashing Czech Billionaire Leading The Fight Against Klaus And Corruption

Karel Janecek became a billionaire before 40. Now, as President Vaclav Klaus steps down in a cloud after a decade, Janecek is leading the fight for those who want to clean up Czech politics.

Meet The Dashing Czech Billionaire Leading The Fight Against Klaus And Corruption
Martin Plichta

PRAGUE –Through the office windows of his baroque palace, young billionaire Karel Janecek has a perfect view of the Prague castle. But with his shaggy blond mane and sparkling blue gaze, the 39-year-old has his gaze fixed squarely on March 8th, this Friday, when the Social Democrat Milos Zeman will replace outgoing President Vaclav Klaus, who has been ruling the country for the past decade.

Klaus' wide-reaching presidential amnesty of January 1 set free hundreds of people responsible for major financial infractions, and at the same time ruined the outgoing leader's positive image.

The gesture simply revolted Janecek, who instantly denounced it publicly and launched a petition to sue Klaus for high treason, which was signed by 74,000 fellow Czech citizens.

And now, after two months of hard negotiations, the billionaire managed to convince enough senators to take up the issue that led to Monday's largely symbolic vote to send Klaus before the only institution allowed to judge the head of state: the Constitutional Council.

Senator Eliska Wagnerova, of the leading Czech environmentalist party, has backed Janecek’s move. “This trial would be the right opportunity to set the limits of presidential prerogatives,” she says.

Whatever happens, this campaign has afforded Karel Janecek a sudden nationwide prominence, and won widespread public support. The Czech media can't get enough of the telegenic crusader.

He doesn’t look the part of public rabble-rouser or diehard activist, and Janecek hasn’t always been the President's public enemy No. 1.

Since November 1989, and the wake of the “Velvet Revolution,” Klaus has been considered a key architect of the Czech Republic's move to a free-market democracy. “I have even admired Vaclav Klaus’ economic policy when he shifted from a communist economy to market economy,” he admits.

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Klaus in November (David Sedlecký)

When the Prague stock exchange was established, Janecek -- then just 21 years old -- launched along with some classmates the algorithm-based trading company RSJ. The high-frequency trading software they developed was so powerful that the company quickly came to be one of the European leaders in derivatives markets in places like London, Chicago and Frankfurt.

Around the same time, Janecek, who "wasn’t following closely the situation of Czech society," says he discovered how corruption was paralyzing the public sector. Along with several other Czech entrepreneurs, he has helped fund an anti-corruption foundation created by former Prague Mayor Pavel Bem. The foundation grants financial support to people who call out new cases of bribery, as well as those who supply evidence for past cases that had been shelved for lack of political will. Seven people have already received 20,000 euros -- $26,085, a two-year average salary -- for “their courage.”

“Condemning the abuse isn’t enough anymore, society needs to get its values straight,” Janecek says. He proposed a new law meant to encourage independent and respected figures to run for Parliament. The motion received a mixed welcome. “It’s a bit naïve to think that the parties will so easily agree to change a system that favors them,” says political scientist Lukas Jelinek.

No shortage of ambition

Before launching his crusade against Vaclav Klaus, Janecek had roamed the country throughout the autumn, trying to convince his fellow countrymen that “it was this toxic political atmosphere that poisoned Czech society.”

Each time, he says he was met with enthusiasm. Thousands of people turned up to listen to his conferences across the 14 regional capitals. More than 20 years after the “Velvet Revolution,” he wants to ignite a new civic fire to get rid of the abuses of authority on both local and national levels.

Called a “vain, self-proclaimed savior” by Klaus in his annual New Year's address, Janecek refuses to join a political party. “I want to stay independent so I’m not defending a program, but values and behaviors that have a far higher reach than political discourses,” he said.

Still, his lofty ideas may eventually be eclipsed by his own ambition: “I won’t say "no" to a presidential race, for an example must be shown from the supreme authority.”

So there is the blueprint to follow his gaze outside his window: five years to carry out his democratic assault on the Prague Castle.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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