Lost in translation — that’s how former Czech ambassador to the United States Petr Kolář explains the meeting during which Martin Barták allegedly offered a bribe to the head of the supervisory board of Tatra, William J. Cabannis, himself a former US ambassador to Prague, back in 2008.
“It could be the result of a misunderstanding. Barták could have said that the Americans got an order and now they must fulfill it, or pay. The Americans then misinterpreted it,” Kolář told Czech Position in an interview. “I absolutely did not sense that there had been any dramatic situation that night.”
Q: Do you know exactly who took part in the February 26, 2008 meeting in the Centreville hotel in Washington, D.C.?
A: There is a guest list that was prepared by the business-economic section of the embassy and military attaché in Washington. I don’t remember all of the attendees. I had to look after then-Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. It was a relatively demanding program and I wanted everything to go smoothly. A select few were invited.
Q: In your opinion, why did Mr. Cabannis decide to break his silence after two years?
A: I’m no fan of conspiracy theories and I don’t know how to explain it.
Q: Following the publication of the interview for Mladá fronta Dnes in which he first referred to the bribe, did you discuss what Martin Barták allegedly said?
A: Since the publication appeared we haven’t spoken about the matter. Nor did he write me anything. I wouldn’t consider it appropriate given the situation to contact him first.
Q: How well do you know the former ambassador to the Czech Republic?
A: I met with Mr. Cabannis as an ambassador. He was an extremely decent and devoted ambassador, who helped the Czech Republic achieve the visa-free regime with the US. And for his part, he wasn’t calculating. He took it very seriously. He also became a member of the American Friends of the Czech Republic group. Our wives also got acquainted. Mrs. Cabannis is an amateur creative artist and we helped her once with an event. We saw each other even after he finished his posting.
Q: How did the conversation between Cabannis and Barták come about, in your opinion?
‘Martin Barták is not an idiot and he regards Mr. Cabannis as a decent man.’
A: Neither I nor former Premier Topolánek heard about a bribe; not long ago, he was at a charitable event in Russia, where we talked about this. Apparently, he was present during the conversation between Barták with Cabannis. According to him, no corrupt proposal was made. I have my own theory; I underline that this is merely speculation. Martin Barták is not an idiot and he regards Mr. Cabannis as a decent man. I believe that they spoke together about how Tatra was fulfilling its contract. I suppose that it concerned the order Tatra received without a tender under the condition that it used Czech components. All at once, Tatra changed the contract conditions with Praga [a subcontractor]. It could be the result of a misunderstanding. Barták could have said that the Americans got an order and now they must fulfill it, or pay. The Americans then misinterpreted it. I absolutely did not sense that there had been any dramatic situation that night.
Q: Can it be blamed on Barták speaking in poor English?
A: Martin Barták is a neurosurgeon by profession and speaks English well. He doesn’t know some specific terms, though; I remember that from a meeting with [then US] Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In my opinion it was a misunderstanding. Tatra did not fulfill its contract. It might have come out like he [Cabannis] should fulfill the contract or pay. Cabannis is regarded as a true southern Republican, for whom honor is not an empty concept. I wouldn’t like to be misunderstood. And I consider Barták to be a highly intelligent man, and it doesn’t follow that he’d involve himself in such a thing, and what’s more in front of witnesses. Only an idiot would do that, and I’m certain that he truly isn’t one. That’s why I suppose, and I want to believe, that it could merely have been a misunderstanding.