A couple of months ago, a ministerial Audi went roaring through the Czech capital with a journalist in hot pursuit. The reporter, from Mlada Fronta Dnes daily newspaper, was working on a series of articles on how the Czech Republic's political elite regard themselves as above the law. The car chase seemed to prove the point.
As the Audi bust the Prague speed limit by up to 50km an hour, the journalist struggled to keep up and then found himself hauled over by the police. Needless to say, the Audi was not stopped. It was carrying the then police minister, Stanislav Gross, who this week found himself appointed the youngest Czech prime minister ever, and at the age of 34, the youngest head of government in Europe.
The former high-speed train driver on the fast track to the top is renowned for his charm, his persuasiveness, and his talent for being all things to all people. The abuse of his police powers to get the reporter off his tail also offered a rare glimpse of the steel and the ruthlessness that has propelled the boyish working-class lawyer into the office of prime minister of the Czech Republic.
On Monday, President Vaclav Klaus appointed Gross prime minister and charged him with forming a government, following the collapse last month of the centre-left coalition led by the hapless Vladimir Spidla after his social democrats had a disastrous showing in the European elections.
Gross, too, is a social democrat, joining the party at the time of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and quickly advancing to lead its youth wing, before moving into parliament, becoming chief whip, and then serving as interior minister or minister for the police for the past four years. But you won't hear him making working class homilies or preaching political doctrine. "He has no real political convictions," says Jiri Pehe, an erstwhile adviser to the former president, Vaclav Havel. "He believes that concepts of right and left are completely discredited in modern society."
Gross's stunning rise to the top of Czech politics confirms the arrival of a new young generation of politicians in the transitional countries of eastern and central Europe, 15 years after the end of communism. In post-Soviet Georgia, the septuagenarian Eduard Shevardnadze last year ceded power to Mikhail Saakashvili, at 36 less than half his age.
Until Gross set the new record this week, Viktor Orban in neighbouring Hungary had been able to boast of being Europe's youngest PM. The former student leader became prime minister at the age of 35 in 1998 and was ousted two years ago. And in Poland, though not quite so youthful, the 45-year-old Jan Rokita, a Christian Democrat, is tipped to be the next prime minister. "There's been a political generation gap in central Europe," says Pehe. "What we're seeing now is the first generation, who are basically professional politicians. Gross and Orban are already political veterans, but they are still very young."
The politics of all of these new young leaders vary enormously. What they all have in common is that they are skilled PR operators; telegenic, superb communicators. Their idols are Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, their models are corporate managers. Gross is seldom off the screens of Czech television, frequently filmed toying eagerly and knowingly with his Nokia communicator. The image is of the modern, workaholic, likeable bloke. Opinions, visions, policies? Leave that to the advisers, the aides, and the cabinet ministers. Three years ago in the midst of an internal crisis at Czech TV, Gross told his social democrat executive: "The only reality is what is covered in the media. What the media broadcast is the true reality."
When he was appointed prime minister, Gross said simply: "This is a big responsibility. I hope I won't fail." He does not make political speeches. Instead, he is reforming the same centre-left coalition run by his predecessor: that the dour Spidla, who presided over endless faction fighting and splits within his social democratic party, is replaced by the smiling, popular Gross seems already to have healed the rift.
"Nobody knows what he thinks about foreign policy, the economy, the EU, the EU constitution, Iraq, relations with America," says Lenka Vlamalova, a Prague journalist covering Czech politics. "He's a completely empty person as far as ideas or policies are concerned. But he's very good at the technology of power."
"He's very fast, a real operator. Not educated, but very clever," adds a western consultant in Prague for the past decade.
He was born in Prague in 1969, the year after the Red Army occupied the then Czechoslovakia. After primary school, he went to a vocational secondary school that combined basic schooling with an apprenticeship as a train driver and railway mechanic. Then he did two years' national service in the military in the provinces before joining the social democrats in 1989. Within a year, he was leader of its youth wing, with a seat on the party executive.
Gross went into parliament in Prague in 1993, becoming chief whip two years later. For the past four years he has been interior minister, a powerful post anywhere, but especially formidable in the post-communist world. He combined his time as MP and in government with studying for a law degree from Prague's Charles University.
Eyebrows are raised among Prague intellectuals when the topic of the law degree is broached.
Gross's terrific communication skills and networking talents are important ingredients of his success, but observers say the four years as police boss are the key to his power: he knows too much about his peers and rivals."If you have privileged information, you have market advantage. If he has the information, he will use it," says Pehe.
The father of two daughters, Denisa and Natalie, Gross got to know his current (second) wife, Sarka, in parliament where she worked as a waitress in the chamber's cafeteria. She is now the head in the Czech Republic for the distribution of the cosmetics and hygiene products of the US corporation Amway, a kind of contemporary Tupperware operation.
Together, Stanislav and Sarka make an ambitious and successful young couple who might be pardoned for imagining they are living in a dream bubble that one day will have to burst. But the train driver and the waitress who rose to head a government and an American corporation also somehow embody the can-do opportunity and opportunism of the past 15 helter-skelter years in central Europe.
It was Stanislav, as interior minister, who ordered the purchase of 18 Audis for government ministers to race around in, mindless of the law of the land. When he sealed the deal, Sarka got another Audi leased for free.