Loan Sarka? Business interests of the Prime Minister's wife take centre stage in coalition crisis

They say that behind every great man is a great woman: much of the current row about the Czech Prime Minister has revolved around his wife's business dealings. Sarka Grossova is often portrayed in a negative light; as a former "cafeteria worker" who married well and shamelessly trades on her husband's name and political connections.

Sarka Grossova, photo: CTKSarka Grossova, photo: CTK Sarka Grossova was born in 1969 in Prague. She met her husband, the future prime minister Stanislav Gross, in the mid-1990s, while working in the members-only cafeteria in parliament. She was a primary-school teacher by profession, just looking to earn some extra money, but in time rose to the position of assistant to the cafeteria manager. The couple married in 1996 and had their first child, a daughter, two years later.

Starting in late 2000, Sarka Grossova began juggling the demands of motherhood with working as a distriburtor for Amway, a U.S.-based company that mainly sells cosmetics and household goods. Amway has sometimes been accused of acting like a pyramid scheme for its system of incentives to bring in additional salespeople.

By the spring of 2002, Stanislav Gross was Interior Minister and Sarka Grossova was pregnant with their second child. She had also begun working with the GOJA show business promotion agency, co-founded by the singer Karel Gott. She brought in several highly lucrative contracts for GOJA, including sponsorships from companies either undergoing privatization, or interested in buying state-owned companies.

At about that time, the press reported that, in April 2000, Sarka Grossova was "lent" a luxurious Audi TT Roadster sports car — after her husband helped the German carmaker win a major contract to outfit the government with a fleet of limousines. The media also uncovered her links to an agency raising funds for her husband's political party, the Social Democrats, while the agency was bidding in privatisation tenders.

Most recently, Sarka Grossova and a partner bought a Prague apartment building for half the price it had sold for just a few months earlier to an acquaintance of theirs. Mrs Grossova had taken out a 6 million crown bank loan to secure the deal - a friend of hers, Libuse Barkova, who is now under investigation for insurance and tax fraud, had put up the collateral. That same friend owns property housing the Escade brothel, which bills itself as the "largest erotic club in Prague."

This odd sequence of transactions raised suspicions about money laundering. Mrs Grossova insists she has broken no law, but will sell the building, she said on Monday, because she is sick of being harassed by the media. Sarka Grossova said she has learned the hard way that in the Czech Republic, "success is unforgivable."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stanislav Gross has promised that his wife will suspend all of her entrepreneurial activities while he holds high office: but with his government facing collapse, Sarka Grossova could well be back in business in matter of a few weeks.