The week sees the US presence on Poland soil beefed up, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces a visit to the region to stiffen allies’ resolve against China and Russia.
A new US forward base in Poland
This week Poland, the US’s staunchest ally in the region, achieved its long-cherished aim of hosting more US troops on its soil as the US Army Chief of Staff announced that the V Corps Headquarters (Forward) would be located in Poland. General James McConville was on hand to promote Major General John Kolasheski, V Corps commanding general, to the rank of lieutenant general and officially unfurl the V Corps flag in a ceremony in Krakow.
The forward command post will be manned with approximately 200 US Army personnel on a rotational basis, part of an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement between Poland and the United States, finalized on July 31, the US Embassy in Warsaw said in a statement. The US Army Europe expects the first rotation of personnel in Fiscal Year 2021.
The agreement envisions a troop presence of about 1,000 personnel, including “forward elements” of the US Army’s V Corps headquarters and a Division headquarters, which would be in addition to the 4,500 troops already stationed in Poland. The deal also includes intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as the infrastructure to support an armored brigade combat team and combat aviation brigade.
The beefing up of the US presence in Poland comes against a backdrop of a reduction of US forces in Germany, announced on July 29 by Defence Secretary Mark Esper. Washington later announced that 11,900 US troops in Germany would be redeployed to reinforce NATO’s southeastern flank, with Romanian President Klaus saying his country would gladly host more American forces.
“These changes will achieve the core principles of enhancing US and NATO deterrence of Russia, strengthening NATO, reassuring allies and improving US strategic flexibility and EUCOM operational flexibility,” Esper said.
Poland has long been a supporter of hosting more US troops on its soil, arguing for a permanent presence, instead of the current system under which troops rotate every six months. Warsaw’s historical wariness over Russia’s intentions in the region has grown since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its subsequent fomenting of a civil war in the east of the country.
On July 28, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine held a trilateral meeting in the southeastern Polish city of Lublin and established the “Lublin Triangle” – a new political platform invoking the integrationist heritage of the 1569 Union of Lublin, which will support the “European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine,” and, bearing in mind “Russian aggression in Ukraine,” to coordinate the three states’ activities within international organisations.
“The Lublin Triangle could be a promising platform for regional cooperation. So far, it is the only forum of this kind in which Ukraine is granted equal and full membership; and crucially, it holds the potential to deepen Ukraine’s cooperation with the 3SI [Three Seas Initiative],” says Dr Jakub Bornio, an assistant professor at the University of Wrocław, referring to the initiative of 12 EU states that lie along a north–south axis from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea.
When Michael calls
To underline the “deeper, more collaborative US-Poland security partnership”, in the words of US European Command, the US State Department announced this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would make a week-long visit to the region from August 11, with stops in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria.
“It’ll be a very important and productive trip, I expect,” Pompeo told reporters, without specifying exactly what the main topics under discussion will be.
Few are in any doubt that at the top of the list will be China’s growing influence in Central Europe, a region which Pompeo has previously said the US intends to put a greater focus on amid a revanchist Russia and resurgent China.
A taste of the US’s resolve over China was seen in Pompeo’s threats this week to launch a broad crackdown on Chinese technology companies with access to American data. This might include barring some “untrusted Chinese apps” – he specifically mentioned video app TikTok and the messaging app WeChat – and limiting its cloud computing groups that operate on American territory.
As Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in a research note, the US government is trying to push its allies and companies to stop using Chinese gear and software “at all levels of their communications networks, from the internet backbone to app stores.”
In Central Europe, the US has enjoyed some success in pushing its allies to take a tougher line with China. Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Estonia have all signed joint statements with Washington on 5G security, pledging they would not allow access to their telecommunication markets to companies that are subject to foreign state interference (read: Huawei). Last year, Poland arrested a Huawei employee in Warsaw on spying charges.
Pompeo’s message will get a warmer hearing in the Czech Republic than it would have a few years back when the relationship between the two countries was flourishing into a strategic partnership encompassing political rapprochement and investment. In 2015, for example, Czech President Milos Zeman was the only leader of an EU state to attend a military parade in Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the following year President Xi Jinping made a two-day state visit to Prague.
That was the highpoint of the relationship, however, which has since soured due to a series of scandals, leading to the Czech Intelligence Service (BIS) – an agency that reports to the government, not the presidential administration – releasing a report in 2018 that rated China as a greater threat to the Czech Republic than even Russia.
Increasingly, Czech lawmakers, the media and the public are voicing their concern about the level of Chinese influence in the country. In April, the Chinese state-run CITIC financial group acquired a majority stake in Medea, one of the largest media agencies in the Czech Republic – a move decried by many as having a potentially deleterious effect on news that is critical of China, as media outlets would be wary of losing ad revenue. And in July, Czech MPs joined a new alliance of lawmakers from 16 countries and the European Union, called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), which organizes actions on China for its members to promote in their countries.
Pompeo will certainly look to take advantage of the tougher mood developing in the Czech Republic over China to get across his message – articulated in a July speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum: “Not every nation will approach China in the same way, nor should they. Every nation will have to come to its own understanding of how to protect its own sovereignty, how to protect its own economic prosperity, and how to protect its ideals from the tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party. But I call on every leader of every nation to start by doing what America has done – to simply insist on reciprocity, to insist on transparency and accountability from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Polish schools to return
Poland intends to reopen fully its schools from September 1, Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski said on Wednesday, despite a resurgence in coronavirus infections that saw the country record on the same day 680 new cases, the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic.
The danger for the Polish government in reopening the schools is to repeat the mistake of easing the lockdown measures too early, which has led to recent spikes in cases amid widespread ignorance of safety measures. As of that day, Poland, a nation of 38 million people, had recorded a total of 48,789 cases and 1,756 deaths, which was regarded as a successful result of the lockdown measures.
Piontkowski said the education ministry would impose strict hygiene and safety rules for schools (though not requiring masks), as well as criteria under which some schools could switch to online or a mix of online and in-class instruction in case of local infection spikes. Heads of schools would be given latitude to decide what was best for their schools.
He said the government intends to oblige parents to send their children back to school, even if they are worried about COVID infections, because “a parent is not an epidemiologist”.
Kuciak trial verdict postponed
On Wednesday, Slovakia was set to hear the final decision in the most highly watched case in Slovak history. The seven-month trial in the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova has been wrapping up over the summer, with the final statements coming in the past two weeks. However, a senate of three judges led by Ruzena Sabova issued a last-minute statement on Tuesday afternoon, announcing a decision to take more time to agree on the verdicts for the last three defendants – Marian Kocner, Alena Zsuzsova and Tomas Szabo – moving the date to September 3.
“Tomorrow’s date of verdict has been postponed due to the need to continue in the senate consultation for the preparation for the verdict,” wrote Katarina Kudjakova, spokeswoman for the Special Court in Pezinok, in a brief statement on Tuesday.
While the families of the victims expressed disappointment with the court’s decision, Slovak media began to speculate about the reasons for the unusual turn of events.
Dennik N wrote that the judge’s indecisiveness could be good news for Kocner, a powerful businessman charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder in a contract killing. The paper even speculated that the postponed verdict could mean a new turn in the case.
However, Peter Bardy, editor of Aktuality.sk, where Jan Kuciak worked, called for patience and for the court to be given some space to work. “Yes, all of us in the newsroom had expected to see today if Kocner, Zsuzsova and Szabo are found guilty of the murder of our colleague,” he wrote on Wednesday. “On the one hand, we want to know; on the other, it is important for all of us that the verdict is decided by the senate based on evidence, not based on emotions and public opinion.”
The senate of the Special Court in Pezinok has overseen an especially swift and, so far, effective trial of the journalist’s murder this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic. In a few months, it has processed a mountain of evidence gathered in a 25,000-page prosecution file, heard dozens of witnesses, and pieced together a puzzle made of disturbing and sometimes shocking information about oligarchal connections to politics, about dirty police officers or former spies shadowing journalists, and about legal impunity that appears to be on sale in Slovakia.
The unexpected decision by the judges to move the verdict could be a legitimate attempt to prepare a fail-proof conviction for the three accused, in an attempt to bring a real sense of justice to the wounded country and the victims’ families. According to some journalists, however, the delay could also mean that one of the judges is unsure about a guilty verdict and the case might have to be reopened to review more evidence.
One way or another, Slovakia will see the end of the case soon. “I hope that in a month we will see the verdict and that, at least partly, our suffering will be over,” wrote Jozef Kuciak, the journalist’s brother, on Facebook. “We have made it through a lot, we won’t be broken.”
Robert Fico surfs the coronavirus conspiracy wave
With coronavirus cases spiking again all over Europe, Slovakia, just like its neighbours, is drafting a plan to buy new vaccines for its population. A few days after the Slovak Health Ministry announced a plan to buy 3 million vaccines, joining the initiative of the European Commission, former long-time prime minister Robert Fico decided to “rebel“ against the official public health recommendations.
“The leader of SMER-SD Robert Fico has no intentions of getting vaccinated and injecting chemicals into his body,” Fico said in a survey about coronavirus vaccinations conducted by TVnoviny.sk, a news portal of TV Markiza. He added that “behind every pandemic, you should look for pharmaceutical companies.”
Amid a growing appetite for conspiracy theories in Slovakia, Fico’s words played right into the hands of the disinformation industry that disseminates manipulative and false information about the coronavirus pandemic. With his controversial response, the leader of the biggest opposition party joined the likes of Marian Kotleba, leader of the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kotleba has spread universally debunked conspiracy theories about micro-chips hidden in the coronavirus vaccines or about the promoters of the NWO (New World Order) being behind the crisis.
Contrary to Fico and Kotleba, Slovak government officials have expressed support for the Public Health Authorities and for a vaccine. Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic said he would get vaccinated once a safe vaccine is launched, while members of the coalition parties Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and For the People (Za ludi) have expressed clear support for a science-based approach. “I will surely get vaccinated and so will my children,” said Lucia Duris Nicholsonova, an MEP of the SaS party in the survey for TVnoviny.sk.
Surveys conducted throughout the coronavirus crisis show that Slovaks remain polarised on the issue of vaccination and the antivax movement is gaining in strength. In April, the Slovak Academy of Sciences published a report in which it found that only 41% of Slovaks said they would get vaccinated against COVID-19. Almost 60% of respondents also didn’t believe in the official scientific explanation about the origins of the virus and about 40% thought the virus was created artificially in a lab.
Cultural vandals in Hungary
This week’s political discourse in Hungary was dominated by a new chapter in the cultural war currently being waged by the Fidesz government. This time it was the University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest that was targeted, making waves in both the domestic and international media.
The government has announced wide-scale reforms of higher education and, as part of that, some universities are to be taken over by foundations, rather than being controlled by the mega-Ministry of Human Resources.
Experts say the structural changes could lead to more outside pressure being exerted on education (especially on the content of what’s being taught). University finances are already under the control of the government.
The University of Theatre and Film Arts has protested strongly against the reforms, with students fearing the new structure will end up weakening the institution’s independence. Such an outcome is already being flagged by the fact the rector of the university, elected more than six months ago, has still not been officially appointed to his post. Adding fuel to the fire, the government rushed to appoint Attila Vidnyanszki, a controversial director of the National Theatre in Budapest who is famous for embracing patriotic themes and Hungarian popular authors, as President of the Advisory Board of the Foundation this week. In protest, some of the teachers at the University of Theatre and Film Arts quit immediately.
Critics say the plans of the government are not well thought-through and that arguments about the educational standards at the university being of low quality and politically one-sided lack any evidence. The “reformers” argue, however, that the infrastructure and the technical facilities of the university are crumbling and the teaching methods are outdated. Either the way, the plan has already managed to polarise the world of the creative arts and further poisoned everyday life with unnecessary politisation.
This is yet another chapter in the famous “kulturkampf” launched by the Fidesz government, well summarized by the declaration of Attila Vidnyánszki in the right-wing weekly Magyar Fórum: “Seeing the exam films of the actors, I know that these young people, even the more talented ones, will not make a film about Ilona Zrinyi (a heroine of Hungarian history from the 17th century), will not talk enthusiastically about the miracle of 1956 (Hungarian revolution against Soviet-dominance and communism), and will not tell stories about the sanctity of family life.” In short, education has to be made more patriotic, even for artists and actors.
Talking about patriotism: an interesting poll was published by critical newspaper Népszava, revealing that even government voters see huge problems with the spending of EU funds in Hungary.
Some 87% of those taking part in the survey, conducted by Publicus Institute, think the EU should control more meticulously the spending of EU funds. Even 70% of government voters think that EU funds are not spent efficiently and some of the money ends up in private hands. One-fifth of those voting for Fidesz are especially critical, saying that a considerable amount of EU money is being stolen.
It comes by no surprise that 75% of the public would support Hungary joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, and even 51% of Fidesz voters would agree with this, with only 40% of government supporters against the idea. Most critical are those living in Budapest, where only 1% subscribes to the government narrative that every cent of EU money is spent well and in a transparent manner.