DEMOCRACY DIGEST: CZECHIA AND POLAND MINE RICH SEAM OF ANTAGONISM

Czechia launches first ever legal case against another EU member state over environmental issues, while Slovakia’s coalition continues to buckle under the strain of the pandemic.

So much for the vaunted unity of the Visegrad Four. The Czech Republic this week announced plans to launch a legal case at the Court of Justice of the European Union against Poland to halt operations at the Turow open-cast coal mine.

The lawsuit would be the first ever between EU member states over environmental issues and shines a spotlight on how often unity between the V4 members exists largely on paper. Ever since all four countries opposed the EU’s efforts to redistribute migrants during the 2015 crisis, Poland and Hungary have been keen to invoke the V4 as a bloc of countries ready to fight the Brussels bogeyman for their sovereignty and to boost conservative values in the EU. However, in reality, agreement is rare among the four: self-interest is paramount, conflicts common and stances on major issues – Russian energy or the EU’s focus on the rule of law, for instance – often diametrically opposite.

Prague has been asking Warsaw to deal with the mine, which sits on the tri-border between Poland, Czechia and Germany, for several years, citing its heavy environmental impact. In particular, Turow, which feeds Poland’s heavy addiction to coal for power production, has degraded drinking water in Czechia’s northern Liberec Region. There is also concern over air and noise pollution.

Even so, last March, the Polish government agreed to extend the life of the mine, which was due to close this April, until 2027. State-controlled miner PGE says it even hopes to expand mining at the site and extend its life until 2044.

The chasm between the two sides can be summed up by the fact that they cannot even agree on what transpired at a February meeting when Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek travelled to Warsaw for what he described as a last-minute bid to avert legal action. “For a long time, I tried to resolve the dispute with Poland over Turow without any legal struggles,” Petricek rued, but said the talks “did not turn out as hoped”.

However, Aleksander Brzozka, a spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Environment, told the local media that his ministry was surprised at the Czech decision to sue, given that representatives of both governments had met recently and “it looked like there was a chance to resolve the conflict” outside of the courts.

In December, the European Commission said that Poland had not properly consulted its neighbours regarding the extension and was pushing all sides to compromise to avoid legal action.

For its part, PGE, the Polish energy giant which owns the mine, sought to stress in a statement that it has approached the issue constructively in the six years since it started the process to prolong the concession for the Turow mine.

“During those efforts, broad transboundary consultations with the Czechs and Germans were conducted. We replied in detail to several thousand questions from both the Czechs and the Germans, addressing all the issues which were raising any concerns.”

PGE further said that it had committed to implementing measures that would address the concerns of the neighbours, including constructing an underground screen that would prevent the potential outflow of water from the Czech side towards the mine. The company said it was already close to finalising that investment.

However, many Poles, too, are dismayed at their country’s stance over the mine. “Poland’s increasingly irrational support for coal expansion is not only harming health, water supplies and worsening the climate crisis, it’s isolating us from our friends and neighbours, and robbing our workers and communities of better, more sustainable jobs,” Anna Meres, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Poland, said. “78 per cent of Poles want to abandon coal by 2030. It’s time to listen to them, to stop burdening border communities and to plan a better future for all.”

Ahead of what is likely to be a long drawn-out case, Petricek said that Czechia will seek an interim injunction to halt operations at Turow immediately. “The mine will continue to drain water and dust will continue to pollute the air [that tens of thousands of Czechs] breathe,” he said.

Cracks in Slovakia’s ruling coalition widen; far-right continues to sink
Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic’s government is dropping in the polls as schisms between the four-party coalition open up in the face of a foundering vaccination campaign and an upsurge in the pandemic that has left Slovakia as the worst country in the world for COVID-related deaths per capita. The country also has the most coronavirus patients in hospitals globally when compared to the size of its population.

“Every three hours a COVID-19 patient dies in our hospitals,” Health Minister Marek Krajci said. To date, close to 7,000 Slovaks have died of the coronavirus

Nearly 300,000 have had at least their first vaccination jab, but with the authorities expecting only 15 per cent of the adult population to be immunised over the next couple months, Matovic wants to ease the pressure on public health services by obtaining the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which is yet to be approved by the European Medical Agency (EMA). The prime minister said he could secure 2 million Sputnik V doses by June and referred to a poll that found at least 300,000 people would be more willing to get vaccinated if the Russian jab became available. Currently, close to 40 per cent of Slovaks say they want to be inoculated, a sharp uptick from the 22.3 per cent reported in December.

However, Deputy Prime Minister Veronika Remisova and her Za Ludi (For The People) party, a junior coalition partner, vetoed Matovic’s plan on the grounds that the vaccine has not been approved by the EMA. In response, Matovic denounced Remisova as “a proud princess” who “experiments on people”.

This was not the first time that Matovic has hurled insults at his coalition partners: he previously accused Economy Minister Richard Sulik of causing the deaths of thousands of Slovaks by questioning the government’s response to the pandemic. But some observers point out that Matovic’s verbal assault on Remisova is a sign of his political frustration.

Latest polls show another drop in support for his OLaNO party, which stands at 13.8 per cent, down 0.4 point from December; his party won last year’s election with more than 25 per cent. Remisova’s Za Ludi is the only governing party that has managed a rise in the most recent polls. Basically, the prime minister is witnessing his own decline while his junior partner gains prominence.

“It’s not looking like an imminent collapse, but the imperfections in the coalition’s set-up are in plain sight – you can see the cracks forming in several places while the concrete is crumbling and the fittings are corroding,” Tomas Galis from Dennik N wrote.

The rust has continued to spread when MP and mayor of the town of Hlohovec, Miroslav Kollar, from Za Ludi, left the ruling coalition, citing management errors and an “absence of self-reflection” on the part of the prime minister. Kollar had previous with Matovic over the handling of the pandemic and his exit was somewhat anticipated. A more surprising punch came from another group of coalition MPs who said they would oppose the government’s plan to extend the state of emergency that it relies on for imposing strict measures. And the government-wide squabbling was not over yet. A dispute over the coming online census had OLaNO MP Gyorgy Gyimesi railing against Richard Sulik’s SaS party for threatening ethnic minorities in Slovakia in a complicated argument over whether to give citizens the option to put a second ethnicity.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Peter Pellegrini and his Hlas party are surging ahead in the polls, now enjoying a quarter of all support. But far-right extremists from the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) have been unable to capitalise on the government’s missteps. On the contrary, the party led by Marian Kotleba, who has been sentenced to more than four years in prison for spreading Nazi symbolism, is sinking in the polls. Down to 3.8 per cent, LSNS’s support is at its lowest in years even as the spectre of an early election looms. In last year’s general election, LSNS claimed just shy of 8 per cent of the vote and 17 seats in parliament. However, several internal squabbles have whittled the party’s roster of MPs down to nine. Several prominent members left LSNS earlier this month and declared their intention to set up a new party. And a number of former Kotleba voters are now ready to shift toward a fresh political force on the far-right, pollsters said.

Poland’s third wave; historian with a troubled history
The unseasonably warm weather in Poland has done little to dampen the spread of the coronavirus and the government is being forced to reintroduce restrictions in response to what seems to be a third wave of the pandemic, with over 12,000 cases daily reached this week.

For now, restrictions have only been introduced in the Warmia-Masuria province, which has the highest rate of new daily cases out of all regions in the country. Primary schools and cultural and sports institutions previously opened are now closing again in that region.

Countrywide, people are now being asked to wear proper masks, while scarves and plastic visors – both of which are a common sight on the streets of Poland – are not deemed sufficient anymore. People crossing in from the Czech Republic and Slovakia will automatically go into quarantine for 10 days unless they are vaccinated or can show a recent negative test, as the number of cases has been rising in southern Poland too.

Elsewhere, Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) announced this week the removal of a director with a history of far-right activism, after a major controversy over his appointment erupted, both at home and abroad.

Historian Tomasz Greniuch had been appointed to lead the Wroclaw branch of the institute, despite his past: until 2013, he was a far-right activist, founder of a local branch of the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR) and one of the organisers of Warsaw’s annual November 11 far-right march on Independence Day.

However, his position became untenable after photos emerged of Greniuch doing a Nazi salute and were brought to the public’s attention.

The IPN initially tried to dismiss Greniuch’s actions as a mistake from the past, which was also the historian’s own position. However, as the controversy over his appointment grew, leading Law and Justice (PiS) politicians started to speak out against the appointment. Finally, on Monday, the IPN announced that Greniuch had tendered his resignation and it had been accepted.

Under PiS, there have been concerns that some of IPN’s work has become subservient to the historically revisionist agenda of the Polish government.

Czechs spy vaccine Jerusalem; good Google news; swimming under thick ice
The Czech Republic has been enjoying the benefits of globalisation this week, as the spread of Trumpism and the rapidly expanding reach of Big Tech delivered vaccines and dollars.

With its stuttering vaccination program actually slowing down and the infection rate still among the worst in the world, the ham-fisted Czech government is happy for any good news it can get regarding the pandemic. Cue a little showboating from the world’s vaccination king, Israel, which decided to donate 5,000 jabs of the Moderna vaccine.

Czechia was not the only lucky recipient; Guatemala and Honduras were also blessed. The trio has little in common save for the fact that they all plan to open diplomatic offices in Jerusalem, which both the Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital city, to the joy of the hardline government. Trump controversially recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and moved the US embassy to the city from Tel Aviv, inspiring Czech President Milos Zeman to start a campaign to push his own country to follow suit.

Following hot on the heels of its climbdown in Australia, Google announced it has signed up with Czech news publishers to use their news content. The US tech giant said on its Twitter feed this week that as part of its introduction of Google News Showcase, a licensing program to pay publishers, it has struck agreements with more than 300 publishers in Europe, “including in Germany, the UK, Czechia and elsewhere”.

Google rushed through the launch of Showcase in Australia earlier this month after the government announced it is set to introduce legislation requiring tech giants to pay media organisations for featuring their news content on their services. While Google quickly caved, Facebook decided to take Canberra on, blocking news from being shared on its platform. The response provoked a new round of global discussion over the power of big tech. Showroom hasn’t launched in the Czech Republic yet. Google’s local unit said it was in the midst of negotiations as well as signings with partners. The identities of the publishers it is in talks with are not known due to strict non-disclosure stipulations demanded by the US firm.

One news item carried around the globe on social media was a new world record for swimming under ice set by David Vencl. The 38-year-old braved the freezing waters, which were measured at just 3°C, wearing only a swimsuit. He swam 81 meters in around a minute and a half. The previous ice swimming record of 76.2m was set by Denmark’s Stig Avall Severinsen in 2017. The record-breaking swim took place in a former quarry near Vencl’s home town of Teplice. He had originally planned to make the attempt in the Weissensee glacial lake in Austria, but was forced to change location due to pandemic restrictions. For the attempt to be officially recognised, the ice under which he swam had to be 30cm thick, meaning Vencl and volunteers had to work on thickening it ahead of the swim by pouring water onto the top several times a day. He swam attached to a rope and accompanied by divers with breathing equipment. Vencl, who can hold his breath under water for eight minutes, told local media he trained for the cold by walking around in shorts, plunging into a barrel of freezing water, and swimming with friends in a lake.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis may feel like disappearing under the ice for a few days himself as he faces yet another media storm over his conflicts of interest regarding EU funds. The government confirmed on Thursday that the European Commission has sent the official results of a second audit into the use of subsidies by Agrofert, the agrochemicals conglomerate that Babis put into trust in 2017. Brussels is understood to be seeking the return around 17 million euros following an audit into Agrofert’s use of structural funds delivered last year. The latest report, which investigates the company’s use of agricultural funds, involves larger sums.

Hungary opposition gears up for election campaign; tunnel vision
The stakes are high for the opposition in Hungary. For the first time in over a decade, they have a realistic chance to defeat Viktor Orban’s governing Fidesz party in next year’s parliamentary elections. Opposition politicians, one after the other, are throwing their hats in the ring to stand as one of the united candidates to face Orban’s MPs.

The election campaign is planned to kick off some time in the autumn of 2021. So far, the president of the former extreme rightist party, Jobbik, Peter Jakab, and the chairman of the young liberal Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, have announced their intention to run. The latter gave a remarkable interview to Telex, calling the current government a gang of criminals and threatened them with being prosecuted after the elections. “I accuse them on behalf of the country. In 2022, the ‘New Hungary’, based on the rule of law, will decide what their punishment should be,” he said.

Although most analysts see only a slim chance of Fekete-Gyor beating Orban, the yourg pretender remains upbeat. “Orban is the past, and I am the future”, he stated. “The young Viktor Orban would be my friend. I would have worked with him on the dismantling of the Kadar [Hungary’s communist party leader, between 1956-1988] system. It is a pity that he betrayed the political transition and built the new Kadar regime.”

Momentum offers a somewhat populistic four-day workweek and a flexible pension scheme for Hungarians, allowing them to get access to some of their pension savings by the age of 35.

The government, struggling with the health and economic crisis, and showing surprising management deficiencies in the vaccination campaign, is currently trailing behind the joint opposition list by 2 percentage points, according to the latest poll from independent pollster Zavecz Research.

A columnist for the independent weekly HVG argued in a piece this week that the prime minister, seeing the mounting challenges, the skyrocketing deficit and mounting debt, might not actually want to win next year’s election. Orban’s political credo is that, “you have to win at the right time and lose at the right time”, the analyst wrote, adding that the prime minister might see it as better, on balance, to let the opposition win by a slim margin and watch it being subsumed by the problems, then return as the saviour and cement the power of Fidesz for another decade or so.

However, for as long as it remains in power, the government continues to borrow some old communist tricks. It seems that a secret tunnel for VIPs and protected politicians is planned for the Puskás football stadium, which was inaugurated only a year and a half ago in Budapest.

The tunnel was on the agenda of the parliament’s national security committee and should have been kept under wraps. But the chairman of the committee, from the former extremist party Jobbik, alerted the media, writing on his Facebook page that, “Orban is building a tunnel for himself”.

The government would not comment, though the management of the Puskás Stadium called it fake news, but then later admitted a recent review had recommended it would be better to create a short 50m-long underpass for protected persons, so they would not have to cross the walkway with the unwashed masses.

The Puskás Stadium was built for a record sum of 190 billion forints and the tunnel would cost another 2 billion forints. Experts say it would have been considerably cheaper had it been built along with the normal construction. In addition, most independent media recall that it was the communist leadership that had a secret tunnel built to the football stadium for security reasons. The old tunnel was destroyed when the new stadium was built, but apparently the political appetite for secret pathways remains.

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