DEMOCRACY DIGEST: ZEMAN AND TUSK – KNIGHTS IN SHINING ARMOUR?

The Czech president talks about riding to the rescue of Prime Minister Babis’s ANO party, while speculation rises about whether Donald Tusk will do the same for Poland’s opposition.

Speculation about former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk returning to the domestic political fray and leading the opposition to victory against Law and Justice (PiS) periodically surfaces in Polish public debate.

In fact, it happens so often that the image of Tusk riding in on a “white horse” felt a little passé already in 2018, when Newsweek had a cover showing exactly that – the politician riding a white equine. At the time, Tusk was publicising his memoir and giving major speeches in Poland, so his return to national politics seemed on track. Until it wasn’t.

Fast forward to today and this weekend’s congress of Civic Coalition is supposed to be accompanied by the news Tusk will take over leadership of the fledgling coalition that contains the party he once led to two consecutive electoral victories, serving as prime minister from 2007 to 2014. Yet Civic Coalition is not even the preeminent opposition force in Poland any longer; the most promising party in the liberal opposition camp is a new party founded by moderate Catholic Szymon Holownia.

Current Civic Coalition leader Borys Budka is said to be ready to step down and let Tusk take over. However, this week also brought signs that Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election, could pose a challenge to Tusk. Together with other progressive mayors, Trzaskowski just launched his movement of municipalities and has been working on building a broad civic movement, whose position vis-a-vis Civic Coalition is so far unclear. Trzaskowski’s move would fit the international trend of big city mayors raising a serious challenge to illiberal leaders, which can be observed in Turkey, Hungary, Croatia and elsewhere.

Trzaskowski also represents the youth wing of the party – and perhaps a needed break from the past. Tusk, a well-respected politician who brings European experience at the highest levels, is still somewhat burdened by an association with a Civic Platform government that was perhaps too liberal in its economic approach for the taste of many in Poland.

The youth wing of the party, Trzaskowski included, has been more willing to acknowledge lessons that two PiS electoral victories have brought: that the party cannot win without the provinces and that it cannot afford to seem too arrogant towards society’s marginalised. On the other hand, Tusk could never be accused of something Trzaskowski often is: an indecisiveness that resembles a fear of power.

Meanwhile, over 160 Polish intellectuals this week signed a letter to Culture Minister Piotr Glinski demanding he put an end to the public financing of fascists. The appeal, launched on the Nasza Demokracja online platform, came after news that two organisations linked to Robert Bakiewicz, a far-right activist, were recently allocated over a million zloty each from a Patriotic Fund, created in March 2021 and run by an institute under the supervision of the Culture Ministry.

The Association Independence March, which organises the annual Independence Day March on November 11, attended mostly by far-right groups, reportedly received 1.3 million zloty (287,000 euros). Another group, the National Guard Association, got 1.7 million zloty (376,000 euros) – this group was created last autumn, when Bakiewicz requested Catholics in Poland mobilise to defend churches against the women’s rights protests. Its stated goal is to “stand in the frontline of the counter-revolution fighting extreme-left activists”.

Zeman’s coup; explosive demands for compensation
It’s not uncommon in Czech political circles to ponder what it is that motivates President Milos Zeman. Unlike many of his associates, he’s not interested in money. At this stage in his life, he doesn’t need to build towards a future career. He’s the very antithesis of a statesman who seeks to win the love of his nation.

What he really seems to love, apart from a little vengeance, is proving he’s the smartest in the room. Ego it is then. So, it’s a bit tough for a poor old man that his neighbours get most of the credit for destroying democracy in Central Europe.

Viktor Orban seems to have outdone even himself. His attack on LGBT rights has even provoked some to suggest Hungary should be turfed out of the EU. So Zeman needed to up his game.

Rejecting Orban’s tactic of pretending to have nothing against the minorities he targets, the cantankerous head of the Czech state explained in a TV interview at the weekend that he finds transgender people “disgusting”. Not wanting to leave anyone out, Zeman assured the country that he also hates feminists, members of the LGBT community and those pesky opponents of sexual violence. “I am completely annoyed by the suffragettes, the #MeToo movement and Prague Pride,” he pronounced.

Local media have seen Zeman’s spitefully calculated rhetoric only too often; the international media, however, promptly clutched its pearls. That meant it missed the real story, as the president also announced clearly that he will carry out what arguably amounts to a coup should the general election in October not go the way he would like.

Trampling on the presidential duty of non-partisanship, Zeman said in the interview that he will vote for the incumbent ANO party, led by his sometime ally, much-of-the-time minion, Prime Minister Andrej Babis. If that doesn’t help the party – currently polling second or third behind the liberal PaS electoral coalition and centre-right Spolu electoral coalition – win the most votes, then Zeman promised to use his presidential power to appoint a government that puts Babis back in the prime ministerial chair anyway. The president has said before that he would ask the “party”, not the coalition, that receives the most votes to lead the next government. Election coalitions, he claimed, are “a fraud”.

Thus, Zeman is upping the ante in the fight between liberals and illiberal, daring the “democratic bloc” parties, as they are widely called, to engage in a full-blown war.

It looks increasingly likely that the two democratic coalitions should win a majority. In the unlikely event that they secure a constitutional majority, many hope they would quickly move to unseat Zeman. Failing that, although a riskier option politically, they could make it impossible for Babis to rule with a minority cabinet. However, there is no little concern that the centre-right Spolu – and the conservative ODS party in particular – could be tempted into jumping ship.

Unsurprisingly, Zeman was happy Babis refused to join the international condemnation of Hungary’s new anti-LGBT law. However, the president will be less pleased the government is continuing its diplomatic war with Russia.

Prague has already ousted dozens of diplomats over the revelations that Russian intelligence was behind the explosions at the Vrbetice munitions depot in 2014, which killed two people. And this week, the Czech Foreign Ministry told Moscow it wants compensation for this “internationally illegal act”.

Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Zmeyevsky was summoned to the ministry to hear the demand. While the figure asked for was not disclosed, Czech MPs recently drew up a bill for 700 million koruna (27.5 million euros). Zmeyevsky was also told that Moscow’s inclusion of the Czech Republic on a list of “unfriendly countries” – on which it keeps the US company – violates international law.

The response from Russia was every bit as undiplomatic as Zeman at his best. “Those who act like that, demanding payments using threats and insults without an investigation or trial, are called extortionists,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on social media.

More charges against Kocner in Slovakia; Matovic survives
Justice finally seems to be catching up with notorious businessman Marian Kocner, who was this week accused of ordering the contract killings of three high-ranking prosecutors, including Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipsic and Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka.

Though none of the contract killings were actually carried out, Kocner is facing new charges just days after the Supreme Court quashed his acquittal in the murder-for-hire case of 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. The couple were shot to death in their apartment in 2018, shocking Slovaks and confirming long-held fears about the existence of a nexus of organised crime, oligarch power and political mafia in their country.

The corrupt businessman, who is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for economic crimes, is set to be charged with plotting the prosecutorial killings on the back of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to retry him over the Kuciak murder, as the two cases are believed to be connected, the Dennik N daily reported.

Kocner is alleged to have ordered the shootings of the prosecutors even before Kuciak’s murder. At the time, Lipsic was an attorney representing several clients who sued Kocner for fraud. Zilinka was a prosecutor who ordered the police to charge Kocner with tax fraud.

The businessman’s vendettas were to be waged by the same middlemen used in the Kuciak murder, namely Zoltan Andrusko and Kocner’s associate Alena Zsuzsova. Andrusko pled guilty and testified over his involvement in Kuciak’s murder, receiving a sentence of 15 years. Zsuzsova’s acquittal was also annulled by the Supreme Court.

According to the Dennik N report, Andrusko cancelled Zilinka’s killing at the last minute. His motives for doing so remain unclear and it is not known why the other two murders were not carried out either, though Andrusko still set up Kuciak and Kusnirova’s shooting a few months later. For her part, Zsuzsova is said to have hinted at the murders of the prosecutors in her communications with Kocner on the Threema messaging app. She allegedly assured Kocner that the prosecutors were going to be “dealt with”.

While the investigation into the attempted killings is still ongoing, it has entered its final phase, prosecutor Michal Surek told Dennik N in mid-June. Surek will decide the fate of the case once all the procedures have been finalised.

Kocner denies all charges against him and is actually suing Europol for the leaking of sensitive personal information in relation to the Kuciak murder investigation. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg heard from lawyers representing both parties on Wednesday.

Kocner’s lawyers argued that Europol failed to adhere to data protection laws when analysing data on Kocner’s mobile phones and a USB flash drive that contained sensitive information about his personal life. The information was leaked to Slovak media before it reached the state authorities. Kocner is seeking 100,000 euros in compensation, broadcaster TA3 informed.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Igor Matovic, the former prime minister who chairs the ruling OLaNO movement, survived a vote of no confidence initiated by the opposition Hlas-SD party. Only 51 MPs supported Matovic’s dismissal, well below the required threshold of 76. Still, with many of the 17 abstaining MPs being from the coalition SaS party, the four-party government suffered another blow to its already fragile unity.

“We have massive reservations about Igor Matovic and we think he’s hurting the government,” SaS MP Anna Zemanova said. “But the coalition agreement is key to us and we, as correct partners, honour it.”

Even so, Matovic felt betrayed and accused SaS leader and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Sulik of backstabbing and trying to secure votes for his removal. “I do not like meanness,” Matovic said when asked about Sulik. The SaS chief dismissed Matovic’s allegations as nonsense. During the vote, no coalition MP except for a few members of Matovic’s own party stood up to defend the finance minister, much to the amusement of the united opposition.

Despite facing calls for his resignation, Matovic found time to publicly criticise Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky for the slow roll out of COVID-19 vaccines. Observers were quick to point out the personal spite in Matovic’s fault-finding. Polls show Lengvarsky, a nominee of Matovic’s OLaNO movement, as the coalition’s most popular politician, while Matovic remains dead last. “Instead of causing conflicts, what Slovakia needs today is calm and constructive debate,” Lengvarsky responded.

In a follow-up interview with the SME daily, the health minister revealed that the 160,000 unused Sputnik V jabs procured in the spring will be sold back to Russia at the original purchase price of close to 20 dollars per two doses. Slovakia will keep a reserve of 5,000 vaccines, bringing an end to a protracted political saga that was the backdrop to the downfall of Matovic as prime minister.

Budapest mayor offers free COVID tests; Orban’s family builds luxury estate
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony announced this week he is planning to offer free testing for people above 60, especially for those who were vaccinated using the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

There is evidence to suggest the vaccine does not produce enough antibodies, leaving many who’ve had the jab worried that they are not sufficiently protected against the virus. This is especially alarming as the deadly Delta variant is spreading across Europe. The government is trying to play down concerns and argues that all vaccines registered and licensed in Hungary offer adequate protection, regardless of antibodies.

“It is time for the government to act, and stop its stupid and irresponsible political propaganda, and protect the elderly whose Chinese vaccination has not produced any antibodies. Serving Chinese business interests cannot be more important than the concerns of the elderly,” Karacsony wrote on Facebook.

Hungary currently does not offer free testing; prices for antigen and PCR tests range from 10,000 to 20,000 forints (30-60 euros). The capital will begin registering those who would like a free test over the next few days, Karacsony promised. There are media reports that some Hungarians vaccinated with two doses of Sinopharm are travelling to Romania or Serbia to get a third jab, this time of Pfizer, to make sure they have adequate protection.

The variety of non-EMA authorized vaccines is also causing problems for Hungarians planning their summer vacations. With the European COVID pass introduced on July 1, travellers inoculated with Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines are free to move around the EU. But around 2 million Hungarians – almost half of all vaccinated in the country – who have received either the Russian Sputnik or Chinese Sinopharm vaccines will face extra hurdles and can only enter a number of countries with a costly PCR test – for a family of four, those extra costs could amount to 200-250 euros.

Socialist MEP Istvan Ujhelyi is now demanding that the government provide at least free PCR tests for those affected. The average Hungarian is getting surprisingly little help from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is busy trying to sign bilateral agreements with countries to accept all Hungarian-licensed vaccines, but so far has only got Cap Verde and Bahrain to agree, not next-door Austria or Italy.

In other news, the independent weekly hvg.hu released an investigative report and a 30-minute documentary about a 13-hectare country estate where Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his family reportedly reside, some 50 kilometres from Budapest. Called Hatvanpuszta, the estate used to belong to Archduke Joseph of Austria, who used it as a model farm and as lodging for military officers.

It was in a derelict state until 2010, with some parts coming under heritage protection. Yet everything has been demolished and a completely new estate with luxurious buildings is rising in its place. Work on the estate has accelerated especially in the last half year, despite the COVID-19 restrictions. The estate belongs to Orban’s father, Gyozo Orban, who is a wealthy entrepreneur, partly due to generous public procurements in the construction sector. He is reportedly financing the renovation of the estate out of his own pocket.

The prime minister described these constructions as only “farm buildings” that evidently have nothing to do with him. Yet according to hvg.hu and judging from the pictures published, the estate does not look much like farm buildings. In one of the main manors, a lavish library has been built, complete with fireplace and coffered ceiling – similar in style to medieval noble castles.

Speculation has it that this could be the estate where Orban will withdraw to should he lose the 2022 election. Construction is expected to be finished by autumn, so it should not be too much of an issue during the election campaign. Costs are estimated to be at least 3-4 billion forints (around 10 million euros).

According to income declarations, the prime minister does not have any savings and is practically penniless, with his only asset his house in Budapest that he shares with his wife. The attention of the Hungarian public was drawn to the secret constructions in Hatvanpuszta first in 2014, when it turned out that Orban’s dog – with whom he posted some pictures on Facebook – actually lives there. Orban’s only son, Gaspar, has his official residence in Hatvanpuszta.

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