DEMOCRACY DIGEST: GRUDGING OFFERS OF ASSISTANCE TO AFGHAN HELPERS

Given the region’s hostility to any attempt by the EU to distribute migrants around the bloc, it came as no surprise that any offers of help to fleeing Afghans appeared grudging.

Given the region’s hostility to any attempt by the EU to distribute migrants around the bloc, it came as no surprise that any offers of help to fleeing Afghans appeared grudging.
Like the rest of the world, the Visegrad Four NATO countries scrambled to muster a response to the swift collapse of the Afghan administration and the Taliban’s takeover. When the region’s governments finally did, it became clear that any help for Afghans who had aided those nations during the time their diplomats and soldiers served there would be grudging at best.

Events in Afghanistan largely bamboozled the Czech Republic, which has flip-flopped over its strategy over evacuees and refugees, while the pro-Russia and pro-China president is seeking to exploit the debacle to weaken the country’s commitment to NATO.

Populist President Milos Zeman told his favourite pro-Russian disinformation website Parlamentni listy that NATO’s legitimacy has been called in question due to its failure in the Central Asian country. Claiming that NATO has left a void that will be filled by terrorism, Zeman also said Czechia should now focus its budget on national defence and no longer “waste money” on the alliance.

“The distrust towards NATO from a number of member countries will grow after this experience, because they will say: if you failed in Afghanistan, where is the guarantee that you won’t fail in any other critical situation?” declared Zeman, who has over recent years sought to cement closer links with Moscow and Beijing.

While he has long insisted that he favours NATO and EU membership, Zeman has also offered support to political parties on the extreme right and left that openly campaign for Czechia to quit both pillars of the Western world. The president is also seeking to oust his country’s spy chief, who has in recent years formed strong links with US security networks.

A keen supporter of former US president Donald Trump, Zeman clearly couldn’t resist the temptation to note the calamitous result of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of US forces. Leaving Afghanistan is cowardice, he accused, adding that “the United States has lost its prestige as a world leader”.

Zeman also predicted the Taliban would establish a terrorist centre from which attacks will be launched around the world. That means the Alliance is now failing in its primary mission, he continued, a reference to the claim of Europe’s radical right that NATO’s main purpose today is to fight terrorism and illegal migration rather than “barking at Russia and China”, as Zeman termed it.

Therefore, he went on to suggest that the Czechs should no longer worry about meeting NATO’s guidance that members spend 2% of GDP on defence – a threshold his country has never met since joining the Alliance in 1999.

While Zeman is well known for the outrageous rhetoric he likes to deploy towards opponents, liberals, refugees and minorities – especially Muslims – his outburst against the US and NATO was nevertheless shocking. It served as a surprising revelation of just how far the Czech president has shifted from Prague’s typical Atlanticist outlook since Trump left the White House, and how little the needs of the country’s Western-oriented foreign policy interest him.

Calling for the Czech government to concentrate its defence budget on “national” needs, the president claimed that under NATO, spending is being motivated “by the wishes of foreign armaments companies”.

It’s this sort of “contribution” from the head of state, and his encouragement of the population’s less charitable instincts, that makes the job of government ministers so tricky, especially when you’re expected to invite Muslim refugees to make themselves at home.

As the news of the Taliban takeover spread, criticism quickly grew over Czechia’s failure to concoct resettlement programs for interpreters who had helped its armed forces during their two decades in Afghanistan. Yet it wasn’t long before Czech planes were shuttling back and forth to start evacuations.

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek was initially keen to show his tough-guy credentials, mindful of the political rewards reaped from the migrant crisis by hardline rhetoric. He insisted that just because a band of murderous stone-age zealots had taken over Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean he can’t send the 34 illegal refugees the Czechs have locked up back to the country.

By Tuesday, the same person was pledging to do all he could to protect them. By Thursday, the government claimed that, despite many Afghans with papers reportedly unable to get to the airport, the Czechs had already got their lot.

Branding it a “great miracle”, Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek boasted: “In an incredibly short time, despite the chaos, we managed to save our army interpreters, all Afghan employees and their families, and other Afghans with ties to the Czech Republic.”

“The mission is over,” Babis announced. “We saved everyone we wanted to save.”

Slovakia, already known for its hostile attitude toward migrants and refugees, will not be boosting its reputation in the wake of Afghanistan’s newest crisis after the ruling four-party coalition agreed to take in only a handful of select refugees with strict conditions attached.

“Our government decided to grant asylum to 10 Afghan citizens who intensely cooperated with EU member states in recent years,” Prime Minister Eduard Heger said in a video statement shared on social media. He stressed that Slovakia has been involved in evacuating Afghan and EU citizens “into safety” by sending a special military plane to Afghanistan.

Deputy Prime Minister Veronika Remisova added that the Slovak government only wants to assist Afghans “who helped us or our allies. Given we had a small mission in Afghanistan, this concerns a limited number of people,” she told the Dennik N daily.

Slovak soldiers spent 20 years in Afghanistan and finally withdrew in June this year. They often relied on local interpreters, but it remains unclear whether these people will be granted asylum in Slovakia. As Remisova pointed out, no help can be given to the general population until the dust settles. “At least until it’s clear whether minimal human rights will be upheld, such as access to education for women and girls,” Remisova concluded.

The ruling OĽaNO party’s coalition partner Sme rodina, a populist movement with an embedded anti-migration outlook, took an even harsher stance. “Slovakia, as well as the whole of Europe, should consider very carefully who we let in. After all, we can’t write off a possible infiltration of unwelcome individuals who lean toward terrorism,” Boris Kollar, the movement’s leader, asserted.

Economy Minister Richard Sulik, from the liberal-libertarian SaS party, echoed scepticism over a “mass granting of asylum claims”, arguing it didn’t offer “even a hint of a solution”. Slovakia should, rather, give its neighbours a hand “running refugee camps that are about to be set up,” Sulik added.

Some coalition MPs expressed concern over the low number of asylum places reserved for fleeing Afghans. “10 is a meaningful gesture, but it’s not enough to help Afghan citizens whose lives are at risk,” Vladimira Marcinkova from the Za ludi party maintained. “I’m convinced that Slovakia can and should help more than 10 people at risk of life.”

But receiving asylum in Slovakia is no easy task. In 2019, only nine out of 232 seekers were successful. Last year, 11 out of 282 applications went through. So far this year, just seven asylum claims have been granted out of 163 applications. Around 2,000 Afghans currently live in Slovakia, according to Dennik N, while 35 more applied for asylum in June. All applications were denied. Still, more and more Afghans with family members already settled in Slovakia are showing interest in the asylum-seeking process, Jan Orlovsky, director of the Migration Office at the Interior Ministry, said. “I’ve registered around 10 emails of the sort in the past 10 days,” he told Dennik N on Thursday.

Hungary’s palpable uncertainty over how to address the situation certainly wasn’t helped by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto currently being on vacation. On Sunday, Hungarian diplomacy’s first update on the situation was to say that there were no Hungarian citizens in Afghanistan. About 150 Hungarian soldiers have served in Afghanistan, though all were all pulled out by June 8, Nepszava reported.

That statement from the Foreign Ministry was swiftly corrected by local media, which reported some 26 Hungarians employed by various security companies were waiting to be evacuated. Since then, several others have contacted the Foreign Ministry, some of whom are being evacuated by British and Dutch forces.

Finally, on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry held a press conference at which Secretary of State Levente Magyar announced a rescue mission to evacuate all those who had helped Hungarian troops in Afghanistan as interpreters as well as their families.

“We know them, they are indeed in mortal danger, their rescue is our moral duty. We are in touch with them and we will assess how we can best help them,” Magyar said, deftly avoiding the “asylum” word while also stressing that Hungary would not participate in any general distribution of Afghan refugees.

It remains unclear whether the Hungarian government will offer asylum to any Afghans. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party is a staunch objector to any migration from outside the EU, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, and have stridently opposed the EU’s attempt to impose quotas on members states to take in migrants.

On Thursday, Magyar elaborated slightly on the government’s stance, saying that the country could take in only those who had helped Hungarian troops and been screened by the Hungarian security services.

Magyar criticised the US’s “irresponsible withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan”, which he predicted will trigger another wave of migration. Hungary will stand firm and will not open its southern border under pressure, he stated.

In July, Foreign Minister Szijjarto said the international community must not let Afghanistan become again a source of terrorism and migration, and there were reports around the time about a plan mooted by Turkish President Erdogan to launch a military operation with Pakistan and Hungary to guarantee the security of Kabul International Airport.

“Hungary is ready to contribute to a new military mission,” Foreign Minister Szijjarto was quoted by Index following his talks in Istanbul at the end of July.

The idea apparently emerged during talks between Erdogan and Orban after a NATO meeting, with both hoping to win the goodwill of the new US administration by proving what constructive NATO allies they could be.

Adversity makes for strange bedfellows and no more so was the government-supporting journalist Andras Bencsik, editor-in-chief of the weekly Demokrata, comparing the Taliban to the freedom fighters in Hungary’s 1956 revolt against Soviet rule. Bencsik said during a TV appearance that he is convinced the vast majority of the 40 million Afghans feel satisfied now after being “liberated” by the Taliban – something which could not have happened so fast had a majority of the population not agreed with them.

Bencsik added that he is outraged when the Taliban – in his interpretation: young boys studying the Koran – are called rebels by the media, when they are in fact freedom fighters, just like the young boys fighting Soviet occupation in Hungary in 1956.

As independent daily hang.hu recalls, Bencsik is well known for his provocative remarks. He once called Pope Francis the Antichrist and in a TV program in July he complained that Satan has taken control of Western Europe.

Poland also finally sent planes this week into Afghanistan to bring back its citizens and any Afghans who had worked with the Polish embassy.

A first plane carrying around 50 people landed late Wednesday night in Warsaw; a second was scheduled to arrive by noon on Thursday. At least one more flight is expected to be sent to Afghanistan, Polish media reported, adding some information about individual Afghan families who had helped Poles in the past and who are struggling to reach Kabul’s airport.

Poland further announced it would send 100 soldiers to Afghanistan to assist with the evacuation of Polish citizens and Afghan colleagues, in a mission scheduled to last until September 16.

Poland takes minor step to appease CJEU; limiting Jewish property claims
The Polish government informed the European Commission on Monday that a disciplinary chamber for judges at the Supreme Court the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had controversially set up would not now take on any new cases.

The decision is seen as a step back by the Polish government on its controversial justice reforms, which critics claim are an attempt to politicise the judiciary and subvert its independence. One of those critics is the Court of Justice of the European Union, which handed down two rulings in July: one called for the full suspension of the disciplinary chamber; a second one declared the entire disciplinary system for judges created by PiS as incompatible with EU law.

Observers attribute the reason for the decision by PiS, which has mostly stuck to its “national sovereignty” line when it comes to reforming the judiciary regardless of CJEU rulings against it, to the possibility that the European Commission might block the disbursement of 58 billion euros in EU budget and post-COVID recovery cash. Earlier this summer, the Commission postponed approving the national spending plan filed by Warsaw.

Nevertheless, legal experts argue the steps announced by Warsaw won’t be enough: the disciplinary chamber will still proceed with ongoing cases; there is little clarity about what the government plans to do about the other elements of its disciplinary system for judges; and plenty of other judicial reforms continue to be implemented despite EU infringement procedures and Commission criticism.

Elsewhere, President Andrzej Duda signed this week a law putting a 30-year limit on any property restitution claims, causing outrage in Israel as it limits the ability of heirs to Jewish families living on Polish lands in the interwar period from getting back their property. Israeli Prime Minister Naflati Bennet said the law indicated “disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust”.

The diplomatic row between the two countries escalated to a point on Monday that Poland even recalled its ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski, and had his children flown back from Israel.

But there are some in Poland who look at the law differently: activist Jan Spiewak, himself from a Jewish family, celebrated it as putting an end to the “wild reprivatisations” happening in Warsaw. As Spiewak and his colleagues have revealed, since the end of communism property restitution laws were frequently abused, particularly under the political leadership of the centre-right party Civic Platform, which allowed rich developers, many times not even heirs of Jewish families, to take over property, expel poor families living there, and amass vast wealth in the process.

Racism penalties against Czechia kick in; Slovakia’s lottery is a lottery
Racist scandals have hit Czech football hard this year – and there are signs the country’s authorities might be starting to take the issue seriously at last.

Many racist incidents go largely ignored throughout the domestic season, but that leaves the country’s top clubs hugely exposed when they’re playing in European competitions.

Sparta Prague are the latest Czech club to find that opponents from other countries are a lot less willing to sweep racism under the carpet. Following abuse hurled at Monaco striker Aurelien Tchouameni earlier this month, European football’s governing body UEFA decreed that the club would have to play its next European match without fans.

The international pressure seems to be finally forcing some Czech clubs to act. A scandal earlier this year saw Sparta’s rival Slavia pay little more than lip service to claims that defender Ondrej Kudela hurled racist abuse during a feisty game against Glasgow Rangers. A group of fans even posted a picture of themselves with a racist banner in response. In contrast, Sparta – which even among Czechs has a bad reputation when it comes to racism – have hunted down the perpetrators of the abuse against the Monaco player, handed out bans and launched criminal complaints. The club has also said that while it will demand to hear UEFA’s justification for the punishment, it will not contest it.

In Slovakia, the launch of the vaccination lottery went awry on the first night of the official draw after four out of five “lucky winners” failed to fulfil pre-set conditions and missed out on a large cash prize.

The draw, broadcast live by public broadcaster RTVS, followed special rules that confused many of the contestants. The show’s hosts phoned each person drawn from a large lot of names. These people then had 20 seconds to answer the call and another 20 seconds to say out loud the password that popped up on their television screen during the live broadcast.

Several contestants were not watching the show, however, while one woman, only known as Zuzana, lost 400,000 euros as she was streaming the draw online on the public broadcaster’s website that had an automatic delay and lagged behind the TV broadcast. As a result, Zuzana did not see the password in time and lost her prize.

Calls for a rule change immediately followed. RTVS chief Jaroslav Reznik and Finance Minister Igor Matovic met with the unlucky ‘winner’ to clarify the situation. Matovic, who spearheaded efforts to set up the lottery, confirmed that he was negotiating with lawyers to pay out Zuzana’s winnings.

“There was an injustice. Zuzana didn’t win, but most of Slovakia feels that she has a moral right to the prize,” Matovic was quoted by TV Noviny as saying.

Contrary to Matovic’s intention, the lottery failed to generate much buzz around vaccination against COVID-19, interest in which has been in steady decline for weeks.

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