Democracy Digest: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, by Viktor Orban

The Hungarian prime minister’s irascibility gets the better of him, while the Slovak and Polish presidents put their weight behind a plan to grant Ukraine EU candidate status.

Horse trading over the EU’s contested sixth sanctions package, mostly the oil embargo against Russia, continued in Hungary this week, with a surprise visit from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday and a highly publicized telephone call between Orban and the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Both von der Leyen and the Hungarian government avoided the press after the meeting, but the EU Commission chief tweeted: “We made progress, but further work is needed”.

She added that she will convene a video conference call to strengthen regional cooperation on oil infrastructure. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reiterated that more discussion is needed, while Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto repeatedly said during the week that the EU sanctions package in this form is unacceptable to Hungary.

“The sanctions package would destroy Hungary’s energy security, it would make it impossible to obtain the crude oil needed to operate the Hungarian economy,” he said, urging the EU Commission to help find a solution for Hungary.

The opposition-backing newspaper Nepszava speculated that it might be the Polish state oil company PKN Orlen that provides the solution: Orlen’s management announced last week that they would have the capacity to supply the whole region with crude oil, thanks mostly to their huge – 60 million tons per year – deal with Saudi Aramco. This announcement was not much picked up by the international media, but it could be the basis of the regional cooperation that von der Leyen was referring to. Crude oil would be shipped to the Polish port of Gdansk and then forwarded to German refineries, yet currently there are no pipelines that connect landlocked Central European countries with either German refineries or Polish ports.

Von der Leyen’s visit to Budapest was interpreted by the pro-government media as proof that despite all appearances to the contrary, the prime minister is not isolated in Europe. Daniel Deak, a leading shill for the government, wrote in a Facebook post that the EU Commission president had come to Budapest “to bargain and to quail”.

Yet rather than gaining new allies, the government demonstrated this week how adept it is at insulting its few remaining friends. Referring to the 1920 Trianon peace treaty, which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory, including the port city Rijeka that’s now part of Croatia, as he tried to explain why Hungary opposes oil sanctions, the prime minister said in his radio address last Friday: “countries having sea and ports can transport oil from anywhere, but there are countries that do not have seas. We would have a sea, if it hadn’t been taken away from us.”

Croatia reacted with indignation, summoning Hungary’s ambassador in Zagreb to the Foreign Ministry. The Croatian Foreign Ministry said that such statements are unnecessarily damaging to the good relationship between the two countries. “Croatia condemns the Hungarian Prime Minister’s statement. We condemn any territorial demands between neighbouring countries,” the statement said.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjarto, who summons ambassadors to his ministry at the drop of a hat, even just for critical media reports in their countries’ press, tried to ease tensions with a photo of himself with his Croatian counterpart and a single sentence: “Hungary and Croatia: but we are good friends!”

Perhaps not as much as hoped. Orban’s slip of the tongue is stirring up ill-feelings about the Hungarian government and its potential revisionist policies, and could fuel speculation his nationalist-populist party has not fully given up hope of regaining some lost territories, including those now belonging to Ukraine, Romania or Croatia.

A regional plan for Ukraine

Poland and Slovakia have thrown their diplomatic weight behind a proposal to grant Ukraine candidate status to join the EU.

Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, said on Wednesday after meeting with his Slovak counterpart Zuzana Caputova that the two countries, both of which share a border with Ukraine and have seen millions of refugees cross over from there, would lobby for Ukraine to be granted prompt EU candidate status because “Ukrainian society now needs to feel it is accepted by the West”.

Caputova added that the two countries “should together visit some Western leaders who present a more moderate stance when it comes to the European Union’s candidate status for Ukraine.”

The EU is split, mostly down an east-west axis, over whether to expedite such an award that normally come only after years of legal, political and social preparations. A discussion on the issue is expected at an EU summit in late June.

Poland’s government waits for money to roll in; LGBT-free zones dealt another blow

Good news for Poland’s cash-strapped government this week as signs grow it’s about to get its hands on its slice of the EU’s 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund that is being withheld by Brussels over concerns about the country’s judicial reforms.

The European Commission has said that before Poland receives the 58 billion euros in grants and loans, its National Reconstruction Plan must include commitments to abolish the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber, reform the disciplinary system for judges, and reinstate judges who have been illegally dismissed. The judicial reforms that have been implemented by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party are widely regarded as an attempt to neuter the independence of the judiciary and are contrary to EU law.

“We have worked with Poland on all three points and are satisfied with the results. We are now waiting for confirmation from Poland,” Veerle Nuyts, European Commission spokeswoman was quoted as saying by the Warsaw Business Journal.

Earlier in the week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said talks with the EU Commission on its recovery plan were at an advanced stage, though suggested an agreement would still be needed within the ruling coalition (the two-party United Right) itself – an allusion to the hardline and Eurosceptic justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who is against making any compromises with Brussels.

“However, I believe that we will indeed soon finalise the final elements of the agreement with the European Commission, then not only everyone within the United Right, but also everyone in the Sejm will be put to a certain test,” the prime minister said.

Elsewhere this week, another Polish court annulled anti-LGBT resolutions that had been passed by PiS-dominated local authorities in 2019 – part of a series of such laws that has made Poland the worst country in the EU for LGBT people,

According to Notes from Poland, the provincial administrative court in Lublin, called the two anti-LGBT resolutions passed by the regional parliament of Lublin Province and by the county council of Ryki, a town in the same province, a “gross violation of the law” because they are discriminatory and “pose a risk of violence against LGBT people”.

The removal of these ‘LGBT-free zones’ declared by municipalities and regions across a third of Poland’s territory has gathered pace as courts annul them and local governments get rid of them over worries about a loss of EU funding.

Czechs juggling Russians and Roma refugees

The Czech government is seeking to extend its ban on issuing visas to Russia and Belarusian citizens. The clampdown, which began shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, was introduced under state of emergency powers granted to the government in connection with the flow of refugees fleeing the war. Those powers end on May 31, but the Interior Ministry is pressing to extend the visa ban. Russian and Belarusian students are also vulnerable, with officials questioning whether new students should be accepted, and even if those currently studying in Czechia should be expelled. “Perhaps educating Vladimir Putin’s IT experts and sending him back future hackers is a security risk,” Education Minister Petr Gazdík said. The Czech Financial Analysis Office says that allowing Russian and Belarusian students access to higher education flouts EU sanctions prohibiting “direct or indirect technical assistance” to Russia and Belarus. Although Prague says it has issued many “humanitarian” visas to activists, journalists and others, critics say that the visa ban applies collective guilt.

Ethnic Roma refugees are also facing difficulties in Czechia, which could be a sign the general goodwill shown to refugees since the start of the war is starting to wear thin. The government announced this week that passport checks on refugees will be tightened due to suspicions that some Roma claiming refugee status are actually travelling from Hungary in a bid to access support payments. Refugees of Roma origin are now being housed in tents while their story is checked out. Hundreds of Roma are now camped out at Prague’s main train station awaiting accommodation. Local officials claim that “organised crime” is involved. Such stories have been seized on by right-wing populists seeking to mine political capital from the Ukrainian tragedy. During a xenophobic rant in parliament on Tuesday, Tomio Okamura, head of the far-right SPD, slammed handouts to refugees and predicted that the influx is about to spark a revolt against the government. However, surveys suggest that a strong majority continues to support help for refugees – or at least those genuinely fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The Czech Republic has joined the UN Human Rights Council. The move comes after the international body decided that the torture, rape and mass murder of people from another nation are not the correct qualifications and threw Russia out in early April. The Czechs, who ran unopposed for the post, still managed to get 23 abstentions from the 180 votes. It’s unclear which of the countries still on the council – which includes Kazakhstan, Eritrea and China – did not support its candidacy. The Czech delegation, which already attended its first council session on Thursday, will use the post to push for greater powers to investigate war crimes in Ukraine as well as offering support for a free press. Prague will hold the post on the 47-nation council to the end of 2023.

Slovaks applaud Ukraine but fear fighting themselves; coalition doesn’t mind infighting

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned during his address to the Slovak Parliament on Tuesday that Russia might invade Slovakia if Vladimir Putin’s troops are not defeated in Ukraine. “If we don’t stop them, they will come everywhere, even to Slovakia,” he said. The main means to stop the Russians are weapons, Zelensky stressed, adding that “Ukrainians will always remember how Slovakia provided them with weapons.” Slovakia has already provided Ukraine with air defence and anti-aircraft systems, along with mortars and ammunition, with further deliveries of tanks in the pipeline. The Ukrainian president said he understood how “difficult” it was for Slovakia to cut off Russian oil and gas, but at the same time warned Slovak MPs of falling prey to Russia’s power goals. An experienced speaker, Zelensky borrowed from his famed rhetorical repertoire when he used a historical parallel, declaring that “1968 must not be repeated.” That was the year Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and cut short the burgeoning democratisation of the country known as the Prague Spring. “Be Ukraine’s voice in the EU,” Zelensky concluded as some opposition MPs, many noted Russia apologists, left the room in protest, calling the Ukrainian president “a person who lies on a daily basis,” the Slovak Spectator reported.

While Zelensky’s rousing speech made headlines, the courage it expounds on isn’t necessarily shared by many Slovaks. In a poll for TV Markiza, a broadcaster, a third of Slovaks said they would leave for abroad if the country was invaded. Nearly half the population would opt to stay at home, but would still decline to take up arms. Only 13 per cent of Slovaks would be willing to fight, the pollsters claimed, highlighting that supporters of extremist parties were most likely to defend Slovakia with weapons in hand. The Defence Ministry has reopened an application process for voluntary military training after a two-year lull caused by the pandemic. Participants are set to receive 1,300 euros for an 11-week training course.

On the home front, Finance Minister Igor Matovic announced a package of economic and social measures to help people cope with rising prices, including a potential cap on fuel prices, according to some coalition MPs. But as the aid plan faces stubborn opposition from within the ruling coalition, another government crisis is brewing, just year after the last coalition-wide split that ended the premiership of Matovic. The current cabinet began edging closer to collapse on May 4 after parliament, supported by several coalition MPs, dismissed a prosecutor’s request for the arrest of three-time premier Robert Fico, who’s facing several criminal charges.

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