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Democracy Digest: Polish-Czech Feud Disturbs Orban's Populist Bromance | Reporting Democracy – Balkan Insight

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t join his Central European counterparts at the demographic shindig in Budapest on Thursday, owing to a fit of pique over a developing feud with the Czech Republic over a coal mine that lies on the border between the two countries.
On Monday, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) announced that it will levy a fine of €500,000 per day on Poland for its refusal to obey an order to cease operating the Turow lignite mine. The court ordered in May that the facility be temporarily closed while it considers a lawsuit brought by the Czech Republic against Polish plans to expand the mine.
Warsaw responded to the CJEU announcement with a statement it would not close the mine, calling the fine “disproportionate” and repeating its claim that Turow is vital for the Polish economy; the adjacent power plant supplies about 7 per cent of the country’s electricity. Closing the mine, the Polish government said, “would have negative consequences for the energy security of millions of Poles.”
Speaking on Tuesday about the ruling, the Polish prime minister said it was “extremely aggressive and harmful”, and also lashed out at the Czechs, saying the ruling would negatively impact relations, while at the same time accusing the neighbours of negotiating in bad faith.
In full tantrum mode, Morawiecki also chose not to attend the Fourth Budapest Demographic Summit – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s beloved gathering of populist, conservative, pro-traditional family, anti-immigration figures like Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, former US vice president Mike Pence and French presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour – because he reportedly couldn’t face being in the same room as his Czech counterpart, Andrej Babis. Poland was instead represented by Minister for Family and Social Policy Marlena Malągova.
The Polish press reported that this is a “signal” to Prague. The Polish premier is also set to blank V4 meetings for the meantime.
Asked whether Poland would start paying the fine, Morawiecki responded: “We will see if Poland eventually has to pay.”
Turow sits right on Poland’s border with Czechia and Germany. Communities on all sides complain the mine is heavily polluting their water sources, as well as the air and the environment.
Poland insists that the mine and power plant are vital for the economy, which is the most coal-dependent in the EU. Around 80 per cent of Poland’s domestic energy came from coal in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.
It also points out that Czechia and Germany both still operate several lignite mines and are far from leaders in the transition to clean energy. Around 55 per cent of Czech power is produced by coal and 43 per cent of German electricity.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit is based on Poland’s failure to discuss the expansion and its impact with fellow member states, which is required under EU law.
The case is just the latest instance in which Poland is at loggerheads with the EU’s top court. Warsaw’s government, led by the nationalist-populist Law and Justice party, is in talks with Brussels over the CJEU’s demand that it reverse changes to the Polish justice system, which critics claim put the courts under political control. The EU has also demanded that Warsaw retract a case lodged in a local court which seeks a ruling that Polish law supersedes that of the EU. The case is seen as a challenge to the fundamental principles and operation of EU law, which require a uniform regulatory environment for the functioning of the single market and free movement.
Czech officials welcomed the news of the fine, even though they had asked the court to impose a penalty 10 times the size. Prague also stressed that it remains committed to reaching an agreement with its neighbour. The pair has been locked in talks for some months, with the Czech government seeking financial compensation and access for regular inspections of the mine.
The authorities in Liberec, the Czech region affected by Turow, said it wants the fines that Poland hands over to be used to deal with the impact on the local community, rather than going into some “imaginary European Commission budget”. The money should be used to secure alternative drinking water sources and monitor noise, dust and ground subsidence, they said.
Outside of the population conference, Hungarian politics this week featured the beginning of the opposition primaries to elect their joint prime ministerial candidate for next April’s general election. It was not a smooth start. The system where voters were supposed to register and vote went dead in the early hours of Saturday and the voting had to be suspended until Monday, when it was resumed with a completely new IT platform.
What might seem an embarrassing incident for the opposition could in fact have been the work of hackers. Opposition politicians inevitably blamed the government for the attack, which they charged was launched from several Chinese IP addresses.
Gergely Karacsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the primary favourites, wrote on Facebook: “There seems to be some people who want to prevent us from exercising our democratic right: there are many signs that the system has been attacked from the outside… The vote will continue on Monday morning, perhaps even more resolutely, and the fact remains – change has begun, the primaries are the beginning of a change in government.”
The opposition later issued a joint statement saying they are repairing the system and would not be deterred. “The offensive of those in the Carmelite monastery [Orban’s office in the Castle] can only suspend the work for a while, but we will continue with renewed vigour. Let them understand our message: Stop, Orban!”
But not everybody was convinced. Government-allied media believe that blaming the government is just a PR tactic; there is no evidence of Fidesz’s involvement. They also quoted Gergely Tomanovics, an IT specialist who previously hacked Orban’s online National Consultation – himself not a Fidesz-fan – who called it pathetic that the opposition immediately pointed a finger at the government rather than assume responsibility for what could just as well be a lack of proper precautions taken to defend their site from outside attacks. “The least we would expect from a change of government is that finally there should be people held accountable if things go awry,” he was quoted as saying.
The opposition parties have extended the voting time to mid-next week amid greater-than-anticipated public interest in the primaries. For the position of prime ministerial candidate, a second round of voting is planned for October 4-10.
On the eve of the highly controversial Fourth Budapest Demographic Summit – with an A-list of pro-life and anti-LGBT speakers – some comments from Minister of Family Affairs Katalin Novak went viral and caused a stir.
Novak said she does not think it realistic to continue linking teachers’ salaries to the rising minimum wage. The salaries of Hungarian teachers are still indexed to the 2014 minimum wage of 101,000 forints (284 euros), but the government is currently discussing doubling the minimum wage to 200,000 forints to help tackle the labour shortage in a variety of sectors.
Yet, apparently, teachers won’t benefit from this rise. Young teachers with a college or university degree earn an average of 230,000 forints (648 euros) gross, slightly above the non-qualified minimum wage, which is barely enough to survive on especially if they have to pay rent. If calculated on the basis of the current minimum wage – 160,000 forints (450 euros) – teachers would earn at least an extra 70,000-200,000 (197-563 euros) depending on experience, experts say.
Novak’s somewhat unfortunate remarks triggered a huge debate, inside and outside the government, whether a pay rise should be put on the agenda before next year’s election.
Teacher pay is notoriously low in Hungary and some schools – especially in poorer districts – are already struggling with a shortage of maths, physics and science teachers. Teaching unions have been ringing the bell for years, warning that without serious financial incentives – a raise of at least 30-40 per cent – fewer and fewer young people will choose the profession, which would have a catastrophic effect on the education system.
Elsewhere, Hungary was ordered to play its next FIFA World Cup qualifier behind closed doors after racism from some supporters during the last game against England. The national team will now have to play its match against Albania next month with no fans in attendance. Hungary was also fined 200,000 Swiss francs (184,700 euros) by FIFA, one of the largest financial penalties ever handed out.
Hungary had already been ordered by UEFA, Europe’s governing body, to play its next two or three home games behind closed doors after discriminatory behaviour by home fans at the Euro 2020 Championships over the summer, but the ban had not yet been implemented by the time England came to visit.
Hungary’s football federation MLSZ – headed by Sandor Csanyi, CEO of Hungary’s biggest bank OTP and a close associate of Prime Minister Orban – wrote that the penalties are counterproductive and unfair, and it may appeal the decision.
“MLSZ still believes that punishing a crowd which creates a good atmosphere in a 60,000-capacity stadium and the organising association, which implements all reasonable measures, is not a fair move, and is instead counterproductive. The need to take action against racism is acknowledged and supported by the MLSZ, but it is also clear that the disciplinary rules and decisions of UEFA and FIFA do not penalise the real perpetrators and are not effective in their current form,” the organisation wrote in a statement.
The Hungarian government has generally tried to play down the instances of racism and engaged in whataboutery to defend the fans. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto reacted to the criticism of the racist attacks on England players during the qualifier on September 2 (won 4-0 by the UK) – monkey chants were directed at Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham – by sending a video to the British government of this year’s World Cup Final in London’s Wembley Stadium of how the Italian national anthem could not be heard over the whistling of the England fans. Only later did Szijjarto admit that there was racism exhibited by some fans in Budapest.
The Polish National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) decided at the last minute on Wednesday to approve the extension of the broadcasting license for TVN24, Poland’s main private all-news channel, which takes an independent line from the government.
Over the past few months, the governing party Law and Justice (PiS) has been trying in various ways to limit the ability of TVN24 and TVN – the larger network it is a part of – to operate in Poland. When KRRiT initially signalled it might not renew the license, the owners of TVN24, US company Discovery, made sure to have a back-up plan: they got an operating license in the Netherlands.
In the meantime, PiS came up with plans to modify national legislation governing broadcasting in such a way as to exclude the functioning of media companies owned by interests outside the European Economic Area. The law, now dubbed ‘Lex TVN’, was seen as a direct attempt to weaken TVN and sparked numerous protests inside and outside Poland.
With the opposition-controlled Senate refusing to pass Lex TVN and even President Andrzej Duda signalling he might not sign it even if it did pass, PiS are now looking for other ways to go after the independent broadcaster.
In the same session at which it approved the license renewal for TVN24, KRRiT also announced it would start proceedings against TVN for breaking the current media law for having a majority of its capital based in the US.
TVN retorted by pointing out that KRRiT has to date never raised any objection to the company’s capital structure in all its years of operation. Indeed, it argued, PiS-led efforts to introduce Lex TVN in order to eliminate US capital from owning broadcasters would imply there is no incompatibility with the current media law, since why would PiS want to change the law otherwise?
In another unravelling for PiS, two Polish regions, Malopolska and Swietokryszka, this week dropped the most discriminatory aspects of resolutions that they had passed earlier which condemned “LGBT ideology”, and a third region, Lubelski, is preparing to do the same.
The decisions by the regional authorities mark a shift in the attitude of the Polish government, which has been under pressure from the EU to make sure the resolutions are withdrawn. The EU had told Poland it would withdraw funds from the current and next EU budgets for those regions that instituted the discriminatory resolutions. This could have meant losing tens of billions of euros for the post-pandemic recovery and the health system, among other things.
A few smaller municipalities had already withdrawn resolutions earlier, but this represents a bigger shift, as regions are the largest administrative units in Poland. In total, five regions in the southeast of the country passed anti-LGBT resolutions in the last two years.
Former special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik has earned the title of the first high-ranking Slovak official serving during the era of Robert Fico’s Smer-led governments to receive a guilty verdict on corruption charges, after the Specialised Criminal Court sentenced him to 14 years in prison, the Slovak Spectator reported.
Kovacik was found guilty of accepting bribes worth up to 100,000 euros while cooperating with organised crime groups and exploiting his power as a special prosecutor when leaking information from ongoing investigations. The court ordered his property to be forfeited, the Sme daily highlighted. The verdict is subject to appeal and will likely be decided in the Supreme Court.
The former prosecutor was taken into custody in October last year and had denied the charges from the outset. He questioned the reliability of testimony given by so-called cooperating defendants, a doubt he reiterated in his three-hour closing speech delivered in a shaky voice during last week’s hearing.
However, the testimony that Kovacik so eagerly tried to cast doubt on was accepted as relevant evidence by the presiding judge – a watershed decision given that cooperating defendants are currently testifying in several other corruption cases involving former high-ranking officials of Smer-headed governments over the past decade. Smer leader and former prime minister Robert Fico repeatedly queried the reliability of such testimony as the crackdown on graft in the top ranks of the police and judiciary widened.
Meanwhile, the police sent shockwaves across a society still reeling from the cold-blooded murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, killed in 2018, when it brought charges against two journalists from the Dennik N daily for revealing the identity of a protected witness in an article dating back to 2018. All charges were dropped the following day after the Prosecutor General’s Office hastily intervened.
Indicted Dennik N journalists Monika Todova and Konstantin Cikovsky were facing up to one year in prison on charges of disclosing classified information. The indictments concerned a story written by the pair in October 2018, in which they described how Peter Toth, former journalist-turned-spy who later headed the counterintelligence unit at the Slovak Intelligence Service, spied on journalists, including Kuciak and Todova.
Cikovsky and Todova revealed that Toth admitted to the police that the surveillance was ordered by mobster Marian Kocner, who is currently on trial for ordering Kuciak’s killing and is already serving a long jail sentence for other crimes. At the time, it was not clear whether Toth would take the witness stand, yet the reporter duo wrote that he had been acting as a secret and protected witness. The former spy boss decided to cooperate with investigators when it became apparent that his role in monitoring journalists prior to Kuciak’s death would be discovered, according to the report.
Prior to the article’s publication, Toth publicly commented on the case on Facebook and criticised Kocner, in the process revealing his involvement with the crony businessman. Still, by revealing his identity and publishing the information, journalists Todova and Cikovsky put Toth in potential danger, according to the charges in a criminal complaint filed by the former spy weeks before the expiration of statutory time limits.
The Bratislava prosecutor’s office took heavy flak for its decision to file charges against the reporters. Its move was criticised by several politicians and NGOs, who called it “unprecedented” and “unacceptable”. Publishers and editors-in-chief of major Slovak media demanded the immediate dropping of all charges, which they labelled “arbitrary” and threatening to journalists. The timing of the “outrageous” charges “itself raises serious questions,” the International Press Institute stated, in a nod to Todova’s recent series of critical stories on the prosecution service.
It took a single day for the regional prosecutor’s office to make a rapid U-turn and drop all charges, calling them “unlawful and unfounded, as well as arbitrary”.
Prime Minister Babis’s troubles with EU subsidies were back to haunt him this week. On the one hand, police investigators returned the Stork’s Nest file to prosecutors, who are now due to decide whether or not to press criminal charges over the case. Meanwhile, the European Commission refused the Czech government’s request to delay the process dealing with his conflicts of interest over EU funds.
The return of these issues two weeks before elections on October 8-9 is obviously inconvenient for the billionaire premier. Indeed, the government’s bid to wriggle out of responding to the Commission’s demand that it report on the measures it plans to implement to tighten control of the spending of EU funds was designed expressly to kick the issue into the long grass until after the election.
However, the Stork’s Nest scandal and the attempt to sideline it have been in the public eye for years and didn’t dent the popularity of Babis’s ANO party in the polls very much. The only conclusion is that somehow enough Czech voters don’t care about his dubious antics – even though Brussels has warned it could withhold funding, totalling over 30 billion euros in 2021-27 – unless Prague plays ball.
The Stork’s Nest (Capi hnizdo) charges centre on a 50-million-koruna (2 million euro) subsidy granted to the eponymous leisure resort in 2007. Police suspect that Babis hid Agrofert’s ownership of the resort by registering the property to his family in order to access the subsidy, for which only small companies were eligible.
The case file has been swapped between police and prosecutors so many times that it sends most people’s head spinning (which of course may be the point). At the request of prosecutor Jaroslav Saroch, police have updated it with additional information from witnesses, essentially Andrej Babis Jr., who claims that his father had him kidnapped and taken to Crimea in 2017 in order to prevent him from speaking to investigators. Jr has been dogging Babis on the campaign trail, wishing him luck in “fooling the country”, but again that does not seem to have hurt the premier’s support, which sits at around 27 per cent.
Under normal circumstances, Saroch – who in 2019 threw out the case before his superior retrieved it – would have two months to decide whether to prosecute. However, the Prague Municipal State Attorney Office, which last month launched a review of Saroch’s actions to delay the case, has ordered him to come to a conclusion within one month. By that time, however, Babis is likely to be busy trying to work out how on earth he’s going to form a viable government.
There was one piece of good news for more liberal-minded Czechs this week as Hana Lipovska was removed from the supervisory council of Czech Television (Ceska televize). The economist, who has led a campaign to oust Petr Dvorak as director of the public broadcaster, was voted off the governing body by parliament because of her political activities.
Lipovska is widely regarded as the leader of a range of anti-democratic political interests, believed to stretch back to President Milos Zeman, trying to defang the well-respected public broadcaster. Critics have warned that the campaign seeks to destroy Czech TV’s political independence.
Democratic opposition parties managed over the spring and summer to block the election by government-allied and extremist party forces in parliament of four more Czech Television Council members who would have tipped the balance on the governing body, meaning it could have then sacked Dvorak.
However, Lipovska, it seems, picked the wrong party when she announced in the summer that she would stand in the upcoming election for the far-right Free Bloc. While Prime Minister Babis is happy to work quietly with extremists when necessary, he baulks at advertising the fact, and Lipovska and Free Bloc do not hide their lights under a bushel. It was no surprise then that it was the same MPs from his ANO party that originally supported her appointment to the Czech TV Council that helped vote her out. At the same time, concern remains that the fight over the public broadcaster will resume after the election.
The removal of Lipovska did not go down well with Lubomir Volny. The portly leader of the Free Bloc – his surname translates as “Free” – has made himself something of a celebrity among anti-democratic forces in recent months via his furious opposition to pandemic measures and outrageous behaviour in parliament. As the lower house voted to eject Lipovska from the Czech TV Council, the party leader began jostling MPs and had to be physically removed from the chamber by police.