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Democracy Digest: Ballot Box Bromance – Balkan Insight

With the parliamentary election just a week away, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has been doubling down on his attacks on migration and the EU. So, who better to offer his support than the man Babis would love to be: Viktor Orban.
Last week, Babis took a trip with his buddy to “inspect” Hungary’s border fence, as well as joining a host of regional populists to extol the virtues of using conservative values rather than immigration to reverse Central and Eastern Europe’s downward demographic spiral. Then on Wednesday, Orban – whose domination of political power in his country the Czech billionaire can only eye with envy – visited Babis at home to help boost his illiberal credentials. The budding bromance between the two fits well with the Hungarian leader’s continual push to encourage an international network of radical-right populists.
The local press was full of complaints over the tightly controlled event, which Orban stressed had definitely no connection to the upcoming election in Czechia but was merely a standard state visit. Naturally, then, the two premiers refused to take questions, but treated the few journalists admitted to an hour-long chat. All the important issues of the day were covered: Babis’s successes in leading Czechia; Orban’s successes in leading Hungary; their joint successes in dealing with the EU.
Babis was praised for his fight for Czech interests; Orban for being a “great man” and for his ambition to form a Visegrad Four football championship. Migration, the EU’s climate change push and Ivan Bartos – the dreadlocked leader of the opposition PirStan coalition – were all roundly condemned.
Bartos had his own Hungarian meeting this week, with Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, who hopes to be selected by his country’s united opposition to run against Orban in next year’s parliamentary election (see more below).
In perhaps the least shocking revelation of the entire Czech election, Karacsony warned Bartos that the Czech democratic opposition – which is experimenting with a mild form of unity in this election – must at all costs stop Babis from taking Czechia in Orban’s direction.
While the Czech prime minister is delighted to get support from abroad, he’s not quite so sure about what’s on offer at home.
According to President Milos Zeman, who fancies he can manipulate the billionaire, Babis will be tasked with forming the next government come what may. But with Babis’s ANO party having cannibalised left-leaning parties, and most of the rest of the illiberal field looking weak, his chances of building a coalition with a majority look slim.
Zeman’s dream ticket would be for ANO to team up with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), which is on course to win 10 per cent of the vote. However, a formal coalition is very unlikely.
Despite buffing up his illiberal credentials for the gallery at home, Babis remains highly sensitive over his image among EU peers. Following the last election, the billionaire opted for months of tedious negotiations to form a minority government rather than work with the SPD.
In addition, ANO is fighting against the SPD to win nationalist votes while at the same time trying to avoid aggravating its more moderate electorate with the prospect it could invite the far-right into government. Hence, ANO officials spent this week declaring that cooperation with the party is “unimaginable”.
The SPD has helped authenticate those claims by declaring that a referendum on EU membership would be its price for entering a post-election coalition with ANO. It also said it would demand Babis be replaced as prime minister, illustrating that formal cooperation in such a government would be just as disturbing for the far-right party as it would be for Babis’s quasi-democrats.
One point that will be high on Zeman’s agenda for the next government will be “Lex Dukovany” – the legislation on promoting low-carbon energy that the president signed into law on Monday. The bill opens the way for the state to fund the expansion of the country’s nuclear fleet starting with a new unit at the Dukovany power plant. It also excludes companies from Russia and China from the tender.
Russia’s Rosatom has long been viewed as the favourite to build the next Czech nuclear reactor, and with Zeman’s enthusiastic support appeared to be on course to overcome the opposition’s national security objections to clinch the contract, which is estimated to be worth 160 billion-400 billion koruna (6.2 billion-15.6 billion euros). However, Babis’s government changed its tune in April when it became apparent that Moscow was behind a 2014 explosion at the Vrbetice ammunition depot that killed two Czech citizens.
Lex Dukovany stipulates that only suppliers from countries that have acceded to the 1996 International Government Procurement Agreement will be admitted to the tender, which excludes Russia and China. The government plans to carry out security vetting with companies from the US, South Korea and France.
That Zeman did not veto the bill, which would have sent it back to parliament and even sent it back to square one if a new government comes in, was surprising. However, it seems that the head of state decided that with the spectre of Vrbetice looming over the issue, it would have been unwise to provoke the electorate by questioning Babis’s strong reaction to the Russian attack just ahead of the election. Better, perhaps, to secure the billionaire another term in the prime minister’s chair first, then pressure him to change the legislation.
China certainly seems to expect its buddies in Prague Castle to do something about Lex Dukovany. Immediately after Zeman signed off on the bill, Beijing said it expects the Czechs to reconsider its omission from the list of potential suitors. “We hope that the Czech Republic will respect the rules of the market economy and guarantee fair competition,” said a Beijing spokeswoman, apparently without irony. Moscow has not yet commented.
A number of academics from the University of Economics in Bratislava have, it seems, for years been living off the largesse of the Chinese Communist Party.
An investigation by the Sme daily revealed that the academics were being commissioned by a think tank connected to the Chinese government to submit regular reports on developments in Slovakia. The reports, likely destined for China’s communist leadership, included observations on the sustainability of Slovakia’s pension schemes and social benefits as well as the country’s changing stance toward the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The academics were paid by the China-CEE Institute, a think tank based in Budapest and run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Institute has been dubbed “problematic” by observers before, due to its links to the ruling political class in China. Analysts claim that China employed Slovak experts to make up for its lack of on-the-ground knowledge, while creating a back channel to influence local public opinion and political decision-making.
The strategy appears to be working, as evidenced by an ambitious plan recently announced by Slovakia’s Transport Ministry to lure more cargo trains filled to the brink with Chinese goods to pass through Slovakia instead of taking their current route via Poland. The ministry is looking to subsidise Chinese rail containers to undercut costs the trains currently rack up crossing Poland, the Slovak Spectator informed. Slovakia is a well-known partner of China, with the Technical University of Kosice developing artificial intelligence and face recognition systems for Chinese tech giant Huawei, in a cooperation that raised many eyebrows due to its potentially malicious use against the persecuted Uyghur ethnic minority.
Meanwhile, Slovakia’s Health Ministry launched a major reform involving a comprehensive overhaul of the hospital network with regulation of health insurance profits at its core. Changes should also address gaping holes in the numbers of general practitioners. Slovakia currently lacks more than 300 GPs and close to 150 paediatricians, with the average age of physicians for adults being 59 years and the standard paediatrician being two years older, State Secretary Jana Jezikova said.
Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky hopes to see more young doctors setting up outpatient clinics across the country and allocated 10 million euros out of the money the country will receive from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. The revamp’s first outcomes, including more expertise and medical specialisations, should be visible by 2024, according to officials.
More than 100 hospitals operate in Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million, creating a dense network of buildings that often lack quality and personnel, Dennik N highlighted. But healthcare staff maintain that the planned optimisation of the hospital network won’t solve the fundamental problem of staff shortages. “It will only address the symptoms, which is dangerous,” Peter Visolajsky from the Medical Trade Unions stated.
Doctors and nurses have long complained about low pay, poor working conditions and their inability to go on strike – it is illegal for Slovak medical professionals to hold industrial action.
Elsewhere, prominent influencer and social media figure Zuzana Plackova and her husband were among 15 people accused by the National Criminal Agency of the crime of establishing, conceiving and supporting a criminal group and of other drug-related crimes. Investigators raided several homes and seized more than 9 kilograms of methamphetamine, enough to make 90,000 single doses of the drug. The police also confiscated weapons, ammunition, cigarettes and more than 70,000 euros in cash.
Plackova, who has close to 800,000 followers on social media and allegedly made more than half a million euros last year from her online activities alone, kept her “viral” act together during her arrest by the police that made her feel like “she was from Hollywood,” she told a gathering of journalists. She then promoted her social media accounts and shouted “Queen Plackova!” as she was bundled into a police car. “At least follow me [on social media],” she managed to call out before being driven off.
A months-long investigation by three leading Polish media – Gazeta Wyborcza, onet and Radio Zet – for the first time revealed the true scale of nepotism among the ranks of the government. The journalists analysed information on about 5,000 people with leading positions in state companies and found that 900 of them had links to politicians from the governing United Right coalition, which is led by Law and Justice (PiS).
Among the politicians who have apparently placed trusted allies in leadership positions at state companies are Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak and former deputy prime minister Jaroslaw Gowin, who was only recently kicked out of the government for having positions toomoderate for the taste of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
While nepotism among PiS members does not come as a surprise to Poles, nor that the governing party uses state companies to pursue its political objectives, this is the first time that a comprehensive presentation of the sheer scale of the phenomenon has been laid out to the public.
Elsewhere, a new movement opposed to vaccination requirements was launched just as the daily number of new COVID-19 infections surpassed 1,200 this week. The movement, called “One Poland”, declares itself to be fighting for freedom and against “sanitary segregation”.
Poland’s government has managed to vaccinate only about half of the population so far, less than many of its EU peers, yet so far it has shied away from imposing any restrictions on the unvaccinated, instead putting the emphasis on positive encouragement, including setting up a lottery with prizes. With the fourth wave of the pandemic closing in, however, some PiS politicians, including party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have mentioned the possibility of potentially including some restrictions.
“The limits of freedoms are the rights of other people,” Kaczynski said in August. “One cannot expose others to the loss of life or health.”
The MEP Klara Dobrev, from Hungary’s leftist-liberal Democratic Coalition, won the first round of the primaries organised by the opposition parties to select the best-suited candidate to be their proposed prime minister in next year’s parliamentary election.
Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest came in second, with Peter Marki-Zay, the mayor of the south-eastern city Hodmezovasarhely, coming in a surprising third. Jobbik chairman Peter did not make it into the second round, nor did the leader of young liberal party Momentum, Andras Fekete-Gyor. Jakab, a charismatic and popular politician, had been tipped to make the top three, so the result will be a huge disappointment for him and his supporters.
On the other hand, Marki-Zay’s success is big surprise. The 49-year-old conservative politician with seven children and a successful track record of managing a former Fidesz stronghold city since his election in 2018, was actually the first politician in Hungary supported by the joint opposition, from the radical-right Jobbik to the left-leaning socialists, when the idea of putting on a “united front” against Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in the 2022 election was still a far-fetched idea.
Political scientist Gabor Torok described the opposition primaries as a success, because every fourth opposition voter turned up to cast a vote. Altogether more than 630,000 people participated in the primaries, the first ever such poll organised in Hungary.
The primaries were introduced after the opposition parties bandied together and decided that in all 106 constituencies of Hungary, one single opposition candidate should face Fidesz.
For the prime ministerial candidates, a second round is set for October 4-10 (though there is talk about a possible week’s delay). Torok listed two likely scenarios: if all three candidates compete in the second round, Dobrev would have the highest chance of emerging victorious. However, if Marki-Zay joins forces with Karacsony, the latter would probably be the opposition candidate to face Orban next year.
As well as being an MEP, Dobrev is also the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, a highly controversial figure in Hungarian politics, who is blamed for the mismanagement of the country’s economy during the second half of the 2000s and for paving the way for the landslide victory of Fidesz in 2010.
Many would like to see Gyurcsany retire from politics. And experts warn that having his wife as the opposition prime ministerial candidate would be the best possible outcome for Orban and Fidesz, who will claim the opposition is merely a tool of Gyurcsany’s.
That of course is unfair on Dobrev. A successful politician in her own right serving as vice president of the European Parliament and a highly intelligent woman, she has toured the country tirelessly in the last weeks, earning her many votes in the rural areas. On the negative side, besides being married to Gyurcsany, she is also the daughter of well-known communist parents, and as such is not exactly seen as a symbol of change by many in Hungary.
Speaking of dream scenarios for Orban, another could come from the most unlikely source of Brussels. It seems that despite several delays, Hungary will ultimately get its share of the EU’s 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund, worth 7.2 billion euros.
Government-critical daily Nepszava was told by unnamed sources in Brussels that although the original deadline of September 30 was missed, the European Commission is set to approve the Hungarian recovery plan within the next six weeks. Nepszava’s sources also said the Polish recovery plan will also be endorsed in the next few weeks.
Hungary submitted its plan in mid-May, but discussions with the European Commission were inconclusive, as Brussels said the plan lacked anti-corruption measures and transparency in the public procurement processes, while also criticising the justice reforms that have been carried out in Hungary. If the European Commission finally endorses the government’s recovery plan, Orban will have access to a first tranche of 326 billion forints (900 million euros) by the end of the year or the beginning of next – money the government desperately needs to fund some of its generous election promises like returning 2021 income tax to all families with children even before the spring election.
The possibility of such tax breaks, however, was not enough it seems to stop Prime Minister Orban’s eldest daughter, Rachel, from decamping to Marbella with her husband and three children. She announced the decision in a closed circle Instagram post, which was picked up by tabloid Blikk and went viral.
With the 2022 election polls showing a neck-and-neck race, the news inevitably fuelled suspicions that the couple were fleeing the country before a potential opposition win. Orban’s son-in-law, Istvan Tiborcz is the 37th richest person in Hungary with a fortune of over 100 million euros, mostly amassed from public procurement contracts awarded since his father-in-law became prime minister.
In one highly publicised case, Tiborcz’s former company Elios was installing public lighting systems in a number of Hungarian cities, financed chiefly by EU funds. A subsequent investigation by OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, found that most of the tenders had been rigged and there were clear signs of fraud. As a consequence, Hungary had to return 43 million euros to the EU, but happily for Tiborcz the state prosecution service did not see any reason to launch its own investigation.
Tiborcz has lately been investing in boutique hotels in Hungary, but apparently also has business interests in Spain. His new company BDPST group announced recently that it is opening a hotel in Las Alcazares, in southern Spain, Telex.hu wrote. Is that really enough of a reason to leave Hungary? the independent news site wondered.