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Democracy Digest: Sticking the V4 up at Belarus | Reporting Democracy – Balkan Insight

The sharp deterioration of the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border this week, when Belarusian guards were witnessed apparently organising migrants into several larger groups to attempt mass crossings, forced Warsaw to boost the number of troops at the border to 20,000, leading to a sharp rise in military traffic in the area.
Given journalists and civil society groups are not allowed into the 3-kilometre stretch of land along the Polish border with Belarus – after a state of emergency was declared there in early September in response to migrants mainly from the Middle East and Africa being tempted to Belarus by the regime there and then herded over the border – reports of what transpired this week have come from observers such as the hundreds of migrants themselves posting on social media, as well as some select footage from Belarusian and Polish state sources.
In an escalation of the migrant crisis being fomented by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, with the alleged help of his political ally Russian President Vladimir Putin, designed to destabilise EU countries and test their military capabilities, tensions began growing when a large group of migrants on Monday attempted to cross into Poland at an official border-crossing point.
However, it seems Belarusian authorities saw the potential to create havoc and subsequently steered them away from the official crossing point, channelling them towards several points along the Polish-Belarusian border and towards the Lithuanian one too.
So far this week, collective attempts have been made to cross at Kuznice, Krynki and Bialowieza, with Poland’s government saying it had rebuffed an illegal “invasion”. The Polish Interior Ministry confirmed another group attempt on Wednesday night, this time numbering about 150 people, without providing the specific location.
While Poland has insisted it can handle the border crisis alone – refusing, for example, to request the assistance of EU border agency Frontex – a diplomatic flurry of activity took place this week as the situation escalated. The UN Security Council was scheduled to discuss the Poland-Belarus border crisis on Thursday.
On Wednesday night, after meeting with European Council President Charles Michel, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted: “Poland and the Baltic states protect their borders guarding peace and stability in Europe. We have full support of NATO and the EU. Unity and tightening the sanctions are currently the most urgent responses to the BY hybrid attack. Thank you, Charles Michel.”
On Wednesday, the EU accused Belarus of conducting a “brutal attack” using migrants, and anticipated further sanctions against the Lukashenko regime as soon as next week. NATO and the US have also expressed support for Poland and the Baltics. There are fears that the crisis could escalate if it draws in NATO and Russia. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Russia had dispatched two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace in a show of support for Lukashenko.
In the meantime, the real victims of this big-power standoff, the migrants, continue to suffer. On Wednesday, oko.press reported that a 14-year-old Kurdish boy died near Kuznica, where the first group of migrants have been camping since Monday. The information is based on accounts sent by sms to oko.press by two migrants inside the camp, and could not be independently confirmed. If true, the boy would be the 11th victim since the crisis on the Polish border began in August.
The border crisis forced Hungarian diplomacy this week into a careful balancing act – pledging support to Warsaw without openly criticizing Minsk, in order not to create tensions with Russia, which is regarded by many as being behind the crisis. Inevitably, the harshest criticism was reserved for the European Commission.
“Poland’s eastern border continues to be under severe illegal migration pressure,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote in a Facebook post. “Our poor Polish friends are now directly experiencing what has been a virtually continuous phenomenon in our case for six years. We need to be clear: border violation is a crime. I assured my Polish colleague of the full solidarity of Hungary, thanking him for the protection of Poland and thus the external border of the European Union and the Schengen area.”
Szijjarto also compared the work of Polish border guards protecting Europe’s external borders to the Hungarian ones on the southern border of Hungary, and lashed out at European institutions, whose complacency and acquiescence he feels has caused much of the problem.
“All those politicians in Brussels who have taken a pro-migration stance over the last six years have kept the mandatory resettlement quota on the agenda and denied funds to the countries protecting the borders should now go to the Polish-Belarusian border and be ashamed,” Szijjarto wrote.
Unsurprisingly, the Hungarian foreign minister and official Hungarian circles avoided difficult questions about how this crisis on the EU’s borders with Belarus came about – namely, how the migrants ended up there in the first place and how they are effectively being weaponised by the Minsk government.
Kinga Gal, a Fidesz MEP, went somewhat further than the foreign minister, clearly condemning Belarus for using the migrants to attack the EU. Besides offering full support to Poland, she also demanded the European Commission make the protection of the external borders a priority and also pay for it. “Hungary has already shown that mass migration could be stopped,” she declared in her speech to the European Parliament.
Nevertheless, as experts usually add, the pressure on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia cannot be compared to the organised attack on the Polish border. The Hungarian government tends to claim that 90,000 people have so far tried to enter Hungary illegally this year, but the number is probably much lower, since most migrants try to enter at least five or six times, a migration expert told BIRN earlier.
Immediate European action was also urged by Katalin Cseh, an MEP from the Hungarian liberal opposition party Momentum, who in her speech requested more EU sanctions on Belarus, a united EU response and forceful Frontex engagement in Poland. “This is not the time to bicker about EU competencies,” she said. “But let’s not delude ourselves: nothing happens in Minsk without the approval of Moscow.”
Cseh accused the EU’s far-right of cozying up to Putin, threatening European security, and called Prime Minister Viktor Orban a Trojan Horse for Putin by vetoing common European positions.
Despite deteriorating relations over the Turow mine (see more below). The Czechs this week followed diplomatic protocol to express support for their neighbour over the border crisis.
“The situation on Belarus-Poland border is extreme,” tweeted Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, stressing solidarity with Warsaw and declaring his readiness to support toughened EU sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime.
While it may be tempting for the Czechs to have a pop at a Polish government that has been busy recently aiming bitter barbs at them, Prague is unlikely to add to the chorus of voices questioning Warsaw’s treatment of the trapped refugees. Prime Minister Andrej Babis has long spouted anti-migrant rhetoric, and while the incoming SPOLU/PirStan coalition government is likely to be a little more circumspect, it won’t be flinging open the gates any time soon.
A month after the election, the Czech wheels of democracy finally got some grease this week and began to slowly turn. How quickly the new five-party SPOLU/PirStan coalition government, which holds 108 of parliament’s 200 seats, will be installed is the only real question now.
Prime Minister Babis’s minority government resigned as the constitution requires at the end of the inaugural session of the new parliament on Wednesday evening. That puts the ball firmly in President Milos Zeman’s court.
The head of state appears to have made a significant recovery in the days leading up to the reconvening of parliament, a month after he was rushed to hospital. That has persuaded the opposition forces to scrap their plan to strip him of his powers. At the start of the week Zeman formally asked SPOLU leader Petr Fiala to build a new government.
Fiala is now working with the other parties to finalise the details of the cabinet. The quintet signed off on a coalition agreement on Monday, but there is some tension remaining around the participation of the Pirate Party. Having dropped from leading the polls back in the spring, the Pirates bombed in the election, taking just four seats in parliament. That leaves the liberal party licking its wounds as it takes up a role as a junior member of a coalition with four centre-right partners.
The potential split is not a threat to the coalition, which will still have a four-seat majority even should the Pirates ultimately jump ship, but there remain potentially deep divisions between the other parties. They’ll have to wait for the moment, though. The new government needs to get into place quickly to deal with issues including the rising fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the huge fiscal deficit, the energy price spike and next year’s EU presidency.
However, a swift transfer of power is no sure bet. Whether the recovering Zeman, who must approve the whole government, has the strength to try to enforce his will over the proposed cabinet – as he has done in the past – remains to be seen. The appointment of Jan Lipavsky, a Pirate and staunch opponent of Russian and Chinese influence, as foreign minister is, for instance, unlikely to be welcomed by the president and his inner circle in Prague Castle.
Meanwhile, as SPOLU and PirStan wait to fill the corridors of power, Babis is finding out just how quickly the magic of the prime minister’s office can evaporate. The same day that he handed in his resignation letter, state prosecutors asked parliament to lift his immunity to prosecution in connection with the Stork’s Nest investigation. Prosecutors twice previously refused to lay criminal fraud charges against him.
But a fall is a fall, and even the rank-and-file police are now lining up to have a pop. The departing premier complained on Sunday that the traffic cops are now also hassling him over a video he recorded as he drove down the D1, the country’s main motorway. Keen to boast that the renovation of the 200-kilometre road is finally about to be completed after years of delay, Babis recorded himself travelling the route and pointing out his achievements. He then posted the opus on YouTube. Following a complaint from the public, police contacted Babis to demand to know why he had been driving without due care and attention. “Someone betrayed me again,” the billionaire moped.
Among those happy to see the back of Babis will be Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki, who has spent recent weeks avoiding his Czech peer after the pair fell out over Poland’s planned expansion of the Turow lignite mine. Following weeks of on-again, off-again “last minute” negotiations, in which Prague asked Warsaw for 50 million euros, protection of its water sources from pollution, and improved monitoring of air quality and noise, a Czech lawsuit against Turow opened on Tuesday in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
The development will do nothing to improve relations between Prague and Warsaw, which are not likely to be smoothed over with a few words of support regarding the Polish border crisis. Far from following the unwritten rule of the Visegrad Four group that says any points of disagreement – and there are many – should simply be sidelined, the Turow case is becoming increasingly poisonous. Polish officials now say that Prague cannot be trusted, and at least one pub near Turow made the headlines when it banned Czechs.
The Polish mood has also been darkened by the CJEU’s imposition last month of a fine of 500,000 euros per day for Warsaw’s refusal to comply with an order to shut the mine pending a decision. On Monday, the European Commission asked Poland to settle the 25-million-euro bill racked up by various CJEU fines that it has refused to pay. Brussels will take the cash from EU funding planned for Poland should Warsaw continue to refuse to stump up.
Morawiecki is unlikely to get a better hearing from the incoming government either. Although sections of Fiala’s ODS party has warm feelings towards the Eurosceptics in Poland and Hungary, the new coalition is likely to steer Czechia further away from the V4 and its troublesome image across the EU.
More than 2,500 doctors are apparently ready to resign from Slovak hospitals amid a deteriorating public health crisis that has driven the medical profession to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Throngs of doctors signed a declaration stating their readiness to leave their posts if working conditions do not improve and the extremely grave situation in the crumbling healthcare system is not addressed, various representatives of the Medical Trade Union told the local media.
Decrying a disintegrating healthcare system that has remained unaddressed for years despite urgent calls for reform, medical professionals seem as determined as ever to follow through on their ultimatum. But rather than breaking the Hippocratic oath, more than 1,300 concerned medical workers signed another open letter containing a plea for more vaccinations across the country.
“The hospitals are being filled by people who should not have been there,” reads the letter, in reference to a growing number of young patients who end up in hospitals.
Even though many of these patients have serious cases of COVID-19, the doctors noted, there is not enough hospital staff to treat them – and the existing workforce is losing strength. “Quite often, these [patients] are dying and we cannot help them. It is an indescribable feeling of helplessness and despair,“ the letter stated, as quoted by the Slovak Spectator.
Slovakia’s full-vaccination rate remains well below 50 per cent and ranks among the worst in the EU. As the numbers of infections and coronavirus-related deaths surge, under-staffed hospitals are left to deal with an overflow of patients while lacking the necessary equipment to tackle the worst outbreak of infections since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, an MEP delegation headed by Lucia Duris Nicholsonova, a former figurehead of Slovakia’s liberal SaS party, visited segregated Roma communities living in decrepit settlements in the eastern part of the country.
The roughly 40-strong Brussels-based contingent set out to monitor the integration of marginalised communities within wider society, but instead found ragged children with scars on their faces from rat bites playing in mud and faeces while eating glue instead of food, according to follow-up reports.
Some MEPs were appalled and speechless, with Nicholsonova later telling the Korzar daily: “They couldn’t move; they just stared ahead, shook their heads and were lost for words. These people have travelled to African countries and know India, yet they said that they’ve never seen anything worse.”
Portuguese MEP Manuel Pizzaro exclaimed that he was “ashamed as a politician” for what he had witnessed. Along with several of his peers, he alleged a “problem” with upholding basic human rights. The delegation also raised questions about drug use and prostitution among children there, though many of their queries have remained unanswered.
“Roma people live the same way in Romania and Bulgaria – it’s a mass of millions of people,” Nicholsonova claimed. “Building a social Europe… is a utopia. It’s miles away from reality.”
Elsewhere, university students and representatives of the academic community staged protest marches against university reforms that opponents view as an attack on academic freedom and democracy. In a stark parallel to student protests organised during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the current wave of marches denounced alleged attacks on “academic autonomy” and a cut to university budgets amounting to nearly 30 million euros, the Pravda daily informed.
Education Minister Branislav Grohling wants to introduce more technical competence onto university management boards, much to the chagrin of academic leaders who fear an imminent influx of political nominees to the top seats of their institutions. The newly appointed “managers” are envisaged as an external body with the power to approve the budget and all large financial transactions.
The reform, yet to be approved by parliament, is tied to a payment of nearly 500 million euros from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. Should Grohling’s plan fail, Slovakia could lose out on the entirety of the promised money. But universities remain firmly opposed to the reform and have repeatedly threatened the ministry with a general strike.
Brussels was also the focus this week of the Hungarian joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, Peter Marki-Zay, who spent two days in the EU capital to meet with European politicians, among them Manfred Weber, leader of the European Parliamentary group of centre-right parties, the European People’s Party, .
Marki-Zay said his Movement for Hungary is not going to be transformed into a party for the foreseeable future, so the issue of whether it will join a European party family is currently moot. Even so, Marki-Zay said that should Hungary’s joint opposition win next year’s election, a government of his would be a faithful member of the EU and not source of tension as the current Hungarian government under Orban is. Nevertheless, he added that the southern border fence built to keep out irregular crossings of migrants would remain in place.
Marki-Zay also met with Paolo Gentolini, EU commissioner for the economy, to discuss the current status of Hungary’s application for its slice of the EU’s 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund, worth 7.2 billion euros.
Hungary’s submitted recovery and resilience plan for the funds is still pending approval by the European Commission, which is demanding from the government more effective guarantees against corruption. Marki-Zay said that the “EU should better think twice before it gives money to Hungary”, referring, of course, to Orban’s government.