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Democracy Digest: as Slovaks Go to Polls, Progressives Eke Out a Lead

Elsewhere, Czech political figures accused of taking ‘red koruna’; Poland reports progress in Ukraine grain talks; and Hungary PM meets Marine Le Pen.

Slovaks go to the polls this weekend in an extremely tight early election that could determine the country’s orientation for the next four years. On Wednesday, a new poll showed the progressives taking a narrow lead over the populist (and pro-Russian) Smer party of former PM Robert Fico. The survey, conducted by the AKO agency between September 20-26 for TV JOJ 24, showed the new Progressive Slovakia party of MEP Michal Simecka polling at 18 per cent, narrowly ahead of Smer at 17.7 per cent and Hlas, a splinter party of SMER, at 15 per cent. The latest polls show eight or nine parties would make it into parliament, including OLaNO, the previous election winning party of former PM Igor Matovic that dumped Smer out of power three years ago. Others include the liberal SaS, led by ex-economy minister Richard Sulik, and the far-right parties of Republika and SNS. Since no party looks likely to get a majority on its own, President Zuzana Caputova, has said that whichever party wins will get first crack at forming a coalition.

The election comes against a backdrop of widespread disinformation and misinformation. Slovakia is a country that surveys have shown is one where fake news is prevalent and its population most susceptible to it. Smer’s leader and his far-right allies have been caught shamelessly peddling widely discredited conspiracy theories, often with a pro-Russian flavour. This week Politico reported that the EU Commission felt moved to warn social media giants Alphabet, TikTok and Meta in a series of meetings in Bratislava during the week of September 11 that they must do more to protect the election from foreign interference or else face fines.

Chairman of Law, Respect, Expertise (PRO) party Jindrich Rajchl attends an anti-government demonstration called ‘Czech Republic Against Poverty’ at Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czech Republic, 16 April 2023. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK

Czech political figures accused of taking ‘red koruna’; huge nuclear drive; US stealth jets

It can be a tough life being a “personality” in a small market like Czechia, but luckily the Kremlin is on hand to help. Russian agents have been paying large bribes to select public figures to spread its narrative regarding the invasion of Ukraine, Czechia’s spy chief told a parliamentary hearing this week. While refusing to name names, Security Information Service (BIS) chief Michal Koudelka said that public figures were paid “thousands of euros” in return for spreading disinformation. The head of the counterintelligence agency also noted that Moscow’s operatives had sought contact with the leading figures in the series of anti-government protests that have run over the last year. Disinformation networks in the Czech Republic are well established and have helped polarise society, radicalising sections of it, and raising the prospects of populists and nationalists. PM Petr Fiala promised ahead of his election in 2021 to fight disinformation, but the conservative wing of his centre-right ODS party has pushed the topic off the agenda, citing “free speech” concerns. Koudelka also reported Russian attempts to disrupt January’s presidential election, and efforts over the long term to influence journalists.

Prague is eyeing an expanded nuclear drive. Laying out the government’s strategy to increase the role of nuclear in Czechia’s energy mix, PM Fiala confirmed the plan is to build several new reactors. Long-delayed by arguments with private shareholders in state-controlled energy giant CEZ, the tender for a first new unit, at the Dukovany plant, is due to receive final bids from US, French and South Korean companies in the coming weeks. Fiala said the winner could also be invited to construct up to three further large-scale reactors at either Dukovany or Temelin, the country’s other nuclear plant. Prague is also eyeing the potential of small modular reactors (SMR), he added. Building four large reactors could cost 1.75 trillion koruna (72 billion euros) according to government estimates, more the pity for Russian and Chinese companies that were viewed as frontrunners until they were excluded from bidding on security grounds in 2021. The expanded plan and price tag is likely to add momentum to the government’s scheme to take full control of CEZ’s production assets.

Talking of spending big, the government this week gave its approval to blowing a further 150 billion koruna on two dozen F-35 fighter jets. The deal, which has already been greenlit by Washington, is Czechia’s biggest ever defence contract. The first of the US-built stealth multirole combat aircraft, which will replace the current fleet of Swedish Gripen fighters, will be delivered in 2029, with the order to be completed six years later. The purchase is part of efforts by the current government to push defence spending closer to NATO’s minimum recommended 2 per cent of GDP. The choice of the F-35 is in line with many NATO peers, with the Lockheed Martin aircraft becoming the new standard in the alliance. However, that’s unlikely to convince critics – mostly self-styled “patriots” – who claim that Fiala and his government are US lapdogs. A defence cooperation agreement with Washington was passed by parliament earlier this year, despite the best efforts of the far-right SPD to prevent the country from becoming a “vassal”.

Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus (L) and his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Solskyi (R) attend a press conference at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister in Warsaw, Poland, 18 April 2023. EPA-EFE/Pawel Supernak

Poland reports Ukraine grain progress; Russian coal finds its way in

Representatives of both Polish and Ukrainian governments on Wednesday expressed satisfaction about progress made this week on talks over the issue of Ukrainian grain imports that have been blocked by Poland. On September 15, Poland – alongside Hungary and Slovakia – unilaterally prolonged what had been an EU-wide ban on Ukrainian grain and other agricultural imports. This was implemented after the overland “solidarity routes” for Ukrainian grain were failing to transit on to markets in Africa and the Middle East, but instead were ending up on local Central European markets, which caused prices there to collapse. The bans led Ukraine to demand arbitration at the WTO. The Ukrainian grain issue has led to a souring of Polish-Ukrainian relations, which are now at their lowest point since the war began in 2022, but signs of progress were apparent after the meeting between the two countries’ agriculture ministers. Robert Telus and Mykola Solsky met online this week, but a face-to-face meeting is planned for the following weeks. One of the compromise solutions discussed was the introduction of a license system for Ukrainian food products, with Poland and other neighbouring countries having a say on which Ukrainian companies are allowed to export what into the EU. Another proposal Poland likes is to transfer the inspection of products from the Ukrainian-Polish border to the Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-German ones, which would make the transit of products through Poland faster and reduce the chances of foodstuffs getting stuck on the local market.

An opposition senator from Civic Platform, Krzystof Brejza, claimed this week that since the war began, as much as 1 million tons of Russian coal could have made its way to Poland despite sanctions. On September 27, the senator published videos he says he personally took the previous night in the port of Szczecin, which show a vessel under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda unloading what appears to be coal. Brejza says he has information the ship’s crew were Russian, meaning the vessel is likely Russian operating under a flag of convenience. Journalists from oko.press were able to verify using open-source channels that the same vessel indeed came from a route that included Russia before reaching Poland, confirming that loading coal onto smaller vessels under different flags is a modus operandi for bringing Russian coal into Poland despite the sanctions, which bar Russian vessels from entering EU ports. In response to Brejza’s accusations, the Polish National Tax Administration responded: “Coal from Russia is subject to sanctions and is not imported into Poland. The National Tax Administration is ensuring that all sanctions imposed against Russia are being respected.”

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (R) receives Marine Le Pen, leader of National Rally, in his office in Budapest, Hungary, 27 September 2023. EPA-EFE/Vivien Cher Benko

Hungary PM meets Le Pen; a year after ‘heartbeat law’ no sign abortions are falling

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban received French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in his office and happily posted a photo with the thrice-defeated French presidential candidate. Orban wrote they agreed that “changes are needed” in the EU. “Europe needs border controls instead of migration, economic cooperation instead of sanctions [against Russia], and peace instead of war,” Orban declared. Orban’s press secretary said Le Pen and the PM “assessed the situation of the strengthening European right, especially in view of next year’s European Parliament elections. They also discussed how to promote national and Christian values and families, which are at the heart of both the Hungarian governing parties and the French National Rally.” In 2022, it was revealed that Le Pen had received a 10-million-euro loan from a Hungarian bank close to the government at the express request of Orban. Le Pen’s party needed the money for the 2022 French presidential election campaign. The loan was repaid by spring this year. Le Pen recently visited Italy and appeared at a far-right League event hosted by Matteo Salvini, but did not meet with members of Giorgia Meloni’s ruling Fratelli di Italia party.

Activists from the pro-choice Patent NGO have distributed posters in Hungary calling for free and safe abortion for all women. The organisation claims the number of abortions has not decreased since parliament introduced new hurdles, it has merely become more of a painful process for women. In September 2022, the parliament passed a new law requiring women to listen to the foetal heartbeat before deciding whether to have an abortion. The change caused a huge uproar and led to street protests, which soon died down. Critics say listening to the heartbeat of an embryo is humiliating and painful for women. Kriszti Les, an activist with Patent, told Telex.hu that statistics show there were 21,779 abortions in Hungary in 2022, though about 700 women went abroad for the treatment and there were also some who ordered abortion pills by mail. Abortion is legal in Hungary up to the 12th week of pregnancy, but women must attend two consultations where nurses usually try to persuade them to continue the pregnancy. Recently, many women have complained it’s getting harder to get an appointment, raising fears they may run out of time to get a termination. The introduction of the foetal heartbeat law was also taken by activists as a sign of the government’s latent attempts to restrict abortion rights – after banning the abortion pill in 2012 – but without going too far, as 70 per cent of society supports the current legislation.

Source: balkaninsight