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Democracy Digest: Belarus Leader Says Wagner Here to Stay as Polish Ministers Visit Border

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said on Thursday that demands made earlier in the week by Poland and the Baltic states for Wagner Group mercenaries to leave Belarus were “groundless and stupid”, especially given NATO troops are stationed in these states. On Monday, the interior ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia jointly called on Belarus to expel Wagner mercenaries from its territory and end the migration crisis that it and Russia have been fomenting on EU borders. Lukashenko’s response came just before the start of military exercises by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) hosted by Belarus on September 1-6. “The scale of those maneuvres will surely not be impressive given the Russians are engaged in a bloody war in Ukraine, but they are part of the psychological war which is being carried out against, among others, Poland and its citizens,” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said.

On Wednesday, Kaminski and his colleagues Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak and Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau were dispatched to the Polish-Belarus border to give statements about Poland’s readiness to deal with hybrid threats coming from Belarus and Russia. The PiS government is in full campaign mode ahead of the October 15 election, with “security” a main theme for the ruling party. The ministers visited two key locations for the border crisis that began in 2021, Krynki and Usnarz Gorny, and praised their government for building a wall on the border to protect the country. Rau claimed that “90 per cent of migrants were and continue to be recruited by the Russian services”. While a vast majority of migrants arriving at the Polish border do indeed fly via Moscow, the extent of the involvement of the Russian security services has not yet been established. The ministers also criticised the Polish opposition for organising “happenings” on the border – a reference to attempts by several opposition MPs to help migrants stuck for weeks on the border at Usnarz Gorny in the autumn of 2021. Following the ministers’ statements, journalists were not allowed to ask questions nor were locals even allowed to take part in the event, as activist and journalist Piotr Czaban recorded. Czaban, who lives in the area and is involved in the search for dead bodies of migrants and organising their burials, sought to address several questions to the ministers, including: “Why is Poland still trading with Russia and Belarus?” and “How many people died in the Polish forests?” Minister Blaszczak accused Czaban of being “on Putin’s side”.

Despite delays and doubts about whether it would even go ahead, the commission meant to investigate Russian influence in Poland is finally being formed. On Wednesday, during the last session of parliament, the Sejm approved the list of nine members for it. The commission has been heavily criticised by the European Commission, the US as well as Polish opposition parties and NGOs for being a political instrument created by PiS to use against political rivals, especially opposition leader Donald Tusk. President Andrzej Duda introduced some changes to soften the text of the bill before approving it. Questions remain about whether the commission will actually be able to present any findings before the October election. The original bill stated the commission would present its first findings in mid-September, but that provision was removed from the final text of the law.

Signs Prague wants to unfreeze Moscow ties; domestic and sexual violence on the up

The Czech government wants to unfreeze diplomatic relations with Russia, with reports saying that Prague plans to install a new ambassador at its Moscow embassy. The unconfirmed move is surprising, as relations between the two states collapsed in 2021 after the Vrbetice explosion that killed two people was attributed to Russian sabotage and hundreds of diplomats on both sides were ejected. Relations have nosedived further since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Ambassador Vitezslav Pivonka was recalled to Prague at the start of the year, leaving only a chargé d’affaires to run things in Moscow. Despite the continuation of the war, Western states are now pushing to reopen communication lines with the Russian regime. In recent weeks, the UK and Germany both announced political heavyweights as new ambassadors. They will join chief diplomats from the EU and US that arrived in Moscow earlier this year. With Pivonka’s term about to end, PM Petr Fiala says Czechia now wants to have a similar setup to its allies. That could prove a test for Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who has built his political reputation by showing a remarkable lack of diplomacy towards the Kremlin. Whoever Lipavsky sends to Moscow would be required to present their credentials to Putin.

Domestic and sexual violence are on the rise in the Czech Republic, according to government statistics. The data shows the police dealt with higher levels of domestic abuse, rape and murder in the first half of 2023. In all of 2022, 430 cases of physical abuse were recorded, but just between January and June of this year 275 cases were reported. In the first half of this year, 535 rapes in which the abuser knew the victim well were recorded as well as 42 murders. The government commissioner for human rights reckons the reported cases are likely only the tip of the iceberg, with experts estimating that just one in 20 rapes are reported. On the one hand, it has been suggested that the higher number of cases reflects a rise in confidence in the police and judicial system. Yet progress has been mixed. Activists welcomed government plans to adopt a new definition of rape. However, fury erupted last month when the country’s police chief suggested that reports of rape are “very often… fictitious”. Last week, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee refused to support the long-delayed ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Conservatives claim the Council of Europe treaty against domestic and sexual violence is a threat to family values. Signatory states to the convention commit to allocating resources to prevent gender-based violence and help victims.

The Czech parliament this week passed the “lex CEZ” bill in a first reading. The legislation is key to Prague’s bid to split up state-controlled energy giant CEZ and nationalise its production assets. Amid uncertainty over the financing, minority shareholders have for years been opposing the state’s efforts to have CEZ build new nuclear power capacity. The war in Ukraine and Europe’s decarbonisation drive has focused minds on the conflict between the state’s energy security interests and the profit motive of private investors. This has seen France and Germany nationalise major utilities over the last year or so. However, CEZ shareholders complain that Prague is playing rough. The amendment would reduce the percentage of shareholders needed to approve the division of a corporation from 90 to 75 per cent with a two-thirds quorum, essentially granting the Finance Ministry the freedom to break up CEZ regardless of opposition. They also warn that de-listing the largest and most liquid stock would hit the Prague Stock Exchange hard.

Hungary media slam Russia textbook; Musk, Meloni to appear at Demographic Summit

A new Russian history textbook for 11th graders caused anger in the Hungarian media this week after G7.hu reported that it describes the Hungarian uprising in 1956 against Soviet occupation and Communist rule as a “fascist rebellion”. The book also accuses Hungarians of brutally murdering Soviet soldiers during the uprising. In another chapter, it claims the withdrawal of Soviet troops from CEE was a grave mistake in 1990, as it led to a resurgence of nationalism and anti-Russian feelings in the region. The book is clearly a Putinist reinterpretation of history, but Hungarian government politicians – who take every opportunity to lash out against any Western criticism – have remained embarrassingly silent. Eventually, a rather ambiguous statement from the secretary of state of the Foreign Ministry, Tamas Menczer, was posted, avoiding any mention of the Soviet troops which crushed the revolution. “In 1956, the Hungarian people rose up against the Communist dictatorship – this is a clear, obvious fact, not a matter for debate. Any claim to the contrary is false. What happened is so clear we will not open a debate with anyone about it,” he wrote. Critical media and politicians demanded in vain for the government to summon the Russian ambassador, who, to avoid further escalation, tried to play down the whole affair. He posted on Facebook that there are at least 10 drafts of the textbook and no final version yet. The embassy added the text was leaked to Hungarian media by the Latvian-based Meduza, “which specialises in the production and dissemination of anti-Russian fake news, and it is rightly considered a foreign agent in Russia.” This is not the first time Russia has tried to rewrite history. Telex.hu recalled that in 2016 Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto summoned the Russian ambassador after a Russian TV documentary claimed the 1956 uprising was organised by Western forces and led to the release of thousands of Nazis from prison who went on to organise a hunt for Communists and Jews. The ambassador argued at the time it “was not the official position of the Russia government”.

The Hungarian government is gearing up for its next big event, the Budapest Demographic Summit on September 14-16. President Katalin Novak trumpeted on her social media channels that she has managed to get Italian PM Giorgia Meloni to address the gathering of ultra-rightwing politicians. Meloni’s presence could ease somewhat Orban’s isolation in the EU. The Hungarian government used to have high hopes after Meloni’s election victory, but the envisioned alliance fell apart when Meloni took a swift pro-European turn in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Other guests include perennial Orban fans like Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, but Novak has also invited US billionaire Elon Musk to the summit. Musk this week commented on Hungary’s family policies that Orban mentioned during his recent interview with former Fox TV host Tucker Carlson: “Very interesting. Hungary is trying hard to address its birth rate problem.” What was not mentioned is that despite spending billions of taxpayer money, the government has only managed to modestly raise the birth rate in the last 13 years (from 1.23 to 1.53 child per woman). Most experts agree that the measures introduced by the government won’t be enough to change the downward demographic trend.

Korcok throws his hat in the ring for Slovak president; Hlas vs Smer

In the town where he grew up, Banska Bystrica, and displaying some nervousness, the former foreign minister Ivan Korcok announced on Wednesday that he will run for president in 2024. “My main goal is to help Slovakia,” he said. The pro-Western politician is the first high-profile candidate to join the race since the incumbent, Zuzana Caputova, announced in June she would not seek reelection. Had she said yes, Korcok indicated he would not run. In early summer, Caputova voiced support for Korcok even though he was then only considering whether or not to run. Because he is not going to seek support from any party, Korcok will have to collect 15,000 signatures. While liberal parties welcomed Korcok’s decision, the Smer party of Robert Fico called him “a mercenary serving many political parties”. Previously, Korcok served as state secretary in a Smer government. Despite leaving his ministerial post last autumn, Korcok remains one of the most trusted politicians in Slovakia, though Caputova, acting PM Ludovit Odor and opposition leaders (and ex-PMs) Fico and Peter Pellegrini (Hlas) are ahead of him in the latest polls. There is speculation that one of the latter two might decide to run for president.

Pellegrini’s Hlas is no longer leading the polls ahead of the September 30 election. Rather, it is Smer led by Fico that has seen its support grow in recent months, making it the likely winner in the election. Hlas was founded by Smer renegades. In June, Pellegrini declared that Hlas was going to win the election. Since then, it has dropped into third place, and because of this Pellegrini has changed tack and now doesn’t oppose cooperation with Smer after the election. Smer has until recently been attacking Hlas, in addition to strengthening its position by stealing voters from Hlas. Although Smer and Hlas have denied any secret agreement, Slovak National Party leader Andrej Danko, who dreams of a coalition government with Smer and Hlas, thinks that Pellegrini and Fico concluded a deal that Pellegrini would serve as PM even if Smer wins the election. A similar situation occurred in 2018 after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, when Pellegrini replaced Fico as PM. However, Fico continued to exercise a great deal of influence over the government.

Source : BalkanInsight