Adiplomatic quarrel broke out between Slovakia and Hungary after the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Laszlo Kover, spoke about past Slovak “sins” unforgiven by Hungarians during a ceremony in southwest Slovakia held in memory of Hungarians expelled at the end of World War II. The Slovak Foreign Ministry took umbrage at the comments and requested its neighbour refrain from giving history lessons.
Kover, an extravagantly moustached member of the radical wing of Hungary’s nationalist-populist Fidesz party, visited Slovakia to unveil a memorial dedicated to Hungarians displaced from the town of Samorin under decrees issued by former Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes. The so-called Benes Decrees stripped many ethnic Hungarians and Germans of their Czechoslovak citizenship, property and civil rights, resulting in deportations and population exchanges.
“What [Slovaks] did towards Hungarians living in Slovakia in 1945-1947 was a sin before God and before the people,” Kover said at the unveiling of the memorial, according to the Dennik N daily. He warned that if these events were ever forgotten, “they could happen again in the future” to “defenceless victims”.
“Hungarians have not forgiven these sins because nobody apologised to them,” Kover claimed, as he called on Hungarians and Slovaks to “settle their past injustices”.
The Slovak Foreign Ministry responded by sending a diplomatic letter to Hungary in which it expressed disappointment at how Hungarian state officials “issue history lessons”.
“I definitely reject that the second highest official of Hungary has felt the need to come and give his view of history right in Slovakia,” Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said in a rebuttal to Kover’s claims.
No Slovak officials were present at the ceremony in Samorin, much to the annoyance of Korcok’s ministry, which wasn’t even notified of Kover’s visit. The Slovak Foreign Ministry has demanded Hungary follow normal diplomatic procedures and inform Bratislava about the purpose of any official visit in advance.
Kover and Korcok are no strangers to diplomatic spats. In 2015, the Hungarian politician controversially claimed that Slovaks and Czechs should not have been allowed into the EU due to the legacy of the Benes Decrees. And during his speech in Samorin, he shoehorned the ongoing culture wars into the narrative by warning of “globalist invisible powers” threatening “gender, family, religious and national identity” in nation states.
Korcok, on the other hand, demanded earlier this year that Hungary refrain from interfering in Slovakian affairs when his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto brought up the issue of amending Slovakia’s State Citizenship Act, which currently bars dual citizenship for Hungarians living in Slovakia.
Gyorgy Gyimesi, an MP with Slovakia’s ruling OLaNO party and vocal supporter of the Hungarian establishment, at the time warned Slovak officials to weigh their words carefully. “We [Hungarians living in Slovakia] are an integral part of the Hungarian nation,” he said in a video statement. “We have our demands and we have our traumas that remain unresolved to this day. Please, respect them.”
Polish opposition accuses marshal of parliament; police brutality in spotlight
Representatives of two Polish opposition forces, the Civic Coalition and the Left, have filed complaints with the National Public Prosecutor’s Office against the marshal of the Sejm, Elzbieta Witek, for the illegal manner in which, they claim, she ran the session on Wednesday night, when a controversial media law that could destroy the American-owned television channel TVN was passed.
On Wednesday afternoon, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party initially lost a vote on its amendment to the Broadcasting Act, which looks to bar companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning TV channels in Poland. But then Witek asked for a recess of 15 minutes. This subsequently turned into a two-hour break, during which PiS leaders reportedly cajoled opposition MPs into voting with the government. Witek then claimed the vote that PiS lost had been conducted irregularly, and approved a request to repeat it. By this time, PiS had enough support from one smaller opposition party to win the vote it had lost just hours before.
The two opposition parties filing complaints with prosecutors allege Witek committed an administrative crime, as depicted by Article 231 of the Polish criminal code. Basically, the opposition says that Witek deliberately manipulated parliamentary procedure in order to ensure her party, PiS, won the vote.
Elsewhere, protests erupted in Poland after a 34-year-old man died last Friday at the hands of police in the city of Lublin in western Poland. According to the version given by the dead man’s family and their lawyer, the man died after the police used “incapacitating holds and handcuffs” to contain the aggressive man before putting him in an ambulance. The police, on the other hand, claim the man was still alive when medical personnel took over.
The man was thought to be a drug user and it was his own mother calling the police to intervene. However, protesters on the streets of Lublin recall a history of police brutality, including the infamous death of Igor Stachowiak back in 2016. In this case, footage broadcast by TVN showed the man repeatedly being tasered by the police on the floor of a bathroom at the police station. Officers were later convicted in the case.
Babis balks at spy chief dilemma; bashed by both sides
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis announced on Monday that Michal Koudelka, who has headed the BIS counterintelligence service for the last five years, will temporarily lead the service after his tenure ends next week.
Babis has been struggling with the dilemma of what to do about the spy chief for weeks. On the one hand, Koudelka is internationally respected and has helped raise the profile of Czech security structures with important Western partners. On the other, the man with the keys to the prime minister’s office, President Milos Zeman, hates him.
Over recent years, Koudelka has become an increasingly high-profile figure in the liberal establishment’s resistance to President Zeman’s efforts to pull Czechia further into Russia and China’s orbit. The head of state has left no doubt about how he feels about this temerity.
Zeman has branded BIS a bunch of “bozos” as it issues ever more urgent warnings that Russia and China pose a threat to national security. And he has publicly rubbished the agency’s findings regarding the source of Novichok used in the Salisbury poisonings and the explosions at Vrbetice – both shown to be the handiwork of Russian undercover operatives.
Throughout his term in office, Babis has generally been supportive of Koudelka. However, the end of the BIS chief’s contract in mid-August put the cat among the pigeons. Despite being solely the government’s remit to name the head of BIS, the prime minister is believed to have discussed the issue with the president more than once in recent weeks, with speculation rife that Koudelka was for the chop.
It’s hard not to connect Babis’s flip-flopping with his desperation to stay in office and avert possible criminal charges over his use of EU funds. Zeman has said several times that he plans to reappoint Babis as premier following October’s election. But the head of state’s vindictive nature is no secret.
Yet, at the same time, ditching the spymaster would hand Babis’s political rivals a big stick with which to beat him. Opposition parties of all stripes have been quick to point out that dispensing with Koudelka at the demand of the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese president would damage Czechia’s relations with its NATO partners – especially the US, which pinned a medal on the BIS boss not so long ago.
As the populist playbook reads: ask not what you can do for your country, but how best to wriggle out of a tight spot. Babis’s decision was to make no decision. Donning the robes of a democrat, the prime minister explained that with the upcoming election, it would only be fair to leave such an important call to the next government.
“Jesus Christ, I’m not afraid of anyone,” Babis said when asked if his calculations were based on his fear of the president. He refused to say if he will appoint Koudelka on a permanent basis should he find himself leading the government post-election.
Bizarrely enough, Babis’s call on Koudelka came immediately following a stiff lesson in the dangers of trying to keep everyone happy.
As the prime minister launched his election campaign at the weekend, he found himself under fire from protesters on both sides of the COVID-19 debate.
On one side, the Million Moments for Democracy protest group decorated the square hosting Babis’s event with white crosses on the pavement in remembrance of the more than 30,000 victims of the pandemic. In March, the group chalked around 25,000 crosses on Prague’s Old Town Square.
Million Moments said it wanted to highlight the reality of Babis’s governance in contrast with his campaign claims. The government’s erratic handling of the pandemic was widely criticised as Czechia became the global blackspot for several weeks.
Babis said he would pay to clean the crosses from the square. But he didn’t have long to consider the message of the protest before he had to flee under a hail of eggs launched by a crowd demonstrating against the government’s pandemic restrictions. As tussles with riot police broke out, he abandoned his station signing copies of his book, Share it, before they ban it, and handing out ice cream. After attempting to carry on in a nearby restaurant, his security team suggested the event be shut down.
Politically connected NGOs in Hungary
It may not be a good time for NGOs in Hungary in general – though not, of course, those connected to the ruling Fidesz party.
Atlatszo.hu, a watchdog NGO and online investigative journalist outfit, revealed this week that a majority of the largest recipients of the Hungarian state funding program that replaced the suspended European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Grants Scheme were ‘NGOs’ directly controlled by politicians of the governing party.
“Among the winners of the largest 15-million-forint grants, it is hard to find any group that is not directly or indirectly linked to pro-government politicians or Fidesz-affiliated business circles,” the news site wrote.
Ironically, this fact underlines the reason why Norway decided to suspend and then ultimately end the EEA and Norway Grants Scheme to Hungary in the first place. Between 2014 and 2021, Hungary was to get a total of 77 billion forints (about 220 million euros) of funding through the grants, a portion of which would go to small local NGOs. However, the government effectively refused the financial support due to a dispute over the allocation of the funds.
Under the program’s terms, an NGO nominated by the donor countries would be responsible for allocating the NGO funds rather than national governments. In Hungary, the donors nominated the Okotars Foundation to distribute 4 billion forints among Hungarian NGOs, but in 2014 the Fidesz government instead nominated the state-owned Szechenyi Program Office.
The donors consequently withheld all funds until, on July 23, Norway’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs announced in a statement that because the two sides had been unable to reach an agreement, no funds for the previous or current period would be made available to Hungary under the scheme.
Norwegian worries about where the funds would end up appear to have been borne out. Atlatszo.hu examined a list of around 700 NGOs that were awarded grants from the government-funded program, the Urban Civic Fund, which was designed to replace the 11 million euros of Norwegian grant money. Out of the 81 organisations that received maximum funding of 15 million forints, only a third were found to have no clear political affiliation with Fidesz, 12 organisations were in the “indirect” category, and 42 had a direct link with the ruling party.
The Hungarian government responded to the decision to halt the EEA and Norway Grants Scheme by claiming the donor countries owe it the money and is looking for a “method through which the debt could be repaid”.
However, Fidesz is unlikely to get much of a sympathetic hearing in Europe, which has heavily criticized its partial attitude toward NGOs. Last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled the Hungarian government was breaking EU law by restricting the financing of NGOs. Hungary waited almost a year to revoke the law, but has now substituted it with a new one that human rights organisations find almost as problematic.
Kocner back in court
Crooked businessman Marian Kocner, who’s serving a 19-year sentence for financial fraud and who is still on trial for allegedly planning and paying for the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, found himself in court again, this time for allegedly sending secret instructions from behind bars.
The police took possession of 20 slips of paper several months after his arrest in June 2018. The notes contained instructions for his aides and partners on steps to be taken in other cases and investigations. Former journalist-turned-spy, Peter Toth, handed the secret instructions to the police after Kocner’s arrest. Toth took the witness stand on the first day of Kocner’s latest trial.
The handcuffed Kocner appeared in court with a contented look on his face, the Sme daily reported. Even if he’s convicted, his original prison sentence won’t be extended. His conviction could, however, have far-reaching repercussions for his former business partners.