Democracy Digest: A Dictator and a Holocaust Denier Walk into a Budapest Bar…

Elsewhere, Czechia looks to toughen up EU migration pact as Hungary and Poland vote against it; EU Commission president visits Poland to talk defence; and hundreds of Slovak schools receive emails with bomb threats.

In the same week that Chinese President Xi Jinping came to town, another less-heralded visitor to Budapest was former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose presence when it emerged caused outrage amongst Hungary’s Jewish community. Ahmadinejad, who was in office 2005-2013, is one of the world’s most notorious Holocaust deniers, having called the Holocaust a myth and threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”. Currently a lecturer at an Iranian university, Ahmadinejad was invited by the rector of the National University of Public Service, an institution closely linked to the government, whose advisory board is chaired by PM Viktor Orban’s political director, Balazs Orban (no relation). The visit was publicised by Iranian state media and caught both the Hungarian government and the university off guard. The Foreign Ministry denied any government involvement, saying: “In Hungary, universities enjoy freedom of speech and education”, though critics say it is hard to believe Ahmadinejad’s invitation – he apparently attended two closed conferences on climate and environmental issues – was solely a private initiative of the university. The university refused to comment.

The visit came just days after the March of the Living, a commemoration of the Jewish victims who perished at Auschwitz, which was picketed by pro-Palestinian groups. The Association of the Hungarian Jewish Community (Mazsihisz) said in a statement: “It is not only outrageous but also painful that the former Iranian president is in Budapest on the very days when the Hungarian Jewish community remembers the victims of [the Holocaust] 80 years ago in this country and in Auschwitz. Ahmadinejad’s reception in Budapest deeply offends the Hungarian Jewish community, which is mourning its murdered dead.” The association demanded an apology from the university’s leadership and an explanation from the Hungarian government “as to how Ahmadinejad’s visit to Hungary could have taken place, given the excellent Hungarian-Israeli relations and the government’s policy of supporting the Hungarian Jewish community.” The Israeli embassy also condemned the visit of what it called “a self-proclaimed Holocaust denier who is directly responsible for events that mock, denigrate and question the Holocaust and its victims, such as the infamous Holocaust denial conference in 2006.” The Hungarian government has been busy for years fending off any criticism of antisemitism and portraying itself as a staunch supporter of Israel and especially of its PM Benjamin Netanjahu. The visit represents another diplomatic blunder by the government, following last month’s scandal over hiding the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in the Hungarian embassy in Brasilia to avoid criminal proceedings.

Newcomer opposition politician Peter Magyar held a huge rally in Debrecen, long considered a ruling party stronghold, that attracted at least 10,000 people last weekend. No opposition party has ever been able to mobilise such a crowd outside Budapest. Hungary’s second largest city of 200,000 has been ruled by Fidesz politicians for decades, but local elections in June this year could break the ruling party’s dominance, especially as discontent grows over the huge battery factory being built by the Chinese company CATL on the outskirts of the city. Magyar is capitalising on this disenchantment and on the general malaise of a society suffering from economic problems, high prices and a cost-of-living crisis. Magyar’s new party TISZA (an acronym for Respect and Freedom) is contesting the June 9 EU elections and is working to field candidates in some districts in the concurrent local elections. According to a recent poll by Median, Magyar’s party could win up to 25 per cent of the vote, making it the strongest opposition party in Hungary, but still well behind Fidesz, which is polling at 45 per cent. Magyar’s rise is a major challenge for the opposition parties, which have failed to offer a real alternative for disillusioned voters in recent years.

Czechs looks to stiffen EU migration pact; EU to widen sanctions on Russian propagandists
A group of EU member states, led by Czechia and Denmark, will write a joint letter to the European Commission demanding it explore ways to process asylum claims offshore in third countries, according to the Czech daily Hospodářské Noviny on Monday, which obtained of draft of the letter. The EU’s long-debated New Pact on Migration and Asylum was approved by member states this week, though Czechia abstained on it while Hungary and Poland voted against it. After years of negotiations, the legislative package is set to drastically overhaul the bloc’s migration policy, but does not go far enough for some member states, with the letter’s signatories – who have not been revealed but are expected to include the CEE states including the Baltics – arguing that the EU must follow the example of Italy’s bilateral agreement with Albania that will assess asylum seekers’ claims in the Balkan country instead of on EU soil, which means that rejected applicants will have little chance of escaping deportation. PM Petr Fiala has been keen to dispel accusations his government is soft on migration, saying this week that “we must discourage illegal migrants from coming to Europe at all” and describing Czechia as one of the few combative countries pushing for even stricter asylum rules. Opposition parties like former PM Andrej Babis’s ANO and the far-right SPD party have accused the five-party ruling coalition of having played a key role – through Prague’s EU Council presidency during the second half of 2020 – in drafting the migration reform that will “invite millions of migrants” to Europe’s shores.

Speaking on Czech Television on Sunday, European Commissioner Vera Jourova said that Voice of Europe, the Prague-based media at the heart of a Moscow-funded propaganda and influence operation, will be part of the EU’s 14th sanctions package to be adopted over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Voice of Europe, along with its two main pro-Russian Ukrainian architects, was sanctioned at the end of March by the government after the Czech intelligence services revealed it as a key platform in Russia’s covert attempts to influence the upcoming EU elections, including through bribes allegedly handed to politicians from at least half a dozen EU member states like Germany, France, Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands. With just weeks to go before the European-wide ballot, the revelations sent shockwaves across the continent, and authorities in several countries have already launched their own investigations into the matter. Several top Czech politicians, including former president Vaclav Klaus, have in the past given interviews to Voice of Europe and parroted pro-Kremlin narratives, but none of them has for now been mentioned as a beneficiary of actual bribes. According to a document seen by Politico, Voice of Europe will face EU sanctions alongside three Russian state-owned outlets – news agency RIA Novosti and news outlets Izvetija and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. It is unclear if the two individuals behind the management and financing of the website – including pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Artem Marchevsky who has since found refuge in neighbouring Slovakia – will also be included in the package.

In a landmark ruling welcomed by local activists, the Czech Constitutional Court ruled earlier this week that surgical intervention should no longer be a prerequisite for a legal change of gender. According to the verdict, adopted by a majority of 13 judges in favour with two dissenting, the current requirement of having to undergo a surgery and castration constitutes a violation of the “bodily integrity” and “human dignity” of those wishing to transition. “The decision of the court may perhaps serve as hope for those who are not sure whether they want or can undergo castration,” reacted the trans-identifying individual, officially registered as a woman but seeking to change gender, who took the case to Czechia’s highest court. The change should take effect from the middle of 2025, and the Constitutional Court’s ruling – as groundbreaking as it has been described – now requires lawmakers to take the necessary legislative steps to change the law by then. According to Justice Minister Pavel Blazek, such a bill aiming to remove medical surgery as a condition for gender change has been ready for two years already, but has not been openly discussed due to a lack of political agreement.

Poland talks defence with EU Commission president; judge or spy?
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in Katowice, southern Poland, on Tuesday, where she presented her new vision for Europe ahead of June’s EU elections. Von der Leyen, who is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), was hosted by her EPP colleague, new Polish PM Donald Tusk. While other themes connected to the future of the EU were outlined by the two in their speeches in Katowice, the main topic was defence against Russian aggression. “If Europe had been better prepared, if Europe and European leaders had had enough imagination years ago, then perhaps Russia would not have dared to attack our friend Ukraine,” Tusk said, before calling on the EU to set aside at least 100 billion euros for common defense. Tusk particularly emphasised the need to invest in European air defence (previously, Tusk had declared Poland’s interest in joining a common European project to create an “iron dome” air defense system in Europe.) Poland last year spent about 4 per cent of its GDP on defence, one of the highest levels in the alliance. Also this week, Polish Defence Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak Kamysz said Poland would have “a lot of unused recovery funds” – referring to Poland’s share of the EU post-pandemic Recovery Fund, which Poland only recently managed to get released – and that some of this cash should go towards defence investments. Von der Leyen, who is campaigning for a second term as EU Commission president after June’s elections, also highlighted how defence would remain a priority for her. “Europe’s defence is a task for all of Europe,” she said. “And this is why if I am the next president of the European Commission, I will propose a number of defence projects of common European interests to ensure that major projects can get off the ground and can be designed, built and deployed on European soil.”

A Polish judge fled Poland for Belarus this week, claiming he was seeking asylum there because of political persecution back home. Tomasz Szmydt, a judge at an administrative court in Warsaw, is known to the Polish public from being involved in a smear campaign against judges critical of the justice reforms by the previous PiS government; Szmydt and his ex-wife were suspected of being behind hate attacks on those critical judges, with Szmydt later admitting to his role in the affair. It is unclear what Szmydt considers to be acts of “persecution” by the new Polish government, but prosecutors are reportedly conducting an investigation into the smear campaign. Szmydt himself informed the public about his decision to leave for Belarus in a May 6 post on Telegram from Minsk. “I was persecuted and intimidated for my independent political stance,” he wrote. “I am expressing my protest to the Polish authorities who, under the influence of the USA and Great Britain, are leading the country to war.” Since then, the judge held a press conference at the offices of state news agency BelTA and went on air as a guest on the show of well-known pro-Kremlin propagandist Wladimir Solowjow.

Slovak schools target of bomb threat hoaxes; Fico a fan of Azerbaijan
The police in Slovakia were very busy on Tuesday, when hundreds of schools reported emails with bomb threats made against them. Dozens of bank branches and electronics stores faced the same problem. In total, the police recorded more than 1,500 bomb threats. According to Slovak media, the email mentioned Islam and was reportedly sent from a Russian email address. The police believe that the email was a cyberattack rather than a real threat. Still, more than 2,000 police officers were patrolling schools on Thursday as students returned to schools after a May 8 public holiday marking the end of World War II. The case is being investigated by the National Crime Agency in cooperation with foreign partners. Thus far, the police have detained two young men, a 25-year-old and a 14-year-old. However, they called in bomb threats and did not send the email in question. Last week, dozens of schools in the Bratislava Region received a similar email.

PM Robert Fico’s first foreign trip outside the EU took him to Azerbaijan, a country ruled by autocrat Ilham Aliyev. As Denník N reported, Fico praised Aliyev for being relected president for the fifth time in February 2024. Freedom House labels Azerbaijan as a “not free” country. Fico also criticised the EU and used the trip to Baku to defend his “sovereign” foreign policy. Fico and Aliyev are Moscow-friendly leaders. Fico and Aliyev reached deals on Azerbaijani gas supplies through Ukraine to Slovakia, which Ukraine reportedly has no problem with, and Slovak arms exports to Azerbaijan. Last year, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognised Armenia-backed enclave within Azerbaijan, after Baku’s troops overran it. The Slovak premier was accompanied by three ministers and 40 entrepreneurs representing energy and arms companies. Some experts warn that Azerbaijani gas might not be only Azerbaijani but also re-exported Russian gas, while some politicians have criticised the government for supplying weapons to an authoritarian regime.

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