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Democracy Digest: Protest Farmer Joins Polish Opposition for Election

Civic Coalition (KO), the largest alliance in the democratic opposition, announced that Michal Kolodziejczak, the most prominent leader of the farmers’ movement, will be running in the general election this October on its list. Kolodziejczak has been at the forefront of famers’ protests, including earlier this year when they protested against the dumping of Ukrainian agricultural products on the domestic market. Kolodziejczak was seen to have political ambitions and for a while showed up in public with the leader of the agrarian party, PSL. His addition to the KO list is more surprising, since he has depicted himself as more of an anti-system character, criticising the mainstream political parties.

Speaking at the announcement of the list’s composition, Kolodziejczak said joining the KO ranks was not an easy decision for him, but was justified by the “state of ultimate necessity” that Poland finds itself in. “We will take the rural areas away from PiS,” he said. “We must defend the Polish countryside; we must defend Poland.” Rural voters have traditionally lent towards PiS, but multiple scandals over the last few years have damaged its popularity among this crucial part of the electorate. Certainly, Kolodziejczak will increase KO’s chances of capturing more votes in small localities where they have not traditionally been favourites.

According to data published on Wednesday, Polish GDP growth contracted by 0.5 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter, following a GDP decrease of 0.3 per cent in the first quarter. With GDP contracting for two quarters in a row, the country is now technically in a recession. Economists said the drop in GDP was primarily to do with lower consumption stemming from one of the highest inflation rates in the EU.

With Wagner mercenaries present in nearby Belarus and bellicose statements from the Russian and Belarusian leaders, both Poland and the Baltic states have been putting on shows of strength. For Poland, it announced the deployment of another 10,000 soldiers to the eastern border, more than initially planned, as well as a massive military parade in Warsaw on Tuesday designed to show off all the modern military gear the country has purchased since the war started. For Lithuania, the government announced on Wednesday the closure of two of the country’s six border crossing points with Belarus. Latvia said this week it would send the army to reinforce operations on its eastern border. “Latvia has information about a possible increase in hybrid threats,” the Latvian Border Guard said in a statement, as quoted by Reuters.

Orban’s Fidesz party faces ‘life after Soros’; economy mired in recession

Hungarian government officials reacted with typical scorn and some disbelief to the news that the Open Society Foundations of Hungarian-born US financier George Soros is about to scale down its operations in the EU and shift activities to other parts of the world. RFE/RL, citing internal correspondence of the grant-making network, reported that Hungarian NGOs receiving funding from OSF were informed of the decision to make resources for Europe “extremely limited” in an email dated August 11, though details about ongoing programs remain unclear and would be “determined over the coming months”. OSF underlined it would maintain programs outside the EU, particularly the Western Balkans, as well as those concerning Roma minorities. Hungarian civil organisations were reported to have been forewarned of the shift and many had been trying to secure alternative funding sources, especially after Soros’s son, Alex, took over the foundation in June and was said to want to concentrate more on programs in the US. Even so, many NGOs dealing with LGBT rights, migration and refugee issues, and most of the free media will be hard hit by the decision. Some argue it is not really the case in Hungary to say that, as OSF claimed, “EU governments provide enough funds for democracy and the rule of law”.

The disappearance of OSF from Hungary is also, ironically, a huge loss for the Fidesz party of Viktor Orban, which often targets Soros and now faces losing its favourite bogeyman. Balazs Orban, the PM’s political director, managed to compare the Soros network of NGOs to the Soviet occupation: “We only truly believe that the occupying troops are leaving the continent when the last Soros soldier has left Europe and Hungary. Yet, we remain a long way from that point…” Fidesz parliamentary group leader Mate Kocsis also voiced disbelief he wouldn’t have Soros to kick around anymore: “If the Soros organisations were to leave the country, the liberal media would disappear, the Civil Liberty Union, the Helsinki Committee and even most of the left-wing parties would disappear. But that is obviously not going to happen, they are not going anywhere, it’s just Soros the Younger reshuffling his playing field.”

Besides skyrocketing inflation, a shrinking economy is now adding to the headaches of the Hungarian government. The 2.3 per cent year-on-year contraction in second-quarter GDP announced this week is a cold shower for Fidesz, which is betting on renewed economic growth to solve Hungary’s woes. The GDP data is the third worst in the EU, business news site portfolio.hu noted, ahead of only Estonia and Sweden. Despite promises by the government, the economy remains mired in recession, though Economy Minister Marton Nagy tried to put a positive spin on it: “The second-quarter 2023 GDP contraction is the bottom of the negative economic cycle, with a rapid rebound expected in the third and fourth quarters.” The government is looking for 4 per cent growth in 2024, the Finance Ministry wrote in a statement. Interestingly, the country’s deepening economic difficulties, like high inflation and shrinking real wages, have not yet impacted on the popularity of Fidesz among its core voters – a sign of its success in putting the blame for all of it on the war in Ukraine and EU sanctions.

Feeling undervalued; Czechs double number of Russians on national sanctions list

The Czech koruna is significantly undervalued according to Burgernomics. Despite a strong performance over the past 18 months or so against the euro, thanks to the central bank’s efforts to stem inflation, the currency should buy 16.7 per cent more euros than it actually does, according to The Economist’s Big Mac Index. The doubled-decker burger costs 105 koruna, but in the euro area it will set you back 5.28 euros. That implies an exchange rate of 19.89 koruna to the euro, but the Czech currency has traded at between 23.24 and 24.29 so far this year. And with the Czech National Bank widely expected to start loosening monetary policy before the end of the year, the koruna is likely to lose further ground against the single currency. Currencies in the rest of the region should also buy more overseas than they do, suggests the index, which The Economist admits is far from economically rigorous. It rates Poland’s zloty as 14.4 per cent undervalued and the Hungarian forint 31.5 per cent. The most undervalued currency in the index is the Taiwanese dollar, which should buy 59 per cent more euros than it does. The Swiss franc, the rise of which has in recent years provoked trouble in Hungary and Poland due to the significant number of mortgages denominated in the currency, is the most overvalued at 32.8 per cent.

The Czech Republic doubled the number of names on its national sanctions list as it added “Putin’s missile maker” and his relatives. The addition of Boris Obnosov, his daughter and son-in-law follows months of pressure from activists. Obnosov is CEO of the state-held Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV), which manufactures weapons systems for the Russian military. Olga and Rostislav Zorikov have been using luxury real estate and a collection of sports cars, bought using money earned from Russian military contracts, the Foreign Ministry noted. Rostislav Zorikov reportedly has been a permanent resident in Prague since at least June 2020 and owns real estate in Prague worth more than 100 million koruna (just over 4 million euros). Prime Minister Petr Fiala supported the Foreign Ministry-led motion to sanction the trio, which will see them banned from entering the country and their assets frozen. Previously, when asked why the family had not been sanctioned, senior political figures suggested they were looking for a legal solution. Czechia launched its own sanctions list in April. Patriarch Kirill had the honour of being the first addition after Hungary blocked his inclusion on the EU’s list. Previously, the Czech constitution only allowed the state to apply restrictive measures when required by the EU. The Foreign Ministry says that it will now propose that Brussels, which has already blackballed KTRV, act against Obnosov and his family.

Ex Slovak police chief arrested; far-right Republika party must pay doctor damages

Slovakia’s former police chief Tibor Gaspar, who is running in the upcoming early election on the slate of the steadily growing Smer party, was arrested last Friday and is facing several charges concerning corruption, abuse of power and establishment of an organised crime group. Unsurprisingly, Smer pointed the finger at President Zuzana Caputova as the person behind the attempt to destroy the Slovak opposition so that Progressive Slovakia (PS), the liberal party she was once a member of, will win the September election. PS is currently second in the polls. Gaspar was released from detention after two days. Charges were also pressed against a former police investigator and oligarch Norbert Bodor, who belongs to Gaspar’s extended family. According to police, Bodor paid large sums to police officers to investigate high-profile cases involving oligarchs with close ties to Smer as a way to help those oligarchs in them. Gaspar is believed to have known about the bribes, but did nothing to stop them, the police and prosecutor say. It is expected the popularity of Smer will only increase following recent events. While most Slovak politicians slammed Gaspar, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, never one to shy away from a fight with the liberal opposition, even one in a foreign country, expressed his support for the former police chief.

The extremist Republika party, founded by renegades from the far-right LSNS party, has to pay 15,000 euros in damages to epidemiologist Peter Sabaka, a district court ruled this week. The party also has to apologise to him three times in a row on its Facebook page and cannot post anything for 48 hours after the apologies, the Sme daily reported. Sabaka sued the party for hateful social media posts that were spread by extremists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Antivaxxers used to protest outside Sabaka’s house during the pandemic, and he frequently faced verbal attacks. Republika claimed in the courtroom that its official profile is managed by fans. Sabaka has launched eight lawsuits against Republika members, demanding 230,000 euros from them in total.  

Source : Balkan Insight