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HomeBalkansDemocracy Digest: Polish Parliament to Investigate Pis Use of Pegasus

Democracy Digest: Polish Parliament to Investigate Pis Use of Pegasus

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Poland’s new parliamentary majority, made up of three opposition parties, this week proposed a draft law that would set up a commission to investigate the use of the Pegasus surveillance software by state institutions under the PiS government. More specifically, the parliamentary commission would look into surveillance operations conducted by the government, intelligence agencies, police and tax authorities between November 2015 and November 2023. The draft law is expected to eventually be passed by the opposition-controlled Sejm. International experts revealed that Pegasus was used in Poland to spy on key opposition politicians, including those actively coordinating an electoral campaign for the main opposition party Civic Platform, as well as lawyers, prosecutors and judges critical of PiS.

Hackers stole and published patient data from ALAB, one of the biggest medical laboratories in Poland, which cooperates with many of the country’s major hospitals and clinics. The extent of the harm is not yet fully known, but the hackers began this week publishing the personal data of patients and threatened to publish more if a ransom is not paid. The stolen data includes names and addresses of patients, alongside their PESEL, the personal information number used to identify Polish citizens, as well as results of medical tests. A major concern is the personal data published, particularly the PESEL, could be later used in identity-theft schemes. Poles can check whether their data has been published online. Many have also made use of a service that allows them to “safeguard their PESEL”, which basically informs credit companies not to consider any loan associated with that identification number; one of the risks is that thieves can use the PESEL number to take out a loan.

The Polish parliament also voted this week to restore state financing for in-vitro treatment (IVF) for couples who are struggling to conceive naturally. The PiS government cut state funding for the procedure after coming to power in 2015. Some municipalities have since stepped in to offer financing. President Andrzej Duda will have to sign the bill into law, and his chief of staff told local media this week that “the president will not block such a bill”. About half a billion zloty (115 million euros) is expected to be made available initially to finance the procedure.

Local election shenanigans; new Brussels HQ for Hungary presidency cost over 15m euros

In a last-minute, surprise move, the far-right Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) party this week tabled a bill to amend the electoral laws ahead of the June 2024 local elections. Mi Hazank is calling for the reintroduction of electoral lists in local elections, alongside voting in constituencies, arguing that the change would make election results more proportional and better reflect voters’ choices. The ruling Fidesz party supports the bill, prompting many analysts to suggest that Mi Hazank is acting on behalf of PM Viktor Orban. Fidesz abolished electoral lists for local elections in 2014, but with the tide turning in favour of the opposition in Budapest (and some larger cities) in 2019 and polls predicting an opposition victory in the capital in 2024, Fidesz’s interest is to limit the majority and allow fringe parties – such as Mi Hazank or the joke party Two Tailed Dog – to enter the city assembly and make life difficult for Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony. The change would once again force opposition parties to form a joint list, something they were considering doing anyway, but the friction and verbal attacks between the left-wing Democratic Coalition and the liberal Momentum are getting worse by the day. “After 13 years of totalitarian rule, manipulating the rules like this because Fidesz can’t stand not being in full control is really a ‘ninja’ way of doing politics,” Karacsony said, reacting to Orban’s viral ninja TikTok video and promising to defend Budapest like a samurai against the ninja attacks.

The building that will be the venue for the flagship programs of Hungary’s six-month stint as president of the Council of the EU in Brussels cost 10 million euros to buy in 2021, Hungary’s ambassador to Belgium revealed in an interview with the government-close Index.hu. Ivan Tamas Kovacs said the building that once housed Belgium’s Finance Ministry has undergone extensive renovations and will be ready in time for the start of the presidency from July 2024. The ambassador praised the location of the building in the heart of Brussels’ government district, saying the to-be-named Hungarian House will be a place for the representation of the country’s interests in the EU and in Belgium, and from 2025 onwards will serve various diplomatic and cultural purposes. Critical media had initially requested info on the purchase price, but were told by the Foreign Ministry it was classified. The press only established that the renovation of the historic 19th century building cost 2.1 billion forints (over 5 million euros). The revelation means the price was much higher than that estimated by real market experts at 5-7 million euros. The investment is just one of many of late by the Orban government and associated organisations in Brussels designed to strengthen Hungary’s presence in the EU capital and to spread the government’s narrative on a range of issues, from migration to family policy to Europe’s “Christian roots”. All, needless to say, have been funded by taxpayer money.

Popularity of Czech government ebbs; arms supplies run low

Czechia’s government looks to be on the way to annoying practically everyone, suggesting an increased risk of instability. On Monday, industrial action and rallies took place as the passage of PM Petr Fiala’s austerity package pushed strikers and protesters onto the streets of Prague. That saw previously planned action by teachers, over pay cuts for support staff, joined by various trade unions, but also anti-government ‘patriots’. In other words, Fiala’s budget cuts have managed to put industrial trade unions and moderate teachers and students on the streets alongside the extremist political parties, conspiracy theorists and pro-Russian disinformation peddlers that have been demonstrating over the past 18 months. This illustrates, analysts warn, how the government’s bid to put the onus on fighting inflation and spiraling energy prices on the wider population, including pensioners, plays into the hands of populists like Andrej Babis, billionaire leader of the opposition ANO party. Surveys just ahead of the strike suggested that 64 per cent of the population supported the trade union action. The disparate five-party coalition, initially stuck together by anti-Babis glue, has shown stronger unity than many had expected, albeit aided by a robust foreign policy stance amid the war in Ukraine. But its response at home to the cost-of-living crisis has exposed its weaknesses. With polls showing support for Fiala’s ODS is now over 20 points below ANO’s 33 per cent, and that the party has been pushed into third place by the far-right SPD, signs of unrest are mounting within the coalition.

The austerity package has also encouraged pro-Russian narratives that Prague’s enthusiastic support for Ukraine, including the arms it is sending Kyiv, comes at the cost of neglect for Czechs. However, the flow of weapons to the east could soon come to a halt, with armories running low, Defence Minister Jana Cernochova admitted at the weekend. “The Czech Republic is one of the leaders in aid. But, frankly, there are not many things we can send,” she said, warning that the country must not jeopardise its own defence capabilities. However, she did point out that Czechia has several private arms makers who would be delighted to sell to Kyiv. The ODS minister’s comments came at a awkward time for parliamentary speaker and leader of the Top09 party Marketa Pekarova Adamova, who had just promised Kyiv, which is urgently urging Western partners to raise donations, that Czechia will continue to supply weapons to Ukraine.

Slovakia’s Ukraine policy not-so different; Slovnaft not ready to switch to non-Russian oil

The foreign policy of the new Smer-led government on Ukraine is not as anti-Ukrainian as Smer leader and PM Robert Fico had been telling people in the run-up to September’s election. Although Fico criticised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan a few weeks ago, dubbing it “unrealistic”, the Slovak government’s program for the next four years talks about the same conditions for peace in Ukraine as demanded by Zelensky. Before the election, Fico had said he would send not one single bullet to Ukraine. Today, he says that Slovakia will not send military aid from the warehouses of the Slovak army only. Foreign Minister Juraj Blanar has met with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels, telling him that the Slovak arms industry wants to support Ukraine more. In addition, Fico will not block the EU’s financial package of 50 billion euros for Ukraine, while he supports Ukraine’s effort to join the EU, though not NATO.

The Bratislava-based Slovnaft refinery, owned by the Hungarian oil and gas company MOL, said it isn’t ready to switch to non-Russian oil. As a result, Slovakia has asked Brussels to extend the exemption that allows the refinery to export oil products made from Russian oil to Czechia and Ukraine. The exemption with regard to Czechia will end on December 5, one year after it was announced. Slovnaft, which has criticised EU sanctions on Russian oil and a special tax on its excessive profits introduced by the previous government, has not presented any plan on how it wants to transition to oil that comes from countries other than Russia. Experts say the position of the Slovak refinery might be shaped by its parent company MOL, which also profits from Russian oil. The Slovak government warns the refinery could suspend production, possibly putting markets in Central Europe in danger, if the exemption is not extended, though Czechia has played down its dependence on Slovnaft. The country’s largest refinery has repeated that it needs more time to replace Russian oil with oil from other producers and get the machines adjusted. An extended exemption would also benefit the new government, as the special tax means more money flowing into state coffers.

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