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HomeBalkansDemocracy Digest: Self-Styled Czech ‘Patriot’ Uses Demo Donations to Buy Gold Bars

Democracy Digest: Self-Styled Czech ‘Patriot’ Uses Demo Donations to Buy Gold Bars

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Self-styled Czech “patriot” Ladislav Vrabel used donations made to help organise large anti-government protests last year to buy himself four gold bars. These demonstrations, which included calls to end Czech support for Ukraine and to leave the EU and NATO, attracted tens of thousands, many of whom sent in cash amounting to over a million koruna (40,600 euros). Because Vrabel is bankrupt, this money went into the account of his Serbian wife Bojana Vurdelja. And, as not all of it was spent on fighting what he regards as an evil, anti-democratic government, a court ruled that the leftovers are fair game for bankruptcy administrators looking for assets to cover the disinformation peddler’s debts of 2.7 million koruna. Vurdelja claimed in court she owns one bar and her mother, who lives in Serbia, the others. However, the court noted Vrabel’s name on the purchase invoice. Vrabel – who is so patriotic he has failed to pay social or health insurance for over 20 years, and has outstanding fines and bank loans – told supporters following the ruling that Czechia needs to set up a commission to investigate such crimes against humanity. He didn’t reveal whether he thinks the commission should also investigate accusations that, with the help of his wife and mother-in-law, he swindled 1.7 million koruna out of taxpayers via fraudulent COVID-19 subsidy claims. But if it does, he may welcome the publicity as he seeks to wrestle leadership of Czechia’s small but stubborn conspiracy theorist movement, “Plan Czech Republic in 1st Place!”, back from far-right rival Jindrich Rajchl.

Czech developers have put the brakes on building new homes this year in reaction to a cooling of the previously red-hot market. With high mortgage rates and uncertainty stifling demand, and hiked construction costs eating into profitability, 15 per cent fewer homes were built over the first three-quarters of 2023 compared with the same period of 2022. Construction began on just 27,304 apartments across the country in the January-September period. Experts say Prague alone needs around 20,000 new homes annually. The reduced delivery will do little to ease the chronic housing crisis that has gripped Czechia over recent years. Spiralling prices have become detached from average incomes, making Czech housing among the least affordable in Europe. That has put the costs of renting, let alone buying, a home in major cities out of reach for many. The data appears to make a nonsense of the claims by developers that prices are so high because red tape prevents them from building enough new homes. Although permitting issues do persist, critics note that developers have gathered such large land banks via (often questionable) privatisation over the past 30 years that they have little motivation to push ahead with projects while the market remains subdued. But don’t feel too sorry for them: it’s widely predicted that once interest rates dip – and with inflation falling that should happen over the coming months – prices will soon resume their rapid rise.

Czechia must step up relations with Africa, PM Petr Fiala stated as he embarked on a whirlwind tour of the continent. Jetting off to visit Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, accompanied by a bevy of business people in the hunt for new markets, Fiala said both Prague and Brussels need to stop viewing Africa as a place of distant lands and recognise its swift development. What he means, of course, is that the EU has fallen far behind Russia and China, which have spent years securing raw materials and influence there. Not that the Czech premier is making the prospect too attractive for potential partners. The most important issue he wanted to broach on his trip? The migration of many of the continent’s inhabitants to Europe. And Prague’s fervent support of Israel will hardly help Czechia make friends across the Global South – a point illustrated when Nigeria cancelled Fiala’s planned visit at the last minute.

First Slovak presidential candidates emerge; Judicial Council members dismissed

Slovakia will elect a new president when Zuzana Caputova’s term ends on June 15 and the first names of candidates are beginning to emerge. Former diplomat and foreign minister Ivan Korcok announced on Tuesday that he has collected 15,000 signatures to run in the race. Korcok says he wants to campaign on the topic of patriotism, a term often abused by far-right and ultranationalist politicians. This week he has started a tour around Slovakia to meet voters, looking to unite a polarised society. Another former diplomat, Jan Kubis, who served as foreign minister in the first Robert Fico government, is also in the process of collecting signatures. Former judge and pro-Russian politician Stefan Harabin will run in the election, too. Former presidential candidate and scientist Robert Mistrik has not ruled out running for president again. The new speaker of parliament, Peter Pellegrini, is also considering entering the race. Pellegrini could be proposed by 15 MPs for the post, which is the other option for a person interested in running for president. He could, it is believed, be the candidate for the ruling coalition. Political parties can still nominate their own candidates. As speaker, Pellegrini will set the date for the presidential election. The second round of the election can take place on April 13 at the latest. However, due to Easter falling on March 31 this year, the election could take place a month earlier. Pellegrini is one of the most popular politicians in Slovakia. If he decides to run, Korcok would be his main rival.

The new Slovak government dismissed three members of the Judicial Council appointed by the previous cabinet without providing any explanation. The Council is a body that puts forward names of judges for their appointment or dismissal to the president. The Justice Ministry later explained that the government had lost trust in these members. As a result, two of these now former members turned to the Constitutional Court. At least one of the newly appointed Judicial Council members has been connected with Smer’s Defence Minister Robert Kalinak. Earlier this year, Kalinak had faced corruption charges. Several dozens of people linked to the Smer party and its previous governments have been convicted of corruption or other crimes, and several prominent investigations are still ongoing. The government has already started to hound certain police officers despite them being under whistleblower protection. The government was able to sack the three Council members following a change in legislation adopted by the previous government that it was possible even if their term was not supposed to end anytime soon. Smer, ironically, criticised this change back in the day, but decided to use it last week. Because the government has the majority in parliament, the government might fire those other members selected by the previous ruling coalition, too.  

Polish president gives Morawiecki chance to fail; Syrian migrant shot on border

Polish President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday he was assigning Mateusz Morawiecki the task of forming the next government, despite it being unlikely the incumbent PM will be able to propose a government that would receive the endorsement of the new parliament, where the united opposition now holds a majority after the October 15 election. Duda had previously indicated he would respect Polish custom and first appoint someone from the party that got the most votes (PiS yet again) to try to form a government. Even so, some had hoped Duda would bow to reality and name opposition leader Donald Tusk as PM on Monday. There is speculation as to why Duda is interested in postponing the formation of a new government, which is now likely to happen in December after Morawiecki tries and fails in his quest to form a government. Some say he is giving PiS more time to “clean up” the various ministries and state companies it has been in control of for the last eight years. Others fear there might still be an attempt by PiS to prevent the opposition from taking power, for example by not giving these three parties enough time to pass a new budget, which would eventually give Duda the power to dissolve parliament. Finally, there might be a reason connected to Duda’s own personal interests: after ending his mandate in 2025, some say the president is keen to take over the leadership of PiS from the incumbent Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is getting on. By appointing Morawiecki, and forcing him to fail in full view of the nation, Duda gets a chance to compromise one of his biggest rivals.

Prosecutors confirmed this week that a Polish soldier shot a Syrian migrant soon after the man crossed into Poland via the Belarus border, adding the shooting was the result of an “unfortunate incident” caused by the soldier “tripping”. Last Saturday, activists helping migrants at the border announced a 22-year-old Syrian man had been shot in the back and he was now in hospital in Hajnowka with a non-life-threatening injury. The Syrian man refused to speak to the media, but gave an account of the incident to the NGO Grupa Granica, explaining he was walking with a few fellow migrants when he heard a shout he did not understand behind him and the loud sound of a gunshot. He fell to the ground as a result of the bullet hitting him, and he lost track of his fellow travellers who ran away. The man says he heard the sound of three additional shots being fired. On Sunday, a spokesman for the Bialystok prosecutor’s office told the PAP news agency that military police were gathering evidence about the incident, which they would hand over to prosecutors. The soldier could face between three to eight years in prison if he ends up being charged with involuntarily causing serious damage to someone’s health or the reckless handling of a gun.

Hungary would favour Serbia joining EU over Ukraine; soldiers deploy to Chad

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto sharply criticised the European Commission’s decision this week to open enlargement negotiations with Ukraine. “Ukraine is currently not eligible for EU membership because it has not met the conditions for EU candidacy and will not be eligible for membership until peace is achieved,” he said, warning that with Ukraine on board, the EU would essentially be importing a war. Somewhat ironically given Hungary’s own problems with the issue, Szijjarto questioned whether Ukraine could qualify as a state based on the rule of law. “Ukraine is at war – there is no media freedom, no freedom of expression, no elections. It would obviously be absurd to assess how the rule of law is functioning in Ukraine under such circumstances.” Even so, Oliver Varhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement who is a close ally of PM Viktor Orban, said he hoped December’s European Council meeting of EU leaders would support the proposal to start accession talks. Unanimity is required, opening space for Orban to threaten his veto as a way to unblock frozen EU funds. Varhelyi reminded that the negotiating framework – which opens the actual talks – could only be adopted once Ukraine had “addressed the recommendations of the Venice Commission in relation to the laws on state language, media and education”. The amendment of Ukraine’s language law, which currently restricts education in Hungarian for the ethnic community in Transcarpathia, is a key demand of Hungary and is used as a pretext to block aid to Ukraine. Fidesz MEP Kinga Gal echoed the government’s narrative, favouring Western Balkan accession, particularly Serbia, over newcomers like Ukraine. “The accession process with Serbia must be completed as soon as possible, as negotiations with Serbia have been going on for more than 10 years without any significant progress. This discredits the EU,” Gal said.

Elsewhere, parliament this week approved the deployment of a 200-strong force to the central African country of Chad. The Defence Ministry alluded to an invitation from the Chadian president to help maintain order in the country, but details are unclear, leaving experts to wonder why Hungary, which has no political or economic interests in the region, would send its first national mission there. Defence Minister Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky tried to link the mission to migration, saying that “if Chad also becomes unstable, we could witness a migration flood that could send hundreds of millions more on their way to Europe”. According to the wording of the parliamentary resolution, the mission of the Hungarian troops is “to provide advice, support and assistance in the field, to protect Hungarian citizens and Hungarian interests there, and to support the fight against terrorism”. The resolution split the opposition. “This is not a NATO, UN or EU operation, the Hungarian government is launching the mission at the request of the Chadian president. We do not agree and we do not support it,” said Gergely Arato of the left-liberal Democratic Coalition. He said the mission’s description indicated it would largely be aimed at protecting some kind of business interests. But the former far-right Jobbik party expressed support for anything that targets illegal migration and helps curb its causes, adding in an interesting twist that the mission could even help “prevent Russia’s political and economic takeover of various countries in Africa through the former Wagner formations and other Russian military organisations”.

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