The ruling government in Poland, formed following the victory of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), could bring up the issue of Poland’s withdrawal from the EU. A statement to this effect was made by President of the European Council Donald Tusk during his recent visit to his native Poland. Shortly afterwards the 250,000-strong march in Warsaw of supporters of the ruling party and nationalists opposed to Tusk further divided the society. Tusk and his supporters did not take part in the march, accusing the government of conniving with the Nazis, who “reserved” Independence Day on November 11 last year for rallies under radical slogans.
Experts say such demarches on the part of Tusk, who until 2014 held the post of Polish Prime Minister, signal his desire to return to Polish politics and take part in the parliamentary elections of 2019. These elections will be crucial in deciding who will rule Poland in the coming years: the Civic Platform Party (CP), loyal to Tusk and favoring Poland being completely answerable to the European Union, or Law and Justice, which is in long-term ideological conflict with the EU, or rather, its bureaucratic elite. Both political parties are hostile to Russia. The CP proposes putting pressure on Russia within the framework of the general policy of NATO, while “Law and Justice” is in favor of using separate agreements with the US, deploying new American troops and weapons on a bilateral basis. The current Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, did not rule out the possibility of deploying American nuclear weapons on Polish territory. And the “uncrowned king” of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the PiS, is openly looking to the American president Donald Trump and the neo-Conservatives behind him.
Meanwhile, Tusk, who retains the status of an informal leader of Civic Platform, is openly challenging Trump. Right after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Tusk sent a letter to the heads of EU member states in which he described the “triple threat” coming to Europe from “the unpredictable” Trump, “aggressive” Russia and “rising” China.
This clash between the PiS and the Platform on the issue of confrontation with Russia and alliance with the US and the EU has caused an even deeper split in the already polarized Polish society, where “patriots” and “liberals” have been at cold war for many years.
By Tusk’s speech, one can guess what tactics the “Civic Platform” will assume during the election campaign. The “Liberals” (and one can hardly refer to them as such given their anti-Russian sentiment and authoritarian style) will frighten the Poles with the prospect of “being expelled” from the European Union. Since, for many years, Poland has been receiving heavily advertised payments from the EU’s allied funds, such a prospect can really scare many.
“The case is dramatically serious,” said Tusk in Poland on November 5, 2018, a week before the scandalous march in Warsaw. “Risk is dead serious. I call on everyone: come to your senses, act rationally.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” continued Tusk, “whether Jaroslaw Kaczynski will pull Poland out of the EU intentionally or Poland’s exit will occur without him signaling a desire for that … The [former British Prime Minister David] Cameron had no plans either for Britain breaking away from the EU. He simply came up with the idea of a referendum, while doing everything to keep the country in the EU. But in the end, he got the United Kingdom out of the European Union – such was the result,” Tusk explained his position.
To give weight to his openly demagogic statements, Tusk cites the ongoing confrontation between the Polish leadership and the EU authorities, who accused the PiS of encroaching upon the autonomy of the judiciary. In the opinion of the European Commissioners, Polish leaders were trying to replace the older members of the Supreme Court of Poland with younger judges, who were supportive of the PiS. This conflict has already led Brussels to initiate the process of imposing sanctions on Warsaw under Article 7 of the EU Union Treaty, which penalizes member countries for a breach of democracy. The EU Court also ordered Poland to stop the “cleansing” of the Supreme Court. In reply, they received a rebuke from the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who described the incident as the EU’s pressure on the Polish state independence. Nevertheless, Warsaw, suspended the reform of the Supreme Court.
However, neither of the two sides in this inter-Polish conflict with a European context is telling the whole truth as they present themselves as democrats and defenders of Polish interests without sufficient reason. Tusk, for his part, is not informing his voters of a number of important facts. Firstly, the “brexit” will not happen and for this reason Tusk’s rhetoric about “brexit” as a sudden and quick process, allegedly threatening Poland too, is, at the very least, an exaggeration. Secondly, as he promotes the EU among the Poles, Tusk forgets to add that payments from the EU funds will soon run out. The recent EU summits resolved to re-channel the EU’s financial assistance from Eastern European countries to Greece, Spain and other countries of Southern Europe, which found themselves at the forefront of a pan-European project to accommodate refugees and economic migrants. While the limits within which these allied funds are to change their volumes and the direction of their movement have yet to be specified, the fact that the “union” financial assistance will flow from the east to the south, according to Financial Times, causes no doubt.
As it turns out, Tusk is manipulating public opinion as he continues the tradition which began under President Aleksander Kwasniewski to frighten the Poles with the East. The Poles are confronted with a false dilemma: either become subordinate to the European Union and NATO, or fall into the “orbit of Russia” with the invasion of the eastern hordes (as put by former Minister Anthony Matserevich) or even join the CIS (as expressed by former President Aleksander Kwasniewski). The European Union is portrayed as a peaceful oasis in a turbulent world, despite the fact that the EU countries have taken part in all major wars of late: it participated in the process to cut Kosovo’s territory off from Yugoslavia, in the invasion of Iraq, in the long-term war in Afghanistan, and in the “change of regime” in Libya.
The reasoning of the European Union does not sound quite fair in this situation either. Officials in Brussels tend to ignore the fact that the “Stalinist purge” (an expression used by the EU-loyal Gazeta Wyborcza») of the Supreme Court of Poland is carried out by the nationalists from PiS as part of the notorious “liberation from the Communist past”. This very “liberation” is what Brussels encouraged, supported and defended against any criticism for years.
Justice Minister Zbigniew Zebro, who is one of the leaders of the PiS, has repeatedly said that the court’s cleansing was caused by the fact that the older generation of judges is connected with the “communist past” and can, therefore, betray the interests of Poland. This idea was repeated by other PiS ministers — Glinski, Matserevich, and others. When the same groundless accusations were made against the late Polish ex-President Wojciech Jaruzelski, against former Prime Minister Jozef Oleksa, and thousands of others, suspected of sympathizing with Russia,, the EU kept silent. .But, when the allies of the EU-loyal Civic Platform were affected, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, immediately accused the PiS activists of seizing power and infringing on the independence of the court.
This hypocrisy, which tainted the position of the EU and the EU-loyal GP on the Polish issue, is behind the inability of the “Civic Platform” to finally regain the control it lost in the 2015 elections by pushing the nationalists from the “Law and Justice” to the sidelines of political life. Nationalists and radicals in Polish society are definitely not in the majority, but when the fight against nationalism and radicalism goes to hypocrites, their political resources suddenly prove to be limited.
At present, any communication between the Russian and Polish public is problematic as people are afraid of giving interviews to the Russian media – it is very easy to get the label “Putin’s agent”. Nevertheless, without supporting any of the parties in this inter-Polish conflict, it is worth paying attention to all anti-Russian manipulations, as well as the insincerity of the GP, of the “Law and Justice”, and of Tusk along with the European Union. I can assume that in the midterm, the need to strike a balance in relations with the East and the West, with Russia and the EU, will be eventually understood within the Polish society.
First published in our partner International Affairs
U.S. President Trump to meet Bulgaria’s Prime Minister at the White House: What to expect?
Next Monday, 25 November, President Trump will welcome Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov at the White House for a bilateral meeting.
This is not the first White House visit for Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who previously met President Obama at the White House in 2012.
The White House press secretary has announced that Trump and Borissov plan to discuss security in the Black Sea region, energy and countering malign influence – all Russia-related topics, as one would expect.
The real reason for the White House treat, however, is Bulgaria’s substantial purchase of US aircraft this year.
In August, Bulgaria bought eight F-16 airplanes from the US for the hefty price of USD 1.2bln. White House meetings with foreign leaders represent special thanks for something a foreign country has done for the United States and the F-16 airplanes purchase seems to be what we are looking at here. The US is a happy seller and Bulgaria is a happy customer.
In the area of energy, Bulgaria is looking towards the US while trying to reach energy diversification and gain independence from Russian natural gas. On this, there is a clear intersection with US interests. Bulgaria agreed in May to purchase natural gas from the US for the first time. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov met last week with the US Ambassador to Greece to explore the possibility of purchases of American liquid gas down the line.
What is not mentioned by the official White House position is that visa restrictions will be a topic of the meeting, too. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will likely request that President Trump dropped the visa requirements for Bulgarians – an issue the Bulgarian government has been chasing for a while now and something which Bulgarian President Radev had raised with President Trump also on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. Visa restrictions were removed for Polish citizens last month. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will seek the same outcome. On this point, it is unlikely that President Trump would give the green light though.
What we won’t hear about publicly is the issue of the return of ISIS fighters to Europe. No one in Bulgaria really talks about this but one can imagine this is an issue for the US government. Bulgaria doesn’t have a problem with ISIS fighters itself but, as an EU external border country, it is Turkey’s neighbor and the closest to the Middle East EU ground entry point. Last week, Turkey began returning ISIS fighters back to Europe and President Trump has been adamant that European nations with ISIS fighters need to take responsibility for them. Western European EU countries do not want their ISIS fighters back to try them in court or to reintegrate them, which is understandable but also irritating because Europeans have had the unfounded expectation that the US would somehow take care of this. How Bulgaria as an EU country at the crossroads between Turkey, the EU and the US handles that is key. No one in Bulgaria really talks about it, and the various EU, US and Turkish pressures on Bulgaria are not really known, but one can imagine the situation is that of being between a rock and a hard place. So, the return of ISIS fighters is another issue to look out for, although it will not come through in public.
In the past, NATO ally Bulgaria has aided the US with criminal and law enforcement investigations in the areas of terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking. This is another area to look out for.
President Trump’s impeachment is not really a topic in Bulgaria, as no one here seems to be concerned with that. It will be interesting whether Prime Minister Borissov would mention this at all to issue words of support to President Trump. This is something that President Trump would appreciate, although protocol says Prime Minister Borissov would be smart to steer away from impeachment comments.
Direct, to the point and simple words can be expected from President Trump. Prime Minister Borissov, on the other hand, is learning English so the meeting will necessarily have a Bulgarian interpreter. Expect one or two jokes by President Trump about simultaneous Bulgarian interpretation. The meeting will not pass without that.
EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi needs media freedom to do her job
Last month, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate, was officially confirmed as the first ever EU chief prosecutor to head the newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Her team will start work in the end of 2020.
Kovesi will shake things up. She has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Among the main ones is the silencing and stifling of journalists across Europe, including in Bulgaria. The lack of media freedom will make it exceptionally difficult for Kovesi to do her job and uncover crimes involving EU funding.
As soon as the news hit that Kovesi was to become EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly. One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria where we face issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft but also complaints regarding the freedom of the press – a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.
Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s mandate is “to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”. The EU’s top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money.
It might sound as a disappointment to many, but Kovesi will not have the institutional competence to address everything that is wrong with a country or a sector. Corruption and fraud are covered by the EU prosecutor’s mandate only as long as they are related to EU funds.
So if Kovesi won’t be a see-it-all, do-it-all messiah, where does this leave media freedom then and why am I talking about it in the context of her job?
Well, bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without the leads on the ground – work often done by a functioning free media and hard-hitting investigative journalism that uncovers fishy deals and contracts. It is journalists that sometimes lead the way. Often media investigations chart a course for criminal investigations. The media is a key ally in uncovering crimes involving EU funds. This is particularly true of a service such as the EU’s prosecutor office that will operate from EU headquarters and will rely on leads and allies on the ground.
We can’t expect that an EU service will get all the intricate, hidden local information on its own or through cooperation with the state authorities in question. This is where media and journalists come in.
Bulgaria – as sad I am to say this – gives a clear illustration of why Kovesi’s job could prove to be especially tough. The country ranks 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders.
To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist who has been critical of the only candidate for Bulgaria’s top prosecutor post.
As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who has already been selected to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev vetoed the appointment last week, so now the country is facing judicial uncertainty and protests such as the ones from today.
Among the reasons why the chief prosecutor’s appointment has been controversial – to say the least – is the sacking of the Bulgarian Radio journalist Silvia Velikova. Her ousting caused protests by Bulgarian journalists which I have been attending, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching in the streets against Geshev’s nomination in September, October and now, after the presidential veto.
Where the story gets interesting or horrific – or both – is that as many as four unnamed individuals made phone calls in September to the Director of the National Radio, allegedly asking for the journalist critical of the prosecutor candidate to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor. The journalist Velikova was subsequently fired. She was reinstated to her post after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov spoke in her defence. And the Director of the National Radio was himself fired for stepping over by a media oversight organ.
In Bulgaria, a persistent complaint is that journalists who ask the inconvenient questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after so much as a phone call. The suspicion remains that shady dealings – not merit – continue to play a significant role in the firings and hirings of Bulgarian journalists.
One should look no further than the stories of investigative journalists Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova. They are both known as hard-hitting investigative journalists that ask the tough questions and uncover corruption and mismanagement. They are both out of job after being pressured to quit a mainstream media.
Genka Shikerova faced severe intimidation over the years, as her car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014, in relation to her work on Bulgaria’s significant anti-government protests during these years.
Miroluba Benatova, on the other hand, caused massive waves with her recent revelation that she has become a taxi driver – only to surprise foreign tourists about how politically astute and knowledgeable Bulgarian taxi drivers are. “The service in Bulgaria has improved greatly”, told her a German tourist assuming he was being driven by just a regular taxi driver.
So, how is this related to Kovesi?
It is unlikely that by driving a taxi Benatova will be coming across many leads about EU funds theft, to assist Kovesi. Such a waste of talent, and also funds.
The media across Europe has a key role to play in supporting the work of the new EU prosecutor. As long as journalists in countries like Bulgaria lack the freedom to do their jobs, crimes involving EU funding will go uncovered. If Laura Kovesi wants to succeed in her new job, she will have to take context into account and recognize that in many EU states, including Bulgaria, journalists are often not allowed to do their jobs and ask the hard questions. And that’s a shame because Kovesi will not be able to do it alone.
Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey
War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.
The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.
Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.
As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.
By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.
The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.
Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.
Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.
Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.
But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.
Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.
Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.
There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.
The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.
In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.
While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.
In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.
As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.
Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.
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