As the coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip on Central Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are facing new political and economic questions.
By Nedim Dervisbegovic, Edit Inotai, Miroslava German Sirotnikova and Claudia Ciobanu
Czech Republic: economy slows down as lockdown eases
The Czech Republic further eased its lockdown and travel restrictions this week, as the coronavirus pandemic weakened. It has dropped the obligatory wearing of facemasks, allowed pubs, restaurants, hotels and museums to fully open and has partially opened borders, rail links and airports.
Border controls were removed from crossings with Germany and Austria for EU citizens and long-term residents with proof of a negative COVID-19 test for 72-hour business and family trips. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have opened their borders for each other’s citizens for two-day trips without tests. Rail links resumed with Germany and Austria and airports started Schengen-area flights.
Seventy per cent of Czech companies reported a drop in orders in May and June, double the previous rate in April, as the impact of the coronavirus lockdown measures bit, a survey of 242 companies by the Confederation of Industry and Transport of the Czech Republic showed earlier this week.
The share of companies whose volume dropped by 40 per cent more than doubled to 48 per cent in May, from April.
However, data from the second biggest bank, Ceska Sporitelna, showed consumer activity recovering, with a 9-per-cent rise in card transactions in the last two weeks after they fell by almost a quarter when all shops and business closed in mid-March.
Zdenka Tominová, one of the original signatories of the Charter 77 petition for the respect of human rights in communist Czechoslovakia, died at the age of 79 in London. A novelist whose works were banned and who faced harassment for her dissident activities after the communist regime declared her an “enemy of the state”, Tominová emigrated to Britain in 1980 with her husband Julius Tomin so that he could teach at Oxford. They stayed there after the fall of communism in 1989.
Hungary: moves to abolish controversial law ‘illusory’
Hungary’s government on Tuesday submitted a new draft law to parliament, which, if adopted, would abolish controversial legislation that gave almost absolute power to Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new law will be debated over the next two weeks and should be passed by June 20, as indicated by Justice Minister Judit Varga. This decision came as a surprise, as the controversial law established no time limits for these extraordinary powers and many expected Orban to retain them at least until the end of the year.
But reporting Democracy reported on May 22 that opposition parties, some NGOs and experts suspected that this was part of Orban’s power strategy of trying to “surrender in order to win.” Former far-right Jobbik party vice-president Dániel Z Kárpát, for example, accused Orban of “attic sweeping,” or trying to remove evidence of his misdeeds, such as channelling money to business circles linked to his governing Fidesz party.
Nevertheless, the move was used by Justice Minister Varga, the government’s new “superwoman,” to call on critics – including the EU – to apologize for making false accusations.
“Hungary has been facing an unprecedented, coordinated political campaign and hysteria for months in relation to the introduction of the state of danger,” she wrote in an Op Ed published on May 28 in the EuObserver.
In the text, she went demanded an apology from the EU, while doubting Hungary would get one. “In an ideal world, Hungary would be entitled to an apology. But we all know that sorry seems to be the hardest word,” she said.
Government-critical NGOs and opposition politicians say there is nothing to apologize for. In a joint statement, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International Hungary called the changes an illusion.
“The promise to revoke the Authorisation Act and to terminate the state of danger is nothing but an optical illusion,” they wrote.
“If the bills are adopted in their present form, that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards.”
Opposition and activists also criticized the government for giving some 51 million euros in non-returnable grants to Lőrinc Mészáros, a close ally to Orban, to renovate several of his hotels, even though his company in recent weeks fired some 800 employees, citing financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus.
Slovakia: protests over smart quarantine app
After a series of failed promises and conflicting statements about the launch of a new smart quarantine app, dozens of people waiting to cross the border from Austria to Slovakia blocked the border crossing at Jarovce-Kittsee for several hours last Friday.
The government led by Igor Matovic had been promising to launch the app for weeks, eventually failing to get an approval from Google and Apple in time and postponing the launch over the weekend.
In the end, the app was launched with many complications, and only for Android smart-phones.
The government has been criticised also for forcing people to fill in additional forms to register for quarantine, asking them for sensitive data and a series of personal questions. Without the smart quarantine app, which allows people returning to the country to spend their 14-day isolation at home, people have to spend time in compulsory state quarantine until they receive a negative COVID-19 test result from healthcare authorities.
Marian Kotleba, leader of the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia LSNS which entered parliament after winning 8 per cent of the votes this year, attended a hearing in a special court on Thursday. Kotleba is charged with promoting an illiberal ideology of suppressing human rights and faces four to eight years in prison.
The far-right politician gave checks for 1,488 euros to three families in 2016, when he held the office as regional governor of Banska Bystrica. Experts say 14 and 88 are well-known Nazi symbols and are a racist white supremacist manifesto. Kotleba pleaded innocent, saying he was the first politician to be prosecuted for giving money to people in need.
SMER-SD, one of the leading parties in three previous governments, faced a new round of internal power struggles this week. Over the past two years, the party was hit by dozens of corruption scandals involving some that led to a murder of a young journalist, Jan Kuciak.
Internal power struggles escalated further this week, when Peter Pellegrini, a senior party official and until recently Slovak Prime Minister, publicly called on party president Robert Fico to stand down and make way for change in the party. According to the opinion polls, Pellegrini is one of the most popular politicians in Slovakia, while trust in Fico is in steady decline.
Poland: gearing up for elections despite pandemic
The Polish government this week announced a further lifting of coronavirus-related restrictions. As of this weekend, facemasks will be compulsory only in closed spaces and outside only if a two-meter social distance cannot be maintained.
Outdoor public gatherings of up to 150 people will be allowed as of next week, while cinemas, theatres, gyms, pools and other similar facilities will start to reopen on June 6.
The lifting of restrictions is taking place even though Poland has not seen a drop in new COVID cases. Since mid-April, the number has remained fairly constant. The government, however, claims that most new cases are concentrated in a few hotspots, adding that they expect an improvement to the situation as of the end of next week.
President Andrzej Duda on Monday meanwhile appointed Malgorzata Manowska, a judge considered loyal to the ruling PiS party, as the first president of the Supreme Court.
The appointment was made although a majority of judges in the Supreme Court voted for another candidate; the law allows the President to select the court president regardless of the outcome of the vote by the judges.
This appointment is seen as very significant, and as the final step in the takeover of the Supreme Court by the governing party. It is also a slap in the face of EU, as it runs counter to the logic of a preliminary ruling by the European Court of Justice, ECJ, issued last autumn. It follows the steady takeover of the Constitutional Court early in the PiS’s 2015-2019 mandate.
The race for the presidential elections, expected to take place in late June, gained traction this month after the main opposition force, the Civic Coalition, replaced its initial candidate, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, with Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
As Trzaskowski is already polling at around 25 per cent compared to Kidawa-Blonska who in recent weeks saw her ratings drop to just a couple of percentage points, the incumbent President, Andrzej Duda, now faces a more serious challenge.
Duda and Trzaskowski will be competing with another strong candidate, the independent, Szymon Holownia, who ran a strong online campaign in recent weeks – for the first two places in the first round of the elections, which opens the way to the second round.
The presidential elections this year carry enormous weight: the PiS already controls the Sejm, the most powerful house of parliament, and a large part of the judicial system. Support by a cooperative President allows it to overrule any resistance from the opposition-controlled Senate, which since late 2019 has slowed down the almost conveyor-belt law-making by the PiS.