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Monthly Digest

August 2021

Czech Republic

The ruling ANO party moved into the lead in polls ahead of October’s elections, as election manifestos were launched by the main political parties. The Czech Pirate Party pledged a trillion-crown investment into the Czech economy, funded mainly by private and EU money.

Czech politicians reacted to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan by urging aid for Afghans in the region, preventing an influx of migrants to Europe. The Czech government was heavily criticised for its lax response to the fall of the Afghan government, failing to put in place plans to help interpreters and armed forces helpers in the country.

Multiple rescue flights were subsequently run to evacuate embassy staff, key Afghan helpers and their families from the country.

Slovakia

Changes were made to the country’s Covid alert tier system, allowing for the possibility of preferential treatment of people with vaccination to encourage greater vaccine up-take. It was agreed that school children would not be required to display a negative test result, unlike in the neighbouring Czech Republic.

After months of wrangling and a lack of public interest in the vaccine, Slovakia finally ceased stopped using the Russian Sputnik V vaccine at the end of the month. Only 18,500 Slovak citizens were said to have received both doses of the Sputnik jab.

A vaccine lottery organised by the government to encourage vaccine up-take turned out to be a humiliating let-down, as winners selected on live television failed to connect in order to claim their prizes.

Poland

Poland’s rule-of-law dispute with the EU seemed to have been partially resolved as the Polish government announced that the controversial disciplinary chamber for judges would be disbanded and reformed in line with EU expectations. At the start of the month, the activities of the chamber were partially frozen, with no new cases taken on.

Nonetheless, the country’s disputes with the EU rumbled on, including a pending judgement by its Constitutional Tribunal over the primacy of EU law. The country’s controversial law on foreign media ownership meanwhile provoked international ire as it passed through the Sejm.

A national scandal unfolded on the Polish border with Belarus at Usnarz Gorny, as a group of Afghan migrants were forced to camp in no-man’s land between the borders of the two countries without food and shelter for weeks on end. Poland argued a tough stance needed to be taken to Belarus’s alleged “hybrid warfare” against the country undertaken by shepherding migrants from the Middle East to the Polish border.

Hungary

Hungary reiterated its stance, familiar from the 2015 migrant crisis, that refugees from the Middle East should be helped in their own region, rather than being welcomed to Europe.

After almost vanishing earlier in the summer, Covid incidence in Hungary began to rise again at the end of the month.

The Fidesz government undertook a nationwide survey on its controversial Child Protection Law, asking questions about attitudes towards sex education for children.

Government-affiliated newspaper Magyar Nemzet ran an opinion piece urging a serious consideration of the country’s continued membership of the EU. The piece was characterised as the first sign of mainstream Hungarian media raising the notion of “Huxit” as a real possibility, in the wake of Hungary’s recent disputes with Brussels.

Categories
Monthly Digest

July 2021

Czech Republic

Polls suggested a resurgence for ANO, the party of ruling prime minister Andrej Babiš, and a slump for the Pirates+STAN coalition. ANO retook the lead in the polls while the Pirates slumped to third, behind the SPOLU coalition.

Coronavirus cases in the Czech Republic remained low as the vaccine rollout progressed. The majority of shops and services operated with limited restrictions still in place.

The country was swept by two social justice movements in response to national scandals. Revelations about the misconduct of Dominik Feri of the TOP 09 party caused a wave of #MeToo sentiment, while the death of a Roma man in Teplice following police intervention led to comparisons with the death of George Floyd in America.

Slovakia

Slovakia introduced a “lottery” system to encourage vaccine uptake amid a slump in the rollout. With only around 40% of the population taking up the jab, the lottery offered cash incentives: a EUR 2 million prize was available each week along with cash bonuses for those who persuaded others to get the jab.

Slovakia also introduced a mandatory quarantine period for unvaccinated travellers, essentially making travel abroad difficult for unvaccinated members of the population.

Coronavirus incidence in the country remained low, and fell to one of the lowest rates in Europe in the latter part of the month.

Poland

Poland’s rule of law dispute with the EU reached a new level of intensity as the ECJ imposed a deadline of August 16th for the disbanding of the country’s controversial Disciplinary Chamber for judges. Polish politicians adopted increasingly hostile rhetoric, describing the EU as taking a “colonialist” attitude towards central and eastern European members.

Donald Tusk announced his return to Polish politics as the leader of the Civic Platform opposition party. Tusk said he was returning to fight the “evil” of the PiS government.

Poland expressed consternation as Germany and the USA agreed on a deal for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project at the end of the month, arguing the project will undermine regional security.

Hungary

Hungary’s controversial anti-LGBT legislation came into effect, blocking the dissemination of LGBT-positive content in any material accessible to minors. The law caused uproar around the world. The Budapest Pride parade went ahead despite the legislative change.

The EU sent back Hungary’s pandemic recovery plan, demanding further safeguarding against corruption in Hungary’s use of EU money. The Fidesz government claimed the EU’s rejection of the economic plan was in reality down to Brussels’ opposition to the new anti-LGBT law.

The government became embroiled in international scandal due to the Pegasus Project, an investigation into the use of spyware on journalists and public figures around the world, including in Hungary. Fidesz claimed to have no knowledge of the use of the software, although circumstantial evidence pointed towards government involvement in the use of Pegasus on Hungarian civilians.

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Monthly Digest

May 2021

Czech Republic

Covid cases and deaths declined sharply in the country throughout May, down to only a few hundred cases per day at the end of the month. The vaccine rollout expanded rapidly, with the number of doses delivered reaching 100,000 per day and registration opening up to lower age groups. At the end of the month, registration opened to people over the age of 30.

Following April’s revelations of Russian involvement in the Vrbětice explosion of 2014, the Czech acquisition of Sputnik V fell by the wayside. The Czech Republic was subsequently named by Russia as one of two “enemy states”, the other being the USA.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš came under intensified EU scrutiny over conflicts of interest relating to EU funds given to his Agrofert business. MEPs called on Brussels to take action following an audit which found Babiš to be in violation of EU conflict-of-interest rules.

On the final day of the month, a court-enforced relaxation of a majority of Covid restrictions took place, against the wishes of the government, which had planned its next stage of restriction loosening for two weeks later.

Slovakia

Following months of wrangling, Sputnik V was finally approved for use in Slovakia, with doses to start being administered from early June. Nevertheless, Health Minister Vladimír Lengvarský said that he would not choose the vaccine himself, and would not recommend it to his friends or acquaintances.

Approval for Sputnik followed bitter arguments with Russia over the doses delivered to Slovakia in early March, which the Slovak drug regulator (SUKL) had claimed did not match those evaluated by the Lancet medical journal as 91.6% effective in February 2021. Sputnik doses were taken back to Russia, and across the border to Hungary, for further tests. A Hungarian EU-certified lab finally gave the jabs the green light, leading to demands for a public apology from SUKL from the producers of the vaccine.

A 600,000-signature petition for a snap election, following the collapse of Igor Matovič’s premiership over the Sputnik V procurement, was sent from President Zuzana Čaputová’s office to the country’s Constitutional Court for adjudication.

Hungary

Hungary frustrated EU attempts to reach a unanimous position on the escalating Israeli-Palestine conflict, refusing to back a joint statement calling for a ceasefire. Only days earlier, Hungary had vetoed a joint statement from the bloc condemning China’s new Security Law in Hong Kong. The moves were seen as attempts by Viktor Orbán’s government to protect Hungary’s international allies, following an intensification of Chinese investments in the country and reflecting a long-standing alliance with Israel.

German industrial giant Rheinmetall intensified its partnership with the Hungary. A much-publicised meeting between Viktor Orbán and Rheinmetall president Armin Papperger covered the expansion of Rheinmetall’s investments in the country, which have taken on a leading role in Hungarian industrial developments over the last year.

At the end of the month, the Hungarian government announced plans to produce China’s Sinopharm vaccine locally, in a new EUR 157 million vaccine plant in the east of the country. The announcement followed the bestowing of a medal of honour on Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to thank China for the Sinopharm vaccines delivered to Hungary.

Poland

Poland became embroiled in an international storm when Roman Protasevich, a dissident Belarusian journalist, was detained in Minsk following the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight travelling between Greece and Lithuania. Protasevich had moved to Poland in 2019, and his parents also moved to the country in 2020. Poland was the base for Nexta, Protasevich’s anti-Lukashenko online news portal.

Poland defied the EU court of justice by refusing to shut down Turow coal mine, arguing to do so would cause major disruption to the country’s energy supply, as well as thousands of job losses. The mine generates 7% of Poland’s energy supply. The court order followed complaints about the mine’s operations from the Czech Republic. Poland meanwhile stood against the EU’s rules for CO2 emissions cuts at a European Council meeting, demanding that a greater share of emissions cuts should be undertaken by the bloc’s rich members to avoid making “the rich richer, and the poor poorer”.

The government unveiled a spending splurge to boost the nation’s economy as it emerges from the pandemic. The new “Polish Deal” includes significant expenditures on health care, housing and state investments, and expensive policies on taxes and pensions.

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Monthly Digest

April 2021

Czech Republic

Covid cases in the Czech Republic continued to fall, leading to the announcement of initial loosening of restrictions.

Revelations about Russian involvement in a massive explosion at an arms depot in Vrbětice in 2014 prompted the expulsion of 81 diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Prague, and tit-for-tat expulsions of Czech diplomats in Moscow. Other EU countries joined the Czech Republic in expelling Russian diplomats.

The Czech procurement of Sputnik V was taken off the table following the Vrbětice revelations, despite Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamáček having been due to fly to Moscow to discuss the purchase.

Polls continued to show the Pirati+STAN coalition ahead in the polls going into October’s national election.

Slovakia

The restructuring of the Slovak government following Igor Matovič’s resignation saw leadership assumed by Eduard Heger.

The controversial course of Sputnik V approval in Slovakia continued, with Slovak regulators refusing to approve the jab. Covid vaccine scepticism in Slovakia gave increasing cause for concern. With a large number of doses expected to arrive in May, the lack of people coming forward for vaccines led to concerns that the country would nonetheless fail to achieve collective immunity.

Hungary

Hungary became the country with the world’s worst Covid-19 death rate per capita, despite an EU-leading vaccine rollout using multiple Eastern jabs.

The country entered a full lockdown – but by the end of the month, moves were already being taken to ease restrictions as case numbers started to decrease.

Poland

Poland supported the Czech Republic in its response to the Vrbětice revelations.

A sharp rise in Covid cases at the end of March was followed by a steep decline as new lockdown measures came into effect. Nonetheless, the country became one of the world’s worst-affected countries by the virus.

The EU’s pandemic recovery fund was ratified, following a deal struck between the leading PiS party and the Left opposition group at the end of the month.

Categories
Monthly Digest

March 2021

Poland

Cases of Covid-19 surged in the second half of the month to among the highest in Europe. The government instituted tougher lockdown rules to combat the spread of the virus. At the end of the month, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki promised that all Poles who want a vaccine will have received one by August.

The government provoked controversy with a vote to send a bill effectively withdrawing Poland from the Istanbul convention on violence against women to examination by parliamentary committees. The bill is entitled “Yes to Family, No to Gender”. Proponents want the Polish government to set its own laws on domestic violence.

Hungary

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party withdrew from the European People’s Party European Parliament group, in yet another indication of the strained relationship between Fidesz and Brussels. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held talks with Polish PM Morawiecki and Italian Lega party Matteo Salvini about the formation of a new right-wing European parliamentary group intended to “make Europe great again”.

Hungary approved the CanSino and CoviShield jabs from China and India, respectively, to bolster its rapidly accelerating vaccination programme. The country became the EU’s runaway vaccine leader thanks to its use of eastern jabs.

Nevertheless, Covid-19 cases rocketed in the latter half of the month to among the highest in Europe.

Slovakia

At the beginning of the month, Prime Minister Igor Matovič welcomed the nation’s first batch of Sputnik V vaccines at Košice Airport. The Sputnik deal had been reached without the approval of coalition partners and with the support of Hungary’s Fidesz government, leading to outrage across the political spectrum. Weeks of political chaos ensued, with Matovič making his resignation conditional on the resignation of rivals within the ruling coalition. At the end of the month, the Prime Minister finally swapped roles with Eduard Heger, the Minister of Finance.

The Slovak constitution dictates that a Prime Minister’s resignation entails the resignation of the entire government, so President Zuzana Čaputová formally invited Eduard Heger to form a new cabinet following Matovič’s resignation.

Meanwhile, the spread of Covid-19 infection fell throughout March, following the winter peak.

Czech Republic

Petr Kellner, the Czech Republic’s richest man and one of its most influential (though secretive) figures, died in a heliskiing accident in Alaska. Kellner was the owner of PPF, a financial and investment group with interests across Central and Eastern Europe, and around the world. PPF was the first entirely foreign-owned entity to be granted a licence to provide consumer loans in China in 2010, and Kellner was for long one of the Czech Republic’s strongest pro-China influences.

Czech Covid-19 cases and deaths peaked at the start of March and remained high throughout the month. The nation’s vaccine rollout continued at a sluggish pace; Prime Minister Andrej Babiš became embroiled in a dispute with the rest of the EU about the distribution of 10 million extra Pfizer doses, which he felt unfairly neglected the Czech Republic.

During a visit to Israel with Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, Babiš opened a new Czech Embassy branch in Jerusalem, becoming only the second EU member state to do so after Hungary.

Polls continued to show the Pirates+STAN coalition ahead of the ruling ANO party going into elections this October. Anti-Babiš campaigning organisation Million Moments for Democracy painted 24,000 white crosses on Prague’s Old Town Square to commemorate the victims of Covid-19 in the Czech Republic.

Categories
Monthly Digest

February 2021

Czech Republic

The nation’s Covid-19 situation deteriorated severely, leading to a growing crisis in hospitals – patients from the Pardubice region had to be transported elsewhere in the country to be treated towards the end of the month. The announcement of tightened restrictions led to unprecedented divisions about the nation’s handling of the crisis.

The vaccine programme continued at a very slow pace. There was much speculation about the possible procurement of Russian and Chinese vaccines, but following visits to Hungary and Serbia the data was deemed insufficient to justify purchases without approval from the European Medicines Agency.

The Czech Republic filed a lawsuit against Poland at the European Court of Justice relating to the planned expansion of the Turów mine near the Czech border.

Polls put the Czech Pirate party, in coalition with STAN, ahead of ANO in the polls for the first time. President Zeman stated that the single party with the most votes should be given first priority to form a new governing coalition after October’s elections, not the largest coalition.

Hungary

Vaccination with the Chinese Sinopharm and Russian Sputnik V jabs began with the Covid situation worsening and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claiming the country was heading into the most difficult phase of the pandemic to date.

At a meeting to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Visegrád Four, Orbán urged fellow V4 leaders to approve and use eastern vaccines. Towards the end of the month, Hungary’s vaccination rate began to exceed that of many other EU states.

Hungary and Poland signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement to strengthen national ties. February also saw a major diplomatic visit from the Turkish foreign minister. Prime Minister Orbán continued to stress Hungary’s sovereignty within the EU in the context of the Rule of Law dispute at the end of 2020.

Poland

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced Poland’s National Recovery Plan – a five-pillared economic blueprint for restoring the nation’s financial situation following the pandemic.

The Polish and Ukrainian foreign ministers jointly contributed an article to Politico calling on the USA to help prevent the completion of Nord Stream 2, which both nations strongly oppose. They argued that Nord Stream 2 would allow Russia to completely cut off Ukraine from the rest of Europe and create a dangerous dependency on Russia for energy across the rest of the continent.

Coronavirus cases rose steadily and Poland began to look to China for potential vaccine supplies. The nation’s hostile relations with Russia made procurement of Sputnik V appear unlikely.

The “Agreement” party, a member of the ruling United Right coalition, expelled eight of its members due to internal conflicts, weakening the United Right’s slim parliamentary lead.

Slovakia

The Covid situation worsened significantly, leading to requests to other EU countries to help look after sick patients. Having taken a relatively relaxed approach to international travellers, Slovakia made quarantine mandatory for all arrivals from mid-February.

Prime Minister Igor Matovič became a firm advocate of the approval of the Sputnik V vaccine, with its acquisition becoming certain at the end of the month. At the Visegrád Four conference, Matovič openly supported Viktor Orbán’s position in favour of any vaccines that work, regardless of origin.

Speculation grew about the future of Minister of Health Marek Krajčí, with President Čaputová going as far as to suggest the Health Minister needed to make a “gesture” given the current pandemic situation. The President also spoke out against the acquisition of Sputnik V without EMA approval, claiming only vaccines authorised by international agencies should be used.

Categories
Monthly Digest

January 2021

Czech Republic

Coronavirus cases and deaths plateaued and the government remained concerned about the possibility of a third wave of the virus beginning while hospitals are still full. This led them to slightly tighten restrictions, although they decided against drastic steps such as restricting people to a 15km radius of their homes. The British mutation of the virus caused significant concern, while the vaccine rollout continued at a glacial speed, with first doses having to be suspended in order to allow second doses to be administered. Speculation began that the Czech Republic will buy the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, along with other members of the EU such as Hungary.

Speculation emerged that Health Minister Jan Blatný would be replaced, with rumours that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš would take up the role with former Health Minister Roman Prymula acting as Executive Minister. All parties refused to comment on the speculation. Following his removal in the autumn, Prymula regained media prominence in January.

Hungary

Hungary became the first country in the EU to receive a shipment of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, with 40,000 doses arriving in the country. Hungary also became the first EU country to approve China’s Sinopharm vaccine, with 5 million doses ordered. Hungary’s independent approach to vaccination allowed it to escape some of the delays plaguing the vaccine rollout in other EU countries.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explained Hungary’s stance in the Rule of Law dispute, noting that the EU is made up of sovereign nations, but that Brussels is trying to appropriate greater powers. Orbán claims exit from the EU is not on the cards for Hungary, noting that it is better for Hungary to be in the EU and calling Brexit a “big mistake”. Orbán noted the importance for Hungary to belong to an alliance providing security.

Having risen to record numbers in the autumn, coronavirus cases and deaths plateaued at a lower rate in January. Patience with lockdown began to wear thin, with restaurants threatening to open regardless of restrictions.

Poland

Coronavirus cases and deaths continued a steady decrease into February, leading to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announcing a loosening of restrictions involving the re-opening of museums and shopping centres at the start of February and the re-opening of hotels, cinemas and theatres with up to 50% occupancy from mid-February.

Following a ruling by a constitutional tribunal which stated that abortion in cases of irreversible foetal abnormalities is unconstitutional, the government announced a near-total ban on abortion. Abortions are now only allowed in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger. The announcement sparked protests throughout the country. Newspapers noted the potential for conflict with the Biden administration in the USA on issues such as LGBT rights and abortion.

The Prime Minister announced a New Polish Deal, a programme of economic reform to help the country bounce back following the pandemic, aimed at boosting employment and incomes.

Slovakia

The country underwent its second round of mass antigen testing. The idea was first implemented in November 2020. Mass testing in January. Testing was used to enforce a strict targeted lockdown, with negative results required when travelling to work, going to parks, visiting banks, official offices, petrol stations or shops.

The British mutation of the virus became a cause for concern in Slovakia, with the British variant accounting for an increasing proportion of positive test results throughout the country. Nevertheless, the virus situation began to improve with health experts claiming the country is past the peak of the second wave.