From freight to public relations, China's influence in Central Europe appears to pick up in pace. Yet, differing responses in Czechia and Poland show that worries remain about its motives and role behind the scenes.


Squeezing Fidesz out of the People’s Party

Last November, newly elected European People’s Party (EPP) President Donald Tusk announced that a three-person group of ‘wise men’ would investigate the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. Tusk also instructed the group, including former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, to formulate an opinion on whether to expel Fidesz from the centre-right political family.

This week, the first indications appeared on Twitter that the ‘wise men’ have delivered their report to Tusk. However, no public confirmation has been given to this date. It is likely that intensive consultations will continue until early February when the EPP’s next Political Assembly is scheduled to take place. Participants will then decide about the fate of Fidesz, whether to further restrict its membership or squeeze the Hungarians out.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński in Warsaw earlier this week shows the Hungarian strongman is considering his options. Fidesz could be a better fit with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the European Parliament. Nevertheless, its pro-Russian stance is hard to swallow for Law and Justice (PiS). Among others, the Financial Times has noted how Budapest’s “go-it-alone foreign policy” is becoming a test for EU diplomatic unity.

Polish president will not attend Auschwitz anniversary event

Vladimir Putin’s erroneous claims about Poland’s responsibility for the Second World War have not gone unnoticed in Warsaw. After a forceful rebuke by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, in a four-page statement, Polish President Andrzej Duda has shown his disapproval over Russian attempts to rewrite 20th-century history.

President Duda was invited to attend an event in Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in late January. However, unlike his Russian, French and German counterparts, he was not given an opportunity to speak at the event.

Notes from Poland reported that Duda would decide not to attend in a situation where he is forced to listen to Vladimir Putin without the chance to respond to any ungrounded accusations. Yad Vashem, the organiser of the event, disavowed receiving a speaking request but reportedly explored alternative options in consultation with Warsaw. Yet, none of these came to fruition possibly because they did not meet Duda’s agreement.

While the Auschwitz liberation event is an important gathering, it is not a wholly uncontested one. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be a key speaker whereas a request by his biggest political challenger, Benny Gantz, was denied.

Kuciak case shades upcoming Slovak elections

The murder case of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová is underway in Slovakia. The court handed a first prison sentence to Zoltán Andruskó, one of the five people charged. Andruskó was given a fifteen-year sentence after he made a deal with the prosecutor. He will play a key role as a witness in preparing cases against the other suspects

What will be the effect of the Kuciak case on the upcoming campaign for parliamentary elections in Slovakia? As Wojciech Przybylski notes in his forecast of 2020, much remains at play for the next governing coalition. SMER-SD remains the biggest party but faces a tricky choice of partners after the elections scheduled for 29 February.

Chinese wheels in motion

The growth of Chinese interest and influence in Central Europe was the subject of different reports this week. In Poland, the arrival of a first freight train, travelling 9,500 kilometres over 12 days from China to southern Poland, was lauded as important to strengthening cargo and transport connections. The new route is quicker than the sea-based route, which takes about 30 to 40 days to complete. According to RailFreight, the Polish railway company PKP intends to attract new types of freight and turn the country into a distribution hub for cargo from China.

China’s growing importance in the region meets more scepticism in Czechia.

First, Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib rebuked the Chinese ambassador after he made a request to kick out the representative of Taiwan at a reception. Additionally, Hřib pushed to remove all references to “one China” in an agreement between Prague and Beijing. In the end, China scrapped the deal.

Now, there are concerns about Chinese attempts at buying influence through Czechia’s wealthiest man, Petr Kellner. According to the Guardian, a Kellner-owned company paid a PR firm to place articles in local media to give a more positive spin to the country. Such a decision appear to be part of a bigger strategy to make China’s “belt and road” initiative popular in the region. This strategy seeks to normalise the views of the country – thereby ignoring its political regime and human rights abuses.

Dr Quincy R. Cloet is Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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