We Need To Talk About Hungary

So Hungary started erecting a barbed-wire fence on the border with Slovenia as well yesterday morning. Since the Orban government was busy doing exactly that for the past few weeks on its borders with Serbia and Croatia, seemingly to stem the influx of refugees, the move shouldn’t come as a surprise. But Ljubljana was surprised and has officially yet to respond to the move.

Shitty graphics by yours truly

According to media reports, it was the Slovenian police which first noted the Hungarian army fooling around with metal constructions at Pince border crossing. The foreign ministry was notified and – nothing. Foreign minister Karl Erjavec lamented the fact that Hungary did not notfiy Slovenia ahead of time and later said that his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto told him in an informal phone call that fence is “a temporary installation”. Yeah, well, so was the Berlin wall.

Admittedly, the joke in this case is on Slovenia. The country’s intelligence services apparently failed to even predict let alone detect Hungarian moves. Even worse, three weeks ago Slovenian president Borut Pahor met Victor Orban and said that some Hungarian measures need to be taken into account. To Pahor’s credit, he did manage a between-the-lies criticism of Orban’s policies by stating that “some of his assessments left me [Pahor] speechless”. But actions speak louder than words. And one wonders just how speechless the Prez was yesterday, when he woke up to an iron curtain on his North-Eastern border. Needless to say Slovenia has yet to lodge a formal protest with the Hungarian ambassador in Ljubljana.

Now, clichés about temporary solutions having a tendency of becoming permanent aside, we really need to talk about Hungary. On an Europe-wide level. The country has now erected or is in the process of doing so, a barbed wire fence on the border with three of its seven neighbouring states. Since its borders with Romania and Ukraine are also the outer borders of the Schengen Area and the EU respectively, the only intra-EU borders which remain non-fenced one way or another are borders with Austria and Slovakia. And those two countries suspended Schengen rules on their side of the border (as did Slovenia last week, mind you), making Hungary, well, fenced-off from the rest of the world.

And that is a huge problem.

You see, the difference between this latest case of Hungarian metal works and all the preceding ones is that this is the first instance of a newly installed physical barrier between two Schengen Area members. Which sort of defies the point of a common Schengen area and raises the question of just how much Hungary can get away with in terms of breaching basic EU agreements. Because unlike other suspensions of Schengen rules, this one wasn’t announced. And even those countries that did suspend Schengen, are doing so in terms of reintroduced border-crossing check-points rather than the new Iron Curtain.

Which brings us to the next problem: in his previous post, pengovsky wrote that the barbed-wire fence, while officially meant to stem the influx of refugees is indeed a show for domestic consumption and a message to any Hungarian who wants to challenge Orban’s grip on power. Fact it that Hungarians can not cross a single neighbouring border without someone at least knowing about it. If – or, rather, when – the fence project continues, that particular somenone will be tempted to start allowing prohibiting travel. Which is why Klaxons should be ringing in Brussels. Loudly.

And if that is not enough for you, try this on for size. Days ago Hungarian parliament by a large majority passed an act increasing powers of the police and the military in responding to the refugee crisis. Those powers now include use of nonlethal firearms as well as disregarding the right of the privacy of home in search of “illegal migrants” as the official term goes.

So, now we have a fenced-off country where the police and the army have hugely increased powers and overlapping jurisdictions. Suppose in a few months or years someone comes up with an amendment to the increased powers act, replacing the term “illegal migrants” with, say, “enemies of the state”.

Worried yet?

UPDATE: According to Slovenian media Hungarian army began dismantling the fence with Budapest apparently claiming it was all a misunderstading. Riiiight….

UPDATE 2: This via Andrew MacDowall via Hugarian Spectrum. Apparently the offical term for the installation on the border was not “a fence” but “a wire obstacle”. Brilliant! 😀

September 25th, 2015, posted by pengovsky

The Week Schengen Again Became Just A Place In Luxembourg

“Vat is your kargo?” The German border-policeman at a check-point just hundreds of metres inland from border with Austria could have very well escaped from a high-octane H’Wood flick while his muted partner looked like he barely missed the cast of Kobra 11, die Autobahnpolizei series. It was just a few days after Germany suspended Schengen rules on its Southern border and pengovsky spent previous few hours fretting over the possibility of a lenghty Stau on the border crossing which is inclined to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on a normal day, let alone in the midst of what turned out to be a near-complete breakdown of free movement rules within the EU in the wake of the refugee crisis.

Rear-view mirror image of German border-checkpoint

But staying true to their Teutonic reputation, the procedure took less than five minutes. It was brutally efficient. Traffic was squeezed into a single lane with the first crew visually scanning incoming vehicles, another crew pulled over those selected (such as pengovsky, unshaven, driving a white cargo van), the third team then directed us to one of several two-men teams performing the actual check, in our case the Dolph Lundgren lookalike and his Danny Devito-esque sidekick. And, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, it was all over before you can say Schengen Agreement. Polite, efficient, not painful at all (provided you’re not trafficking refugees, I presume).

And yet, there it was. An intra-EU border, manned in full force. There is a generation of young people to whom a border between, say Austria and Germany or (albeit to a lesser extent) between Slovenia and Austria is but an abstract concept. Abolition of border checks and free movement of people has, as far and reality on the ground is concerned, probably the most important factor in development of a common, transnational, European identity. That and the introduction of Euro. And we all know how well *that* particular clustefurck was handled. In fact, the Schengen cascade effect was a real-life demonstration of what would happen in case of a “controlled Grexit”. A shitstorm of biblical proportions.

The visceral Visegrad Four

But, as shocking as it was, Germany should not be riled on account of closing its border with Austria. Yes, the historical parallels are not pretty and you can be excused for thinking this is what happened just before the Anschluss (nevermind the fact that just before Anschluss refugees were running the other way and, well… brush up on your history, dammit!) Also, yes, the move primarily fucks over the refugees who have already made it all this way just to be denied overcoming the last hurdle. But no, this is not a takeover of power by Bavarian hardliners in Berlin. Still, the Schengen Agreement is on life support as of last week. But rather than Germany the Visegrad Four are to blame for the predicament.

Germany got plenty of bad press over its handling of the Greek Crisis and rightly so, even though the Fabulous Duo Tsipras/Varoufakis performed quite admirably in fucking up the situation (OT and re last night’s elections Greece: Tsipras apparently did grow up in the course of the last nine months). It was therefore a bit of a poetic justice when Berlin invoked European solidarity in handling the refugee influx but was rebuffed harshly by Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland (which, admittedly is slowly caving in) and Hungary. But what should have been an instructive “we told you so” moment for Germany turned out to be a complete and utter perversion of European ideas and ideals by member states who seem to the think European Union is an a la carte restaurant where they can pick and choose some commitments and eschew others.

Because while German move to temporarily revoke Schengen is a policy move aimed at forcing other member states to either accept the quota system for handling refugees or start actively and generously participating in the relief effort on their own, Slovak suspension of Schengen rules (followed by non-Visegrad members Austria and the Nethelands) and mulled by Czech Republic and Poland is a misguided geopolitical move aimed at preventing the stream of refugees to spill over their border. As if it is not their problem.

Refugees for domestic consumption

That several Eastern European government responded to the refugee crisis in a borderline racist manner would make a good case study for psychoanalysts. Probably somewhere along the lines of inferiority complex meeting pre-modern politics meeting tribalism garnished with a splash of endemic fascism.

And elections. Croatia, for example, stopped processing refugees within two days of the wave spilling over the Croatian-Serbian border. True, the numbers are staggering and the country was apparently ill prepared to tackle the humanitarian crisis that was clearly coming their way. Slovenia, too, was slow to pull its collective head out of its collective ass, but the way Croatian system broke down was epic. Or, rather, disastrous. And once that went South and the refugees continued to go North, the government of Zoran Milanović simply threw their hands up and stopped registering newcomers. saying the refugees should go wherever they please. Which turned out to be Austria and Germany in most cases.

While Slovenian officialdom widely criticised Croatia for more or less simply passing the bucket to Slovenia, no-one mentioned that reasons go beyond the mere inability of Croatian services to handle the influx. You see, the centre-left government of Zoran Milanović is fighting an uphill re-election battle, where he is not shy of flirting with the right-wing agenda in attempts to win the centre vote. In doing this, he will join the long-and-distingusihed line of politicos who failed doing exactly that, but hey – when you’re out of ideas, anything will do. At any rate, the last thing Milanović (who tried to bluff his way though the humanitarian nightmare by saying that in allowing free passage Croatia “forced Slovenia and Hungary to tackle the problem, too”) needs three or four months before elections are thousands of refugees from Middle East and Africa. The HDZ-led opposition would in all likelihood start accusing him of “destroying the Croatian way of life, threatening security and Christian identity”. And if that sounds a lot like Victor Orban, you’re not far off. He and Karamarko of Croatian HDZ are more or less of the same flock.

Speaking of Orban, his barb-wire politics seems to be getting some unwarranted admiration around the EU, reports FT’s Peter Spiegel. The problem with this is twofold. First, the fact that barb-wire and paramilitaries patrolling it are quite unnecessary for an effective control of Schengen border, as demonstrated by Slovenian authorities which have done more or less the same by using much softer tactics. Even the lone scuffle that escalated into a cop using pepper-spray on a group of people turned out to have been at least in part provoked by an anarchist group which gets nervous every time it sees a robocop.

The Slovenian authorities were slow to react (the National Security Council only met on Friday afternoon, when the first refugees were already arriving at the border) but the responsible services got their shit together over the weekend and started registering refugees, busing them to shelters all over the country and providing basic medical care and sustenance. Slowly, to be sure, as hundreds of people were forced to wait on the Croatian side of several border crossings (and, at the same time, on the other side of the Schengen border), but over the course of the weekend the first wave was dealt with and – most importantly – the operative command of the situation was given to the Civil Protection and Disaster Relief, a higly efficient and flexible part of national security system aimed at providing disaster relief and which can be activated locally, regionally or nationally, depending on the emergency. Civil Protection usually coordinates all civilian services and voluntary organisations in any given situation and can enlist the support of the police or the army if need be. With these guys in control of the situation, chances of a fuck-up were brought down to the best possible minimum.

Random acts of kindness

And to add a bit of local colour: Twitter and Facebook trolls notwithstanding, the response to refugee influx throughout Slovenia has been fantastic. The police, while stretched to limits at certain points of border, gave their best and there was at least one heartwarming story of a family that got separated at the border but was reunited further inland, not to mention the countless individuals acts of help, be it in providing food and water for both refugees *and* the police, soft toys for children or even spontaneously picking people up and driving them to Austria, as carried out and written up by journo colleague Aleš Lednik (Slovenian only, I’m afraid)

Hauptbahnhof Graz. Yalla

Point being that the refugee crisis can be managed. Serbia has borne the brunt of it for the past few months. Parts of Italy and Greece are the main entry points for years on end. And here we have certain EU member states making a ruckus about a quota system for a few hundred thousand refugees which – had all things been equal – shouldn’t even begin to upset the normal balance of things in a union with five hundred million citizens (that’s, 500.000.000, five with eight zeroes)

In light of this, the only possible conclusion conclusion is that Orban’s fence (and other non-metal but similar policy initiatives) is a show for domestic consumption. The speed at which the fence was put up is breathtaking and reminiscent of the speed the Italian Fascist occupation regime put up barbed-wire fence around Ljubljana in 1942. And if that is the way Orban “defends” his country from a fictional enemy from without imagine what he is willing to do to keep “the enemy from within” at bay. Yes, the fence is a message. But not a message to refugees. It is a message to any Hungarian who dares challenge his authority.

And this is the real test the EU is now facing. Not migrant quotas per se, but whether the Union and its biggest players will allow small-time fascisms to proliferate while they pick and choose which parts of the European integration they adhere to and which they ignore (until next time).

Cameron ante portas

Even more importantly, the knee-jerk suspension of Schengen rules, especially if it spreads and continues for a while, will gravely harm the EU itself. What is to stop, say, David Cameron from demanding even more opt-outs and special treatments when tries to renegotiate the UK’s membership in the EU next year? And once he achieves that, what will stop other member states from following his example?

September 21st, 2015, posted by pengovsky

The Tale Of Two Prime Ministers

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. It was the age of Light it was the age of Darkness. Depending on whether you were Janez Janša or Alenka Bratušek yesterday. Namely, the two former PMs have seen their political outlook clear and muddle respectively less than 24 hours apart. Or so it seems.

Hand. Over. (source)

After a retrial was declared in the Patria Case, the newly assigned judge ruled the statute of limitations expired in this case as the alleged crime took place in between August and September 2005, before the Penal Code was changed to allow for a two-year extension in cases where the constitutional court ordered a retrial. There was some speculation that the extension will be granted especially since the new proviso was generally used retroactively, but mostly for post-WWII summary trials, thus paving a way for true acquittal of those innocent people who somehow were in the way of the Communist regime.

Interestingly enough, this was exactly the spin Janša – more precisely, his stellar lawyer Franci Matoz – wanted to make by arguing that he’d like the extension to be granted in order to clear his name in front of a judge rather than simply through a legal proviso. However, you’ll be excused for thinking that the way things unfolded was good enough both for Matoz and for his client. Because, no matter how you look at it, Janša, as well as his co-accused Ivan Črnkovič and Tone Krkovič, as well as Walter Wolf, who fled to Canada, are once again innocent. That the first three will probably sue the state for wrongful incarceration (numbers around half a mil per person are being circulated) is almost a given.

What is not a given is any kind of reset to the way things were before. While sporadic shouts of how this government lacks legitimacy are almost unavoidable, it seems to have dawned on Ivan’s legal squad at least that any scenario involving a rerun of elections is impossible. Not practically impossible, not virtually impossible, simply – impossible. Not in the least because the public have, for all the deficiency and occasional amateurism of this government, come to appreciate the sense of political stability and even dullness of day-to-day politics. Not that there aren’t screw-ups, boat-rockers or a certain amount of mischief in general, it’s just that none of it seems to be cataclysmic.

Not to be discounted is the fact that the Party burned a huge amount of resources defending its Glorious Leader tooth-and-nail. This has had noticeable effect on the ability of the party to form policy and/or take positions on issues not directly connected with the main strategic objective.  Also, a number of high-profile individuals turned out to be lacklustre in the cause at hand and have as a result fallen out of grace of the party leader(ship).  And although this strengthened the party on the inside, it also reduced its reach beyond the immediate rank-and-file. Which might also explain why the SDS, while closely trailing the SMC in the opinion polls, did not get any sort of  lasting bump in the opinion polls. Which also helps explain the overall resignation regarding possible political dividends of the whole affair.

So, while Janez Janša is now scott-free, he and his party are now, optimistically speaking, back to square one, while the political landscape has changed quite a bit. Just how well they can adapt to the new reality and hit the ground running will decide whether theirs will be a slow but sure path to oblivion or whether they will be able to reinvent themselves and form a new and viable political platform. The party proper, however, has also managed to put off the question of a post-Janša future. The operative word here being “put off”, and not avoided. Because sooner or later this will become an issue.

But for the time being, Janša still has a party to run. Afterall, he at least has a party. Unlike his successor in the PM seat Alenka Bratušek who is literally seeing her Alenka Bratušek Alliance disintegrate before her eyes.

Namely, Jani Möderndorfer, head of the party’s parliamentary group is looking for a new political home. He quit the party and the group yesterday and is rumoured to be on the verge of switching to Miro Cerar’s SMC. All of which pengovsky predicted as early as July. And while the media are focusing on the dire political straits the former PM found herself in, the real story here is the new balance of the Force within the coalition.

You see, when Bojan Dobovšek quit the SMC parliamentary group and went independent, the SD, most junior of the coalition partners, went orgasmic at the prospect of actually starting to matter in terms of securing a parliamentary majority of 46 votes (at that moment SMC had 35 votes, DeSUS 10 and SD 6). Theirs was a short-lived happiness, however, as DeSUS poached Peter Vilfan from ZaAB in late July, thus once again making itself the sole indispensible coalition partner. Should Möderndorfer really sign up for the SMC, Miro Cerar’s party would be back to 36 votes and the coalition as a whole would have a vote more than it began the term with.

The story does not end there, however. The side-effect of Möderndorfer’s jumping ship is the fact that ZaAB is now down to two MPs, one short for making the cut to claim parliamentary group privileges such as hiring staff and advisors as well as securing seats in parliamentary committees. In effect, this means the end of ZaAB as a parliamentary party. And while Bratušek was lamenting the lack of fidelity and loyalty in politics (at which point Zoran Janković probably went all Top Gun), she was presented with a much more immediate problem: how to regroup in the parliament and keep at least some of the resources available.

She immediately tried to form an independents’ parliamentary group, consisting of herself, the remaining ZaAB member Mirjam Bon Klanjšček and SMC renegade Dobovšek, but apparently that won’t fly due to a quirk in parliamentary Rules and Procedures which require that non-aligned MPs not be members of any political party. And Alenka Bratušek quitting Alenka Bratušek Alliance is, well, humiliating. What she could do, however, is call a congress of what is left of her party, move to disband it and notify the president of the parliament that her party is no more. Has ceased to be. Is expired and gone to meet its Maker. Is a stiff. Bereft of life, rests in peace and pushing up daisies. Kicked the bucket and has shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. That it has fuckin’ snuffed it and that hers is an ex-party.

But that, too, could soon become an academic debate as DeSUS apparently set its sights on Bon Klajnšček as well and should the pensioners’ party poach her, Bratušek’s only chance of seeing the inside of the parliamentary group would be to join an already existing one. For example, the Social Democrats, who have a bit of a tradition for co-opting former MPs who lost their parties. And should this really happen, one could claim that ZaAB had indeed joined Cerar’s coalition. Albeit posthumously.



September 8th, 2015, posted by pengovsky