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The Lights Are Going Out Over Europe

John Laughland

One by one, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are falling into line and voting to join the European Union. In all cases, the pattern is basically the same. There may
be, here and there, pockets of resistance to the European project but somehow the forces of pro-Europeanism manage always to pull off victory. The methods by which they do this vary from outright intimidation and harassment of people of independent mind - as in the Czech Republic - to the mobilisation of the heaviest of heavy guns in support of the euro project - as in Poland. There are also already questions being raised about possible electoral manipulation of the EU referendums, in Lithuania and in Slovakia.

Czech Republic

Outright harassment has been worst in the Czech Republic. On 29th May, a leading TV journalist was subjected to a six-hour police interrogation for asking difficult questions in an interview with a government politician in June 2002. A criminal investigation had been opened on account of her "alarming the public" and "spreading false information", ostensibly after a "private citizen" wrote to the police to complain. It seems fairly obvious that the private citizen was put up to it by someone from the political party whose deputy leader found the journalist's questions difficult to answer. In a truly hallucinatory session with the police, the journalist, Jana Bobosikova - a woman of considerable intelligence and independence of mind - found herself having to explain to the policeman that she had the right, indeed the professional duty, to ask whatever questions she liked.

The police harassment of Jana Bobosikova came just weeks after the dismissal of the director of the private TV station she worked for, TV Nova. Vladimir Zelezny had founded the TV station together with two figures from the American political-corporate establishment at the beginning of the 1990s - Ronnie Lauder, son of Estιe Lauder, Republican Party fund-raiser, and onetime US Ambassador to Austria; and Mark Palmer, a career diplomat who became US Ambassador to Hungary before starting up his media business. The business partners fell out a couple of years ago and have been engaged in bitter litigation over ownership to the most popular TV station in the Czech Republic. TV Nova is, in fact, the only seriously profitable media venture in the whole region.

Both Bobosikova and Zelezny are known for their generally independent views; and both of them harbour serious doubts about the Czech Republic's accession to the EU. In particular, both of them have expressed fears that EU accession will lead to a re-colonisation of the country by Germans. In the "offending" interview last June, Jana Bobosikova had put it to the politician, Jan Kasal, that his party, the Christian Democrats, had relations with the German Expellees Association, and in particular with the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft which campaigns for the revocation of the Benes decrees. These are the legal instruments which were used in 1945-46 to give effect to the Allies' decision, taken at Potsdam in February 1945, to transfer the ethnic German population out of Czechoslovakia and into Germany. Many Czechs fear that a revocation of these decrees would lead to a flood of property restitution claims against the Czech state, and that they would lose their homes. However horrible that act of mass ethnic cleansing may appear to us now, it was undertaken because the Allies reproached the Sudeten Germans for having helped start the war in the first place. Their demand to be "repatriated to the Reich" had led to the Munich agreement of September 1938, in which France and Britain agreed to carve up the Czechoslovak state they had created at Versailles, and gave large chunks of it to Germany. Hitler was given several inches and took hundreds of miles: by early 1939, Germany had occupied the whole of Bohemia and Moravia and established a puppet state in Slovakia.

Zelezny's interest in the Sudeten German question flows from his position as a Senator for Southern Moravia, an area of the Czech republic which borders Austria to the North and which used to be densely populated by Germans. Thanks to his high profile as the director of TV Nova, and thanks to a popular programme he had on his own TV station, Zelezny was the only Senator to be elected with more than 50% in the first round in the senatorial elections last autumn. He has therefore started to interest himself in local issues. First among these is agriculture: Southern Moravia is an extremely fertile gently undulating plain where, unlike in neighbouring Poland, the fields continue to be well tended and the agriculture productive.
Like many in the Czech republic, Zelezny was appalled when, last year, the European Commission announced that farmers in new member states would receive only 25% of the subsidy paid to farmers in existing member states. Among other things, this means that countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are very likely to become net contributors to the EU budget, while Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and even France remain net beneficiaries of it. It also means that Czech agriculture in the border regions will very probably be destroyed. How can a Czech farmer survive if his neighbour in Austria gets four times as much money as he does from Brussels for growing the same food? The new member states will not receive the same levels of subsidy until 2012, by which time most Czech farmers will have been wiped out. They will sell up, land prices will fall, and the Germans and Austrians will probably move in to buy up their farms. The effect sought by revoking the Benes decrees will be achieved by other means, and the Czech borderlands will become German once again.

These two prominent voices on this important question have now, therefore, been silenced. When I met Zelezny in Prague recently, he made it clear that his dismissal as director has occurred as the result of government pressure on the new majority shareholders in TV Nova, a financial group called PPF. Since PPF is currently engaged in negotiations with the Czech government over the purchase of distressed debt accrued during the privatisation process - this is one of the last ways of making big, easy money in a country where everything has now been sold off to foreigners - the PPF group is vulnerable to political pressure. Zelezny told me that the government had used its bargaining power to demand that TV Nova broadcast pro-European political commercials, some of which I saw during my recent visit to Prague, and that the Interior Minister had more or less demanded his dismissal. It is difficult to think of a more blatant or brutal example of state harassment of the free media than these two events.

Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Prague to demonstrate against the appointment of a new director of Czech television. It was falsely alleged that the new man, George Hodac, was a stooge of the then leader of the opposition, Vαclav Klaus (now president of the Republic). Even if the allegation had been true, it was a strange way of alleging "political interference in the media" to claim that the State TV was falling into the hands of the opposition. The reality was the opposite: the State TV was precisely in danger of being reformed under the new director, and perhaps of becoming more independent. The protests were an extraordinary illustration of the power over crowds of political suggestion; and they showed that whenever "the Party" wants a demonstration, it gets one. Poor Hodac was eventually forced to leave his job after a major political crisis which lasted for weeks, and the State TV eventually fell back into the warm embrace of government control. But this year, when the government itself has brazenly attacked the private media, there has not been one single protest against the dismissal of Zelezny or the harassment of Bobosikova.

Instead, Zelezny has been made into a hate-figure. His litigation with Ronnie Lauder led to a defeat for the Czech state, which the American billionaire sued for failing to protect his investments. Zelezny alleges that the government deliberately lost the case to blacken his name: the Czech state will now have to pay over $350 million to Mr. Lauder, and Zelezny is being made to take the flak. Whatever the truth, the fact is that his dismissal as director will make it far easier for the government to influence programming on TV Nova; it also means that his own Saturday-night phone-in programme, "Call the Director", has been cancelled. A turbulent priest has been effectively silenced, and the media in this otherwise very democratic country have been silence - especially on the all-important EU issue.

Poland

Poland is by far the biggest of the candidate countries, with a population of nearly 40 million. It has a huge agricultural sector and some 2 million small farms. It also has some of the biggest and best-organised anti-EU political parties in the region. "Self-defence", led by Andrzej Lepper, is a large grass-roots organisation with some 60 deputies in the national parliament, which campaigns on concrete EU issues like the dumping of EU-subsidised imports into Poland, which destroy local production. "The League of Polish Families" is a more intellectual, conservative, and Catholic party, with just under 40 deputies which campaigns for national sovereignty, and against the moral decadence which it associates with the West. It is closely linked to the Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, which has millions of listeners and which is well-known for its hostility to the European Union.

On 8th June, Poland confounded expectations, not only by voting Yes to EU accession, but also by managing a high turnout figure of some 59%. This contrasted with the 27% turnout figure which the EU polling organisation, Eurobarometer, had predicted last autumn. The turnout figure is important because Poland, like most former communist countries, has a rule that 50% of eligible voters must vote for a poll to be valid. (This rule does not apply in the Czech Republic; and in Poland, it was effectively abrogated for the EU referendum.) On Wednesday, 11th June, I spoke by telephone to Maciej Giertych, one of the deputies in the League of Polish Families and the father of the party's leader. His party accepts the results of the vote and does not think there was any manipulation of the electoral process itself. He claims that the turnout did really jump from 18% by the end of Saturday to 59% by the end of Sunday because people are used to voting on Sunday, and because many voted on their return from the country on Sunday evening. Whether there were any irregularities in the Polish case is impossible to say at this stage. According to one source, voters were not required to sign the electoral register before voting. If this is the case, it would be easy for commission members to cast votes on behalf of people who did not vote.

However, the greatest manipulation occurred, as in the Czech case, in the media before the poll. As in the Czech Republic, the media in Poland were unashamedly one-sided. According to one source, 98% of the time was given to pro-EU arguments with only 2% to the opposition. Most unfortunate of all were the interventions of the Pope, who on 18th May repeated his publicly uttered belief that Poland should join the EU. This opinion, which was broadcast and re-broadcast on all news bulletins between then and the polling date, undermined a large section of opposition to the EU among conservative Catholics. If such pro-government one-sidedness in the media occurred in an election of whose outcome the West disapproved, there would be hell to pay for such media manipulation. But because it is "all in a good cause", the silence is deafening.

Lithuania

In Lithuania, the development of the turnout gives rise to the highest suspicions. The turnout by the end of the first day of polling was 23%. By 10 a.m. on Sunday morning it had jumped to 27.8%. (All these countries extended the voting period to two days for the European referendum, providing a useful "overnight" facility to the government.) So the turnout figure jumped by nearly 5% in the first four hours of voting on Sunday morning. This followed a reported statement by the Lithuanian president that the authorities were monitoring the turnout minute by minute and that "measures would have to be taken" if they looked like they were going to fail to reach the legally-required 50%. [1] Four hours later, i.e. 2 p.m., another 17.8% had voted. Thus the government started to celebrate even before the end of polling, because it felt certain that the turnout figure would be over 50%, and because it assumed that a majority would vote Yes. It later transpired that the main supermarket chain in Lithuania, Maxima, had distributed cheap beer and chocolate to voters to encourage them to turn out. These are practices which would normally qualify the country for instant condemnation by Western busybodies: but not this time.

Slovakia

The Slovaks, like the Lithuanians, ended up with Yes results which recalled the figures reached in the old Soviet days. (92% and 91% respectively). But questions are already being asked about the propriety of the Slovak poll. It appears that voting ballots were simply left out on a table for voters to help themselves, and that several voters took more than one ballot by mistake. This method, which is illegal under the Slovak electoral law, which requires the voter to be given his ballot by an election official, is wide open to abuse. Given that the turnout was very low in Slovakia too, and that the government had every interest in raising it, it is quite possible that commission members turned a blind eye, or openly encouraged abuse. There are currently criminal investigations pending into the conduct of the local elections in Slovakia last December, precisely because it is alleged that commission members themselves cast as many as 150 votes in their polling stations for a particular candidate. [2]

Conclusion

The electoral system in particular, and the political system in general, in all the candidate countries is wide open to manipulation. In Bulgaria, a member of the Central Electoral Commission has warned that 800,000 people are still on the electoral register even though they left the country years ago. [3] That is a very sizeable proportion of the electorate in a country whose population is less than 10 million. Even in a supposedly well-developed country like the Republic of Ireland, electoral abuse occurs: it was probably facilitated by the introduction of electronic voting in the area around Dublin where one third of the country's population lives. The media in that country, supported by the big corporations, was unashamedly biased. And the shenanigans in Florida in 2000 are too notorious to bear repeating now.

In all cases, therefore the alliance between the local political class, big business and the big institutions of the West (the EU itself, Nato and the US embassies in each country) means that, one by one, the new democracies in Eastern Europe are being quietly but deliberately extinguished as, one by one, they sign their own death-warrants as democratic sovereign states.


# # # # #
FOOTNOTES:

[1]
http://www.oscewatch.org/LatestNews.asp?ArticleID=20

[2]
http://www.slovakspectator.sk/clanok.asp?vyd=2003022&rub=spect_news&cl=12982

[3] Radio Free Europe Newsline, 5th June 2003