The common purpose the region rediscovered during the refugee crisis has frayed in recent months amid differences over matters large and small, concerning everything from regulatory fine print to the future of Europe.
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – The European Union’s top court dismissed complaints on Wednesday by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, upholding Brussels’ right to force member states to take in asylum seekers.
In the latest twist to a divisive dispute that broke out two years ago when over a million migrants poured across the Mediterranean, the European Court of Justice found that the EU was entitled to order national governments to take in quotas of mainly Syrian refugees relocated from Italy and Greece.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Across Eastern Europe, local oligarchs and investment groups — some directly connected to their countries’ political leadership — are snapping up newspapers and other media companies, prompting deep concerns among journalists and others about press freedom.
It is just one of an array of developments across the region raising questions, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about progress toward Western standards of democracy and free speech.
As in Russia, there are increasing worries about a potentially dangerous concentration of power in the hands of people who have managed to acquire both wealth and political influence and are increasingly extending their control to media outlets.
Here in Slovakia, a German media company sold a substantial stake in the nation’s last serious, independent newspaper to a well-connected investment group that had been among its investigative targets.
At a time of similar developments across the region, what stood out in the investment in Petit Press and its prominent SME flagship newspaper by the group, Penta Investments, was the reaction of the paper’s staff.
Matus Kostolny, 39, editor in chief for the last eight years, walked out the door. Four of his deputies followed. And 50 members of the paper’s 80-person staff submitted notice to leave by the end of the year.
“I think Penta intends to misuse the newspapers for their own purposes,” Mr. Kostolny said. “Their idea of free speech is entirely different from mine.”
But the situation in Slovakia is just the latest in which owners, often Western European or American, have chosen to sell Eastern European media properties and powerful local interests have stepped forward and snapped them up.
In Latvia, opaque disclosure laws obscured who controlled much of the country’s news media until a corruption investigation of one of the country’s richest businessmen revealed that he and two other oligarchs were the principal owners.
In Hungary, beyond outright state ownership of much of the news media, top associates of Prime Minister Viktor Orban control significant chunks. Chief among them is Lajos Simicska, who went to school with the prime minister and whose construction company has profited lavishly from state contracts, although the two are said to be feuding of late.
In Romania, the leading television news station, the right-wing Antena 3, is only part of the vast media empire owned by the billionaire Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the country’s Conservative Party. In August, Mr. Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years in prison on money laundering charges.
Several oligarchs control the media companies in Bulgaria, regularly ranked in last place among European Union nations in the World Press Freedom Index. That includes a former lawmaker, Delyan Peevski, whose New Bulgarian Media Group — ostensibly controlled by his mother, though opponents charge that he holds the real power — has been closely linked to governments controlled by several parties.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, most media outlets were either owned outright by the state or utterly dependent on government advertising. When foreign owners — most notably from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States — subsequently bought up local newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, journalists found that the distant owners had no interest in local politics. That was a relief for a time.
“For us, it was perfect,” Mr. Kostolny said of the German conglomerate that owned SME. “We had very professional owners who never picked up the phone and tried to influence the newspaper. Not once.”
But when the economy sank in 2008, most of these foreign owners decided to retreat to their core businesses back home and put their media companies in Central and Eastern Europe on the block. At that point, the distance between their Western owners and the political realities in their countries began to seem like a drawback, especially as the owners began selling to local interests with a direct stake in the coverage.
“It turned out that as much as they didn’t care about Slovak politics, they also didn’t care about who they sold the papers to and the impact of the sale on Czech and Slovak society,” Mr. Kostolny said.
The end result, said Marian Lesko, a commentator for Trend Magazine, a Bratislava-based business journal also owned by Penta Investments, is that “in Slovakia, independent media is no more, basically.”
Alexej Fulmek, the chief executive of Petit Press and one of the founders of SME, said he was troubled by Penta’s stake in the company but decided to stay on to protect SME and the other Petit Press publications, including the most important network of regional papers in the country.
“I am not happy with the situation,” he said. “We don’t like Penta. They have too many economic interests with the government.”
For its part, Penta bristles at being compared to politically connected oligarchs in the region, instead presenting itself as a fairly standard, Western-style investment company with interests in hospitals, retail outlets, real estate and other industries that now happens to include media.
Officials of the company, led by its dominant principal, Jaroslav Hascak, said they were interested only in keeping their media investments profitable by consolidating them and had no intention of meddling in the newsrooms.
“We do not have any direct businesses with the state,” said Martin Danko, the group’s chief spokesman. “We are not providing any services, not participating in any state competitions to supply something. But we are definitely operating in regulated businesses.”
Penta got into the media business after other entities controlled by local oligarchs — Mr. Babis, the Czech finance minister, as well as Ivan Jakabovic and Patrik Tkac, who control the J&T Finance Group in Slovakia — had already started investing in the industry.
Penta’s 45 percent interest in Petit Press prevents it from dominating the newsroom, even if it wished to do so — which, Mr. Danko said, it does not, because it understands that the credibility of the news is the core of the company’s profitability.
Mr. Kostolny doesn’t buy it. “Penta’s real interest is in influence, in controlling their critics,” he said. “They will make back their investment with one state contract, and nobody will bother them by writing about it.”
Mr. Kostolny is now working on a plan under which his deputies and as many former SME staffers as he can afford to hire will produce Projekt N, a web portal and a print paper, perhaps weekly, perhaps daily. His plan is to offer breaking news for free online, but to charge for longer and investigative pieces.
For the moment, though, they have no office outside of the Next Apache cafe — the name, said aloud, sounds like “nech sa paci,” which means “here you are” in Slovak — where Mr. Kostolny and many former employees now hang out.
“I still don’t have investors,” he said. “I don’t have computers. I don’t have printing machines. I don’t have anything.”
For his part, Mr. Fulmek said he intended to spend the next several weeks trying to talk some of those who put in their notice to stay at SME with him and fight the good fight there. He even hopes to persuade Mr. Kostolny and his deputies to return, but he is not optimistic.
“They are very pure,” Mr. Fulmek said. “And that’s good, because the country needs such people.”
Slovakian company AeroMobil to unveil prototype of ‘world’s most advanced flying car’ in at Vienna’s Pioneers Festival
From the Jetsons’ aerocar to the “spinner” in Blade Runner, via Doc Brown’s modified DeLorean in the Back to the Future films, the flying car has been part of visions of the future for so long that it almost feels retro.
A first patent was registered in 1903 and Waldo Waterman’s “aerobile” went on its maiden flight in 1937. Yet, 100 years later, automobiles are still frustratingly short of options when stuck in traffic.
Things may be about to change: in 2014, talk of the first genuine flying car is setting the tech scene abuzz again.
In June, Terrafugia announced that it was two years away from finishing its first “roadable aircraft” , but now it looks like the US company will be beaten to the prize.
Organisers of Vienna’s Pioneers Festival, an annual conference for future technology and digital entrepreneurship, announced on Thursday that they would unveil the prototype of “the world’s most advanced flying car” on 29 October.
An earlier prototype of the Flying Roadster by Slovakian company AeroMobil reportedly took its first test flight in October last year. The latest version will be tested a day before its premiere, on 28 October.
Company co-founder Juraj Vaculik said that AeroMobil had sped up the prototyping process after having seen “enthusiastic reactions of the global engineering and design community”.
Weighing 450 kg, with carbon-fibre wings that fold behind the cabin and a flight top speed of 124mph, the two-seater promises to be more of a flying sports car than a flying family car.
“We want to make personal transportation exciting, more efficient and sustainable. With ever more cars on the roads and ever more crowded airports, travelling is no longer what it used to be,” said AeroMobil’s CEO Stefan Klein, who has been working on developing a flying car for two decades.
Eastern European nations from Poland to Serbia are boosting stockpiles of natural gas after Russia reduced deliveries during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and concerns rose about a winter shutoff.
Underground storage in the Czech Republic and Poland is at full capacity, while Slovakia expects to top up its storage facilities in the next several days, the countries’ gas companies said. Serbia, whose sole depot has a capacity of 450 million cubic meters, may ask neighboring Hungary to store as much as 200 million cubic meters of gas in its reservoirs, according to Energy Minister Aleksandar Antic.
While the level of eastern European countries’ dependence on Russian gas through Ukraine varies, the region as a whole relies more on deliveries from OAO Gazprom (OGZD) than western Europeand is therefore stocking up in case flow from Russia via Ukraine stops entirely.
During the past few days, Russia began slightly reducing supplies to countries like Slovakia and Poland, which provide reverse gas flows to Ukraine.
“Only Latvia has enough storage capacity to survive through the winter without Russian gas,” Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis said by e-mail. “Other countries of central and eastern Europe don’t have enough storage capacity.”
Southeastern European nations such as Bulgaria and Serbia are particularly exposed to interruptions since they are almost 100 percent dependent on Russian gas coming through Ukraine. The current crisis has rekindled memories of 2006 and 2009, when Gazprom disputes with Ukraine left the Balkan nations without fuel for weeks.
As a result, southeastern Europe’s governments were long reluctant to halt preparatory work on Gazprom’s South Stream project, designed to run under the Black Sea from Russia and enter the EU in Bulgaria, bypassing Ukraine.
Authorities were betting on the 2,446-kilometer (1,520-mile) pipeline to boost the security of supplies and halted the construction under lobbying from Brussels and the U.S. earlier this year.
The U.S. expanded sanctions against Russia today to include the country’s largest bank, OAO Sberbank, as well as energy, defense and technology companies owned by the state. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew warned of Russia’s growing “economic and diplomatic isolation.”
In Serbia, where hundreds of thousands of households rely partly or completely on electricity for heating due to capped electricity prices, a gas shortage could cause a spike in power consumption that would destabilize the national grid, former Energy Minister Petar Skundric said. In case of a cutoff, Serb storage may cover as much as 45 days of consumption in wintertime.
The Czech Republic’s gas storage is full, one month before schedule, according RWE AG (RWE), which operates 92 percent of the country’s underground storage with a capacity of 2.7 billion cubic meters. Polish utility Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo SA also filled its 2.6 billion cubic meters of to the limit.
Still, gas companies across eastern Europe are reporting reduction in gas supplies from Russia. PGNiG said it received as much as 24 percent less gas from Gazprom than it ordered on Sept. 8 and 9.
Slovakia, which started the reverse flow to Ukraine at the beginning of September, saw a 10 percent decrease in the amount of gas ordered from Russia every day since Sept. 10, operator Slovensky Plynarensky Priemysel AS said. Gas flow to Romania was cut by 5 percent.
“We are seeing a similar story across emerging Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, as Russia tries to limit any surplus gas available in the region for reverse flow back to Ukraine,” said Timothy Ash, the chief economist for emerging markets at Standard Bank Group Ltd. in London.
Slovakia’s SPP said so far the supplies are sufficient to cover all of the country’s demand and the storage is almost full.
Gas supplies to Austria were also 15 percent lower than agreed yesterday and will remain at the same level today, OMV AG spokesman Robert Lechner said in a phone interview today. The Austrian oil company is getting more gas than what’s needed and its own gas storages are 98 percent full, Lechner said.
The Czechs are less dependent on the supply of gas via the pipeline than surrounding countries because of its interconnection with Germany, which can cover their entire consumption.
The country is also able to supply neighboring Slovakia, a former federal partner, in case it’s needed, Czech Industry and Trade Minister Jan Mladek said.
Lithuania has enough gas reserves to last until its new LNG terminal in Klaipeda opens in December, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said on Sept. 11.
Latvia’s Incukalns storage facility is 70 percent full, with enough gas to last the country for more than a year, Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said on Sept. 9.
Estonia, the smallest of the three Baltic republics, has gas stocks for only five days. While gas represents only 9 percent in the nation’s energy mix, it is used to heat 58 percent of the capital Tallinn.
Romania has a sizable domestic production and its storage with a capacity of 2.8 billion cubic meters is currently half full. The country can last about six months without any gas imports from Russia, Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu said in June.
“Without Ukrainian transit, Bulgaria would suffer the most,” Korchemkin said. As for LNG potentially imported by Lithuania andPoland, it “would replace just about 25-30 percent of the daily volumes of Russian gas delivered via Ukraine.”
Germany’s foreign minister has said there is no military solution to the crisis in Ukraine. Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with four of his central European counterparts in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava.
The parties involved in the Ukraine conflict must avoid any steps which could lead to a new escalation of tensions, German Foreign Minster Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Monday, at a meeting of foreign ministers of the four : Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
Steinmeier urged for the continuation of the Minsk peace process.
“One thing is clear I think to all of us: there is no, and there cannot be, a military solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” Steinmeier told reporters.
Slovakian foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak expressed the support of the central European countries for Germany in its role as a key mediator in Ukraine.
“We all very much appreciate Germany’s leadership in this matter,” he said.
According to news agency Reuters, Steinmeier also said senior officials from Germany, Ukraine and Russia would meet in Paris on Wednesday to discuss oversight mechanisms for the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
When, in 2010 and 2012, Hungary passed laws entitling Hungarians living abroad to Hungarian passports and then the right to vote in Hungarian elections, it seemed to fan dangerous nationalistic flames and fueled fears of secessionist movements in Hungarian communities beyond the country’s border. Indeed,
Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban has frequently stated that the Hungarian nation does not end at the borders of the state; rather, it ends with those Hungarians who were stranded in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine when the Treaty of Versailles lopped off two-thirds of the Hungarian territory.
Given the parallels to Russia, where granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians has been a precursor to invasion, observers can be forgiven for feeling chilled.
Although Orban is certainly tapping into nationalist nostalgia when he talks about Hungarians abroad, his purposes are not the same as those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More than irredentism, Orban is thinking about votes. In fact, since he returned to power in 2010, he has done everything possible to avoid ever losing another election.
He has proven to be a world-class virtuoso of gerrymandering; after he pulled in a supermajority of votes in 2010, he was able to contort Hungary’s electoral system so much that in 2014, Fidesz, his party, was able to win two-thirds of all seats in the parliament with only 45 percent of the vote. And even if Fidesz does lose an election,
Orban has manipulated the system so that Fidesz appointees in the media office, the prosecutor’s office, the state audit office, the central bank, and the presidency would continue to wield substantial power.
Orban’s dealings with Hungarians abroad should likewise be seen as an electoral strategy. Since Fidesz passed the 2010 law, 675,000 and counting ethnic Hungarians have taken advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than 130,000 of these new dual citizens voted in 2014, but 95 percent of those who did vote picked Fidesz.
Although 130,000 may not seem a lot in a country of eight million eligible voters, the votes did give Fidesz an extra seat in the parliament to hold on to its narrow two-thirds majority—a small advantage, but one that meant a lot.
And looking toward the next election in 2018, Fidesz could get even more out of this group by motivating more ethnic Hungarians to apply for passports and to vote, especially in pro-Fidesz areas. Orban’s government can also set up more ballots and polling stations, for example, in surrounding countries where voters tend to support his party—as opposed to London and elsewhere, where Fidesz did not rush to make it easier for Hungarians to vote.
Beyond votes, Orban also sees Hungarians abroad as a way to solve his country’s demographic problems. A nation of 10.6 million in 1988, Hungary has lost 700,000 people over the 27 years since, mostly from out-migration and lower birth rates. It is true that Orban, like many other right-wing politicians in Europe (but in a more radical tone), generally opposes immigration, especially of people from different cultural backgrounds.
For instance, he spoke out sharply after the Charlie Hebdoattack in Paris, stating, “We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.
” But the Hungarian diaspora can help Orban square the circle. Here, his strategy is similar to that of Russia, which has also encouraged Russians abroad to come home from other republics of the former Soviet Union.
Orban also sees Hungarians abroad as a way to solve his country’s demographic problems.
Although Orban does not intend to stir up real trouble, he frequently uses strongly nationalist messages in his speeches. For example, he encourages “autonomy” and talks about a nation that goes beyond current borders.
One possible explanation for the mismatch is that he is preparing for a Russian-dominated Europe, in which Hungary might gain back (at least symbolically) some of its former territories. Orban might have some hopes that Putin will do what Adolf Hitler did in 1938: give Hungary back the territories that were lost at Trianon. That is unrealistic; borders in Europe do seem to be more flexible than before after Crimea.
But most ethnic Hungarians abroad are not supportive of aggressive autonomy movements, as they understand that they would be the first victims of irredentism. They tend to support political forces that are working toward peaceful cooperation among Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Slovakian political forces.
Polls by Political Capital, a Budapest think tank, have shown that enthusiastic Fidesz supporters compose only one-fourth of the Hungarians in Transylvania, the part of Romania where many Hungarians are concentrated.
This silent majority has neither applied for dual citizenship nor voted in Hungarian elections. Meanwhile, Hungary’s radical, right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad, despite its attempts to build up networks in the Hungarian communities and fuel secessionist movements.
This does not mean, however, that aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could not act as though they have a majority behind them, as in eastern Ukraine.
That hasn’t happened so far, but any nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.
Nowhere are these dangers more evident than in Ukraine, where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues (about 200,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine) in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.
Here, Orban has echoed Russian nationalists, calling for increased autonomy for national minorities in Ukraine. In his inauguration speech on May 10, 2014, Orban stated that “the Hungarians in the Carpathian basin deserve dual citizenship, rights, and even autonomy. . . .
This is our clear expectation toward the newly forming Ukraine.” This speech, not surprisingly, resulted in some diplomatic turbulence.
Similar calls had landed Hungary in trouble before: in a 1996 treaty, it was forced to cease and desist making calls for autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania as a condition of membership in the European Union. The European Union may keep the peace among its member states, but Ukraine lies outside the EU.
In his approach to politics, Orban may stretch the limits of democratic respectability, but so far, he has not fully let go of European norms. His approach to Hungarians abroad fits this pattern.
He toys with soft revisionist policies (they are not unique: dual citizenship with voting rights is a practice in Croatia and Romania as well). But he does so mainly to win votes at home, not to foment serious ethnic conflict. So far, his strategy has worked. But the delicate balance could easily topple.