Recent elections in Central Europe swept out incumbents, but in opposite directions, with the nearby Ukraine war and its impact on citizens and the economies never far from the political surface.
Poland’s liberal opposition managed to defeat the stubborn hold on power of the conservative nationalist party that has ruled since 2015. With the exception of the far-right Konfederacja party, the victors and the vanquished in Poland both support Ukraine’s war effort. However, the campaign period exposed some economic grievances related to supporting Ukraine’s European Union membership bid.
In Slovakia, former prime minister Robert Fico, whose SMER party combines social democratic welfare policies with conservative nationalism, defeated the pro-EU and pro-Ukraine incumbents by emphatically opposing further military aid for Ukraine.
Poland: Return to the European fold?
The victory of Poland’s liberal opposition in the October 15 parliamentary elections was momentous for the European Union, since it could signal the end of the uneasy relations with Europe under Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).
The prospective coalition will be composed of the Civic Platform led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, along with the centrist Third Way coalition and the New Left bloc. Together, these three parties won 54% of the vote in a record turnout. Tusk, who served as president of the EU Council from 2014 to 2019, is committed to unblocking over 30 billion euros withheld by the EU pending the reversal of measures taken by PiS seen as having curbed judicial independence.
Although it has no obvious coalition partner, PiS got the largest share of votes of any single party at 35.6 percent, allowing their leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to claim a victory of sorts. The Law and Justice party, having governed for eight years, will be formidable in opposition, in part because the PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda’s term ends only in 2025. Even if Duda bows to the election arithmetic and allows Tusk and partners to form a new government, PiS can rely on the presidential veto and court challenges to hobble Tusk’s policy agenda.
Law and Justice took a stubborn anti-German stance while in power and has sought to depict Tusk and other liberal opponents as agents of Germany. Moreover, Kaczynski has long accused Tusk of conspiring with Russia to cause the Polish presidential aircraft to crash as it attempted to land in the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010. For several years prior to this event, Tusk had, as Prime Minister, pursued a limited rapprochement with Russia, part of his attempt to bring Polish diplomacy more into alignment with that of France and Germany.
A rare exception among nationalist-populist parties in Europe, PiS enthusiastically pushed for greater and more advanced weapons deliveries to Ukraine. However, during the election campaign this fall, PiS exploited Ukraine fatigue among Polish farmers calling for barring Ukrainian grain from the Polish market. In mid-September, in the midst of the electoral campaign, Duda likened Ukraine to a drowning man that risked taking others down with it.
Polls indicate that many Poles resent the alleged economic impact of the roughly 1 million Ukrainian refugees resettled in the country. The Polish population seems to be torn between this resentment and the otherwise still solid support for Ukraine’s war effort. There are also unresolved historical grievances held by some Poles against Ukrainians. Insightful polling last year concluded that Poles love Ukraine but not Ukrainians. PiS in opposition will likely seek to block Ukrainian EU accession, which can easily be depicted as disadvantageous to Polish economic interests and will respond to the frustrations exposed by the swing in public opinion.
Slovakia’s elections move country away from Ukraine support
Slovakia’s elections of September 30 brought former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s SMER (Direction) party back to power in coalition with two other parties. Fico and his coalition partners — the social democratic Voice Party and the hard-right nationalist Slovak National Party — campaigned openly on halting military support to Ukraine and on resisting any new sanctions on Russia. The pro-EU and pro-Ukraine Progressive Slovakia finished a distant second.
Slovak public opinion shows a swelling Ukraine fatigue. Inflation, a weak economy and a general positive disposition among many Slovaks toward Russia are among the causes.
At his first EU summit on October 27, Fico announced an end of any further military support from Slovakia to Ukraine and called for the EU to press for a negotiated settlement. He pledged to oppose any new sanctions against Russia that would adversely affect Slovakia’s economy. In these positions, Fico and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban were in close alignment. Since matters of foreign and security policy in the EU are decided unanimously, Hungary and Slovakia have some leverage over policy outcomes.
How might the balance have shifted?
The Polish election result may well reinforce Poland’s already pronounced Atlanticist orientation. But Tusk’s government may also align Poland more closely with the somewhat more nuanced and reserved position taken by Germany on supporting Ukraine. Germany has been cautious to avoid escalation of the conflict in Ukraine and has only reluctantly come on board with the US in the provision of longer-range and more advanced weaponry. Poland, under its conservative government, publicly derided German hesitations. This may change under Tusk.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Macron have also championed intensified cooperation in defense-industrial modernization for Europe, a cause which Poland has not heretofore espoused. This could also change under Tusk’s leadership. But Tusk’s role will be under constant challenge, since PiS will hope to divide his coalition and bring forward new elections. The ongoing drag on the Polish economy will ensure that the question of balancing support for Ukraine with other objectives will not disappear from public discourse.
Kaczynski’s PiS was strongly in sympathy with Orban’s Hungary in decrying the imposition of the European normative agenda on the scope of their powers. But the two parties never began to close the gap between their views on questions of war and peace. Relations between the two countries will now be far less cordial.
Slovakia, on the other hand, is a small but unreserved ally for Hungary in resisting further military support for Ukraine. Fico has already fully committed Slovakia to opposing new military aid from the EU to Ukraine and any new sanctions against Russia. This will on balance reduce the marginalization of Hungary in the EU and in NATO.
The net effect of these two elections leave the disposition of Europe as a whole toward support for Ukraine still very much in play. Poland returns to the top table of European decision-making but in doing so will be expected to accommodate to some extent the views of Germany and France. Slovakia under Fico will offer important cover to Orban’s Hungary, which would otherwise be isolated.
Molly O’Neal is a university lecturer and research scholar, with a long diplomatic career focused on Central Europe, Russia and Eurasia. A Fulbright professor in Warsaw and in Dresden, she has a PhD from Johns Hopkins University.
Photo credit: Poland’s Donald Tusk (Grand Warszawski/Shutterstock) and Slovakia's Robert Fico (Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?