Saturday, May 25, 2024
European Union

Who isn’t for the EU must be for Russia?

(iStock – ciud)

Reading the commentaries of the most agitated pursuers of “Russian moles,” like Anna Mierzyńska of OKO.press, one might conclude that the only way to avoid charges of collaborating with the Kremlin is to agree completely with all of the mainstream narratives. Accusations made against anyone of supporting the Russian narrative should be treated with great caution. It is now enough merely to present views that go against the only true, radically pro-Ukrainian line, to become an object of interest to the special services.

 

Łukasz Warzecha

In late March, the Czech government added a few organizations to its sanctions list that had been drawn up in consequence of the Russian attack on Ukraine, among them being the Voice of Europe website. According to representatives of the Czech services, those organizations had been engaged in spreading Russian propaganda to the order of – and in the pay of – the Kremlin. Since then the story has taken on greater and greater dimensions. It even has a Polish chapter. However, there is evidently another side to it. We may well be witnessing a huge setup – or montage, to borrow the title of a novel by Vladimir Volkoff that deals with disinformation – the purpose of which is to save the European political mainstream from serious losses in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. The paradox is that Volkoff described the disinformation mechanisms applied by the Soviets, while what we are dealing with now is the creative adaptation of those methods to the needs of Western democracies. To understand the purpose of this montage, we must first take a look at the context in which it is taking place.

The fears of the European elite

In the first half of April, the EU migration pact received last-minute approval from the European Parliament. In fact it was not clear until the last moment whether this measure, which has aroused great opposition from some member countries, could be successfully pushed through. Politico reported the same morning that French President Emmanuel Macron had phoned Donald Tusk to ask him to persuade his MEPs at least to abstain. This did not work – all Civic Coalition (KO) MEPs voted against the pact, hand in hand with those from Law and Justice (PiS). The nervous atmosphere in which the voting on the pact took place shows how high the stakes will be in the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are to be held between June 7 and 9 (voting in Poland will take place on the last of those days). The EU elite already knows there is a good chance that it will lose the position it currently enjoys. Polls show that the European People’s Party (EPP), which has long been the largest political grouping in the parliament, might lose its first place if the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) were to join forces with the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. The ECR and ID together might have around 160–180 MEPs. The EPP is heading for a similar number of seats, although different polls naturally report slightly different figures. The EPP would certainly still retain a majority (between 310 and 330 seats) in alliance with the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), but this would no longer be an independent majority. For every vote it would be necessary to seek support from smaller groups, including left-wing ones (the Greens, the Left, Renew Europe); nothing would be guaranteed. And without approval from the European Parliament, it is not possible to push through European legislation.

Morawiecki inviting Orbán’s Fidesz and Le Pen’s National Rally to join Law and Justice’s group in European Parliament

The degree of panic among the mainstream European elites is revealed by a report, published several weeks ago by the Euro-enthusiast think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations, titled A New Political Map: Getting the European Parliament Election Right. Its authors are two prominent analysts with links to the ECFR: Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. They suggest that the threat to the position of the mainstream groupings in the June elections is real, and that representatives of those groupings are taking the wrong approach to the campaign as it gets under way: instead of fighting effectively for support, they are driving it toward the opposite camp, which the authors of the report explicitly call “extreme right-wing” and “Eurosceptic.” They cite polls from twelve EU countries (Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Greece, and Italy). For the purpose of these polls and the report itself, the “extreme right-wing” and “Eurosceptic” forces in Poland are identified with PiS, and the mainstream with KO. This division is naturally not based on any real actions or declarations by PiS politicians, but rather reflects the point of view of the ECFR analysts.

The report warns that opponents of mainstream politics will win the most votes in the June elections in nine states: Austria, Belgium, Czechia, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Poland. They will come second or third in another nine: Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden. Krastev and Leonard believe that there is no point in the mainstream focusing its efforts on defending the achievements of the EU in those areas where they are being challenged by their opponents. Such areas include action on climate change, the economic crisis, the Ukraine question, immigration, and the handling of the Covid pandemic.

In all of these matters (the report states) the attitudes of citizens to the EU’s actions are critical. This is confirmed by two cited opinion surveys. In the first, respondents were asked whether they believed the role played by the EU in four crisis situations had been good or bad. The percentages of positive and negative responses were respectively: 31% and 35% regarding Covid (the remaining responses were “don’t know” or “no opinion”), 29% and 37% regarding the war in Ukraine, 20% and 41% regarding the economic crisis, and 10% and 35% regarding the Gaza conflict. In the second survey, the question was: “In your opinion, did the EU do well or badly in handling the following matters?” Here five issues were listed, and the percentages of positive and negative responses were respectively 50% and 41% on Covid, 38% and 49% on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 25% and 61% on climate change, 24% and 61% on global economic problems, and 17% and 71% on immigration. Particularly interesting were the answers given in another survey, where respondents were given a choice: would they prefer reduction of CO₂ emissions at the cost of higher energy bills, or lower bills at the cost of failure to meet emissions targets? On average, in the countries where the survey was conducted, only 25% chose the first option, 18% answered “neither one nor the other,” and as many as 41% opted for lower bills. The prioritization of CO₂ reductions won by a small margin in only two countries: Sweden (37% against 32%) and Portugal (31% against 26%, this result no doubt being influenced by that country’s mild climate). The results in Poland were 20% and 48%, while in Germany they were 21% and 50%, and in Greece 18% and 49%. In the great majority of EU states, therefore, citizens are not willing to pay higher prices for energy in the name of achieving climate targets.

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A game of polarization

Krastev and Leonard thus conclude that an attempt to defend the supposed achievements of the EU in the aforementioned areas will only focus voters’ attention on them, thus increasing support for the side that they call Eurosceptic. Importantly in our context, they particularly emphasize the need to avoid focusing on Ukraine, because moods here are especially unfavorable. Instead, they recommend a different strategy, summed up in four points. First, the European Parliament elections should be presented as a referendum on whether people are for or against the EU overall – that is, the aim is maximum polarization. Second, it is necessary to mobilize pro-EU voters, who have always voted more eagerly and in greater numbers than their opponents (avoiding the topics listed above should help in demobilizing the other side). Third, focus should be placed on other questions – an example they give is issues relating to women. Fourth, Ukraine must not be made into one of the main electoral issues – what should be presented instead is a new geopolitical vision for the EU as a counterbalance to the United States under Donald Trump. This is how the political landscape is sketched out two months ahead of the elections. And then the Czech special services go into action. Here, note should be taken of that country’s political context. Petr Fiala’s government, built on one negative common value – “we are against Andrej Babiš” – is recording dramatically low levels of support, while Fiala’s personal ratings are catastrophic, at just a few percent. At the same time, this is one of the most radically pro-Ukrainian cabinets in the EU. President Petr Pavel, who has been in office for just over a year, holds similar views. He is regarded by Czech conservatives as a media creation of pro-American circles, a man with no program of his own.

The Czech way

The Czechs struck against Voice of Europe. According to the country’s media, the men behind that website’s operations were Viktor Medvedchuk, a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian oligarch, and Artem Marchevskyi, a media manager close to Medvedchuk. Media and politicians that propagated the Russian narrative – according to journalists from Deník N in Czechia and Der Spiegel in Germany – would receive sums of hundreds of thousands of euros. And these “findings” are repeated without a trace of criticism or original contribution by other media, including some in Poland. In fact, the matter is more than unclear. Voice of Europe – which is now no longer available on YouTube – conducted interviews and debates where the views expressed did not go beyond those that have a fully deserved place in normal debate, long present on the pages of such journals as Foreign Affairs in the U.S. or the Financial Times, or in the reports of such prestigious organizations as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the Council on Foreign Relations. Politicians, especially MEPs, spoke in interviews on Voice of Europe about their skepticism toward the Green Deal idea, further European integration, or the strategy of prolonging the war in Ukraine. One may of course disagree with such views, but deeming them to be “Kremlin propaganda” is clearly absurd and represents an attempt to censor discussion. Perhaps there was indeed Russian money behind the site – we don’t know this, and the Czech services are not giving any specifics – but it did not stand out as having a particularly aggressive tone against the background of the overall discussion on EU strategy or on the West’s strategy toward Ukraine. The unambiguously mainstream Politico reports that in interviews on the channel 16 MEPs expressed such “scandalous” views as: “Some countries simply want to destroy Russia, which is above all impossible and does not lie in our countries’ interest” (Thierry Mariani of the French National Rally), “Letting Ukraine into the EU is just propaganda” (Hervé Juvin of the same party), or statements in praise of peace (Miroslav Radačovský, an independent Slovakian MEP). In an interview with Politico, Radačovský answered accusations of “collaboration” with Voice of Europe in a reasonable and obvious manner: “My task as a politician is to answer questions, and not to wonder who is asking them.” But can the Czechs be believed at all? Where did the Czech services’ information come from? Might the Czech counter-intelligence agency, the BIS, have been fed prepared evidence from another country? From which one – Ukraine? Or the United States? Serious questions can be asked about the quality of that information.

Let us take the example of one of the politicians who was attacked – Petr Bystron of the German party Alternative für Deutschland, a candidate in the upcoming European Parliament election. BIS says that Bystron received money directly from Russia, and claims to be in possession of a recording which proves this. However, according to Czech press reports, a representative of the counter-intelligence service failed to present the alleged recording to Fiala’s cabinet, and said moreover that it was only an audio file. In the era of artificial intelligence, which can easily be used to produce even a fake video, any claim that some voice recording – especially an undisclosed one – might serve as cast-iron evidence in a matter is simply not to be taken seriously. The case of Bystron was rapidly taken up by pro-Ukrainian media even in Poland. The pro-Ukrainian account Czarne Niebo (“Black Sky”) wrote on X: “Czech counter-intelligence has come into possession of a recording of German Bundestag deputy Petr Bystron of the AfD, in which he was receiving money for spying for Russia.” He made no mention of the circumstances I have described, or of Bystron’s firm denial of the charges. The Czechs have made similar suggestions about money being paid to certain Dutch politicians, but without providing any details. They still gave no further information even when Dutch MPs from Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party and the Forum for Democracy, among others, began to demand it. Italian MEP Matteo Gazzini has also been accused of accepting money, although it is not known on what specific grounds. Gazzini, who recently left the ID group to join the EPP, attended a conference organized some time ago by Voice of Europe, where he is said to have expressed the “controversial” view that the EU should not be focusing on defeating Russia, but on finding a path to peace in Ukraine. Gazzini too denies the charges. The narrative of the Czech special services has been eagerly and instantly taken up by mainstream politicians. Czechia’s EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová expressed serious concern, adding that Russia must not be allowed to influence the result of the European Parliament elections. Belgian premier Alexander De Croo stated that the Russians had bribed MEPs, without giving any details, names, or evidence. The German interior minister, the social democrat Nancy Faeser, announced: “It is important that this Russian network of influence has been uncovered before the European Parliament elections.” It is a bitter irony that these words were spoken by a representative of the party which proved incapable of expelling official Russian lobbyist Gerhard Schröder from its ranks.

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The Polish connection

The affair also has a Polish connection. In relation to the case of Voice of Europe, Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) arrested some Polish citizens. A spokesman for the coordinating minister for the special services, Jacek Dobrzyński, said the following about the suspected Russian network: “In striving to achieve its aims, it set up, among other things, a website with international reach called Voice of Europe, which publishes articles, declarations, commentaries and interviews with a tendentious, pro-Russian tone, relating to the current international situation, including the war being waged by Russia against Ukraine […]. The ABW’s actions are also the result of an investigation that concluded on January 19 of this year with charges being brought, during which evidence was collected against a Polish citizen suspected of spying for the Russian special services. The man, who had connections in Polish and European parliamentary circles, performed tasks that were ordered and funded by people working for Russian intelligence, including among other things propaganda activity, disinformation, and political provocations. Their aim was to build Russian spheres of influence in Europe.” In its own communiqué, the ABW stated that the aim of the alleged network was to achieve the “objectives of Kremlin foreign policy, including weakening Poland’s position on the international stage, and discrediting Ukraine and the image of the EU authorities.” It is worthwhile to analyze these words. They imply that in order to become an object of suspicion for the special services, it is enough merely to present views that unambiguously go against the only correct and radically pro-Ukrainian line.

The accusation of “tendentiousness” sounds absurd. In the media, “tendentiousness” is simply a specific editorial viewpoint. Perhaps in that case the ABW should start looking at media like Gazeta Wyborcza and OKO.press, which are tendentiously pro-Ukrainian? Perhaps it should be checked whether they are not receiving money from Kyiv? Even more striking is the ABW’s claim that its actions were justified because of attempts to “discredit Ukraine” and the “image of the EU authorities.” In that case, should we expect to become the target of accusations for writing about Ukraine’s endemic corruption or the oligarchs that are robbing their own country? Can we now be arrested and put on trial for mentioning that the European prosecution service is conducting an investigation into possible irregularities in Ursula von der Leyen’s decisions on the purchase of Pfizer vaccines?

Bad law and bad effects

It is ironic that the charge is no doubt founded on Article 130 section 9 of the Polish Criminal Code, which was drafted and enacted by the PiS-led United Right government. It states: “One who, taking part in the activity of a foreign intelligence service or acting for it, engages in disinformation, consisting in the promulgation of untrue or misleading information, having the aim of causing serious disruption in the system of government or the economy of the Republic of Poland, an allied country, or an international organization of which the Republic of Poland is a member, or of persuading a public authority of the Republic of Poland, an allied country, or an international organization of which the Republic of Poland is a member to perform or desist from specified actions shall be subject to a term of imprisonment not shorter than 8 years.” When this amended law, known as the “spying act,” was being drafted, I warned that it might be used in the future to strike against inconvenient politicians or media, because the offense is defined in extremely general terms.

And nothing is changed by the fact that the actions have to involve or be performed for a foreign intelligence service. In a current commentary to the Criminal Code by Marek Mozgawa, we read that “misleading information may be objectively true, but be placed in a context or expressed in a manner that suggests to the recipient the drawing of conclusions that are untrue.” A charge of this type may be laid against most media in Poland, particularly since the provision is extremely vague. After all, what is meant by “a manner that suggests to the recipient the drawing of conclusions that are untrue”? Reading the commentaries of the most agitated pursuers of “Russian moles,” like Anna Mierzyńska of OKO.press, one may conclude that the only way to avoid accusations of collaborating with the Kremlin is to agree completely with all of the mainstream narratives. One would have to accept the dictatorial Covid policy, not question the legitimacy of forcing citizens to be vaccinated, support a maximum degree of engagement on the side of Ukraine, refrain from mentioning the ending of the war or problems with immigration in EU countries, and not even question the strategy of integration that the European mainstream is imposing. I am not sure whether in that case, Mierzyńska should not now turn her attention to the Civic Coalition, since its MEPs also voted in concert against the migration pact.

As was not hard to foresee, sights have also been turned to our own Do Rzeczy weekly. Mierzyńska has written a piece on this subject, based on Tomasz Piątek’s method of reasoning, in which everything is linked to everything else, and to prove collaboration with Russia there is no need for any hard evidence. Mierzyńska cites some unspecific findings – made on unknown grounds – by journalists from the anti-Orbán website HVG and from the previously mentioned Czech paper Deník N, stating that Russian money has been used to fund the Hungarian Visegrád Post website. Do Rzeczy was the Polish partner of that site, and moreover Do Rzeczysince the outbreak of war has been accused of spreading Russian propaganda even by the Polish right wing. And its editor-in-chief Paweł Lisicki has for many years been supported by the Ordo Iuris institute.

So here we have it: everything is connected. A particularly astounding argument here is the reference to being “accused of spreading Russian propaganda.” It turns out that proof of collaboration with the Kremlin, in Mierzyńska’s view, is the mere fact that extreme Ukrainophile circles have decided to accuse someone of spreading Russian propaganda. It is not hard to understand – having the complete picture before our eyes – what the goal of this operation is. Over the coming two months, voters are to have an automatic implication beaten into their heads: if you question any of the elements of the mainstream narrative – you are an agent of Putin. We have been faced with this previously, even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, in the context of debates over the pandemic strategy. Now, however, the stakes for the establishment are different – it faces losing its dominant position in the European Parliament. The means being used are also more severe. They are no longer just suggestions, but use of the special services, detention, arrests, and very serious charges.

Does all this mean that the Russians have not paid anyone and are not trying to influence the European political scene? Not at all. Except that the context, quality, and nature of the present accusations should cause us to treat them with the highest degree of suspicion and skepticism.

This article was first published in Polish in the Do Rzeczy weekly in April 2024.