Monday, December 4, 2023

Europe’s patience running thin for politicized judiciaries

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After years of criticism over its rule of law violations, Poland has enjoyed a recent reprieve as the war in Ukraine caused the EU to cut Warsaw some slack, unlocking Poland’s COVID-19 recovery funds despite enduring concerns over the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s interference with the judiciary. The respite, however, may be over—Warsaw’s erosion of judicial independence is back in the spotlight following a June 17 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg court, or ECHR, awarded Polish Judge Waldemar Zurek, dubbed “one of the most important figures of the judicial community in Poland”, damages to the tune of €25,000. Zurek was removed as the spokesperson for Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary, the body in charge of appointing judges in Poland, after criticizing PiS’s controversial judicial reforms.

Waldemar Zurek

The court held that this premature removal without judicial review violated Zurek’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR found that the dismissal, along with other steps taken against Zurek including an audit of his financial declarations and an inspection of his work, was part of a concerted campaign to intimidate Zurek and prevent him from speaking out against the government.  

The decision is only the latest ruling by a European court against PiS’s attempts to weaponize the judiciary against political opponents. The Zurek ruling is particularly notable, however, both due to Zurek’s high-profile figure and the fact that it was the first case in which the ECHR addressed the issue of the penalisation of judges who have critiqued Law and Justice reforms. The case has brought renewed focus on the worrying trend of politicized judiciaries which has spread across Eastern Europe in recent years—a pattern in which decision-makers and voters alike are increasingly losing patience with.

Slovakia: Corruption crackdown hijacked by coalition running out of road

Though Poland’s rule of law travails have been a perpetual thorn in Brussels’ side since Law and Justice came to power, it’s far from the only European country where legal cases are taking on a political tinge. This is a particular problem in Slovakia, where the coalition government led by the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) party is on the verge of collapse. Since coming to power in February 2020, the OLaNO government has taken ding after ding to its credibility. Disastrous management of the pandemic, a plagiarism scandal, a lack of clear policy priorities, and bitter infighting have left the coalition struggling to pass vital measures, such as a package to alleviate the rising cost of living crisis.

Stuck in the polling doldrums and desperate to stave off snap elections, Slovakia’s coalition government appears to have taken a leaf from Warsaw’s book, putting pressure on its major political opponents. Like in Poland, this pressure takes various forms—for example, OLaNO party leader Igor Matovic recently proposed setting up quotas for how much speaking time politicians would be allocated on TV in order to limit the coverage given to popular opposition figures, a suggestion which one of his own coalition partners likened to Cuban or Venezuelan censorship. Asked about the likely international blowback against this curtailing of media freedom, Matovic declared “I could not care less”.

However, much of the apparent campaign against the opposition is playing out in courtrooms. Leaning on dubious evidence apparently obtained through psychological pressure, Slovak prosecutors have brought corruption charges against ever-more important opposition figures, while OLaNO policymakers’ open glee at the indictments has raised fears that the coalition is using Slovakia’s judiciary as a political weapon. 

There’s increasing pushback against these seemingly politically-motivated prosecutions. Slovak prosecutors recently dropped corruption charges against former Finance Minister Peter Kazimir after one of the key witnesses who had testified against him was charged themselves, while MPs— including from coalition parties— recently refused to lift the parliamentary immunity of opposition leader Robert Fico. The failed attempt to arrest Fico has plunged the coalition into even-deeper turmoil, and with polls showing that Slovaks are increasingly placing their trust in opposition figures like Fico while rejecting OLaNO politicians, the politicization of the judiciary may be the final nail in the coffin of Slovakia’s current coalition.

Georgia: Judicial failings remain a roadblock toward a European path

If political interference in the judiciary may spell the end for OLaNO’s tenure in government and has sparked lingering strain between Poland and European institutions, the phenomenon may prove particularly damaging for EU-hopeful Georgia. After years of reluctance to seriously consider further enlargement of the European bloc, the conflict in Ukraine has awakened new enthusiasm in Brussels for eastward expansion.

Pro-Western Moldova may ride the coattails of sympathy for Ukraine, earning itself a green light to begin negotiations alongside its war-torn neighbor. It’s a group that Tbilisi hoped to join—but European decision-makers are already proving more reticent on the Georgian front, with senior officials acknowledging that Georgia will be left behind until critical issues are addressed. 

Chief among these concerns is the across-the-board political polarization of nearly every legislative initiative and social issue in the South Caucasus nation of 3 million. This has led to the overt politicization of the judiciary, which has deeply alarmed European observers. The ruling Georgian Dream party and leaders of the opposition United National Movement have proven unable to abide by a political agreement brokered last year by European Council president Charles Michel, with the Georgian Dream doubling down on the attacks in recent weeks. In late May, prominent pro-opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, a conviction that international rights groups and MEPs have dubbed politically motivated.

A courtroom in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.

Under the guidance of its founder, the country’s lone billionaire – Bidzina Ivanishvili, the increasingly reactionary Georgian Dream, or GD, has pivoted Georgia’s foreign and domestic policies towards a decidedly more pro-Russian tilt since it came to power in 2012. Most recently, this has included ambiguous statements from Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili that all but declared Georgia’s neutrality over Russia’s ruthless invasion and its ongoing war against Ukraine, which has been a historical ally of Tbilisi’s in their mutual struggle against Russia’s imperial ambitions.

Garibashvili announced in early March that Georgia would not join the international sanctions imposed against Russia, which prompted Kyiv to recall its ambassador to Tbilisi. The Georgian Dream also blocked a charter plane of Georgian volunteers from flying to Ukraine and prevented several Russian dissidents who oppose the war and Vladimir Putin from entering the country. 

In a favorable response to the Georgian Dream’s positions, Moscow did not include Georgia in a list of countries that the Kremlin considers ‘unfriendly’.

The party has gone so far as to even sue Salome Zurabishvili, the French-born former diplomat who once worked at France’s embassy in Washington and who was handpicked by the Georgian Dream in 2018 to serve as Georgia’s current president. The GD leadership alleges that Zurabishvili’s recent diplomatic trips to Brussels and Paris, which she hoped would help open the door to EU membership and allow her to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, exceeded her remit.

The aggressive courtroom maneuvring has likely cost Tbilisi its chance at fast-tracked EU negotiations alongside Ukraine and Moldova. As political interference in judiciaries has spread across Europe’s eastern half, staunch opposition to the practice has also grown, raising hopes that politicians tempted to settle their political feuds in the courtroom may soon deem the costs too high.

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CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief of NE Global. Mr. Waller is a veteran journalist, analyst and political advisor, having spent 25 years covering the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East.


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