Facebook shuts thousands of fake Chinese accounts masquerading as Americans

Someone in China created thousands of fake social media accounts designed to appear to be from Americans and used them to spread polarizing political content in an apparent effort to divide the U.S. ahead of next year’s elections, Meta said Thursday.

The network of nearly 4,800 fake accounts was attempting to build an audience when it was identified and eliminated by the tech company, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The accounts sported fake photos, names and locations as a way to appear like everyday American Facebook users weighing in on political issues.

Instead of spreading fake content as other networks have done, the accounts were used to reshare posts from X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that were created by politicians, news outlets and others. The interconnected accounts pulled content from both liberal and conservative sources, an indication that its goal was not to support one side or the other but to exaggerate partisan divisions and further inflame polarization.

The newly identified network shows how America’s foreign adversaries exploit U.S.-based tech platforms to sow discord and distrust, and it hints at the serious threats posed by online disinformation next year, when national elections will occur in the U.S., India, Mexico, Ukraine, Pakistan, Taiwan and other nations.

“These networks still struggle to build audiences, but they’re a warning,” said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into inauthentic behavior on Meta’s platforms. “Foreign threat actors are attempting to reach people across the internet ahead of next year’s elections, and we need to remain alert.”

Meta Platforms Inc., based in Menlo Park, California, did not publicly link the Chinese network to the Chinese government, but it did determine the network originated in that country. The content spread by the accounts broadly complements other Chinese government propaganda and disinformation that has sought to inflate partisan and ideological divisions within the U.S.

To appear more like normal Facebook accounts, the network would sometimes post about fashion or pets. Earlier this year, some of the accounts abruptly replaced their American-sounding user names and profile pictures with new ones suggesting they lived in India. The accounts then began spreading pro-Chinese content about Tibet and India, reflecting how fake networks can be redirected to focus on new targets.

Meta often points to its efforts to shut down fake social media networks as evidence of its commitment to protecting election integrity and democracy. But critics say the platform’s focus on fake accounts distracts from its failure to address its responsibility for the misinformation already on its site that has contributed to polarization and distrust.

For instance, Meta will accept paid advertisements on its site to claim the U.S. election in 2020 was rigged or stolen, amplifying the lies of former President Donald Trump and other Republicans whose claims about election irregularities have been repeatedly debunked. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence that the presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden, was tainted.

When asked about its ad policy, the company said it is focusing on future elections, not ones from the past, and will reject ads that cast unfounded doubt on upcoming contests.

And while Meta has announced a new artificial intelligence policy that will require political ads to bear a disclaimer if they contain AI-generated content, the company has allowed other altered videos that were created using more conventional programs to remain on its platform, including a digitally edited video of Biden that claims he is a pedophile.

“This is a company that cannot be taken seriously and that cannot be trusted,” said Zamaan Qureshi, a policy adviser at the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an organization of civil rights leaders and tech experts who have been critical of Meta’s approach to disinformation and hate speech. “Watch what Meta does, not what they say.”

Meta executives discussed the network’s activities during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, the day after the tech giant announced its policies for the upcoming election year — most of which were put in place for prior elections.

But 2024 poses new challenges, according to experts who study the link between social media and disinformation. Not only will many large countries hold national elections, but the emergence of sophisticated AI programs means it’s easier than ever to create lifelike audio and video that could mislead voters.

“Platforms still are not taking their role in the public sphere seriously,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University professor who studies digital media.

Stromer-Galley called Meta’s election plans “modest” but noted it stands in stark contrast to the “Wild West” of X. Since buying the X platform, then called Twitter, Elon Musk has eliminated teams focused on content moderation, welcomed back many users previously banned for hate speech and used the site to spread conspiracy theories.

Democrats and Republicans have called for laws addressing algorithmic recommendations, misinformation, deepfakes and hate speech, but there’s little chance of any significant regulations passing ahead of the 2024 election. That means it will fall to the platforms to voluntarily police themselves.

Meta’s efforts to protect the election so far are “a horrible preview of what we can expect in 2024,” according to Kyle Morse, deputy executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a nonprofit that supports new federal regulations for social media. “Congress and the administration need to act now to ensure that Meta, TikTok, Google, X, Rumble and other social media platforms are not actively aiding and abetting foreign and domestic actors who are openly undermining our democracy.”

Many of the fake accounts identified by Meta this week also had nearly identical accounts on X, where some of them regularly retweeted Musk’s posts.

Those accounts remain active on X. A message seeking comment from the platform was not returned.

Meta also released a report Wednesday evaluating the risk that foreign adversaries including Iran, China and Russia would use social media to interfere in elections. The report noted that Russia’s recent disinformation efforts have focused not on the U.S. but on its war against Ukraine, using state media propaganda and misinformation in an effort to undermine support for the invaded nation.

Nimmo, Meta’s chief investigator, said turning opinion against Ukraine will likely be the focus of any disinformation Russia seeks to inject into America’s political debate ahead of next year’s election.

“This is important ahead of 2024,” Nimmo said. “As the war continues, we should especially expect to see Russian attempts to target election-related debates and candidates that focus on support for Ukraine.”


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Far right’s Geert Wilders seals shock win in Dutch election after years on political fringe

He’s received countless death threats and has been under police protection for almost two decades. He’s been convicted for inciting hate speech and his opinions once even got him banned from entering the UK. Known as the Dutch Donald Trump, far-right politician Geert Wilders and his PVV Freedom Party have now won a major victory in the country’s general elections.

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5 min

“Can you imagine it? 37 seats!” Wilders exulted to his lawmakers on Thursday, a day after his far-right PVV Freedom Party won more than double the seats it secured in the last Dutch general election.

Beating all predictions, the PVV won 37 seats out of 150 on Wednesday, coming in well ahead of a Labour-Green alliance led by former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans and the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which slumped to 24 seats.

Now faced with the difficult task of forming a government, Wilders will have to convince reluctant rivals to join him.

But he is no political rookie. The 60-year-old has tried to woo voters with his anti-immigration and anti-EU policies for years, his fiery rhetoric and shock of peroxide blonde hair earning him the nickname “Dutch Donald Trump”. Yet unlike Trump, he has until now spent his life on the political fringe.

Anti-Islam policies

Born in the southern Dutch city of Venlo in 1963, Wilders grew up alongside his brother and two sisters in a Catholic family. His mother was half Indonesian, a fact Wilders rarely mentions. Aside from being colonised by the Netherlands for hundreds of years, the country is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

According to his older brother Paul, Wilders took an interest in politics in the 80s. “He was neither clearly on the left or the right at the time, nor was he xenophobic. But he was fascinated by the political game, the struggle for power and influence,” his brother told German news website Der Spiegel in a 2017 interview.

His hatred for Islam came later, around the time he became an MP for the centre-right VVD party in 1998. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks that rocked the US in 2001 and the assassination of far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn a year later, a “large bloc of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic voters” were left “looking for a champion”, and according to The Economist, Wilders was their man.

He left the VVD in 2004, the same year controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered. After the Dutch police discovered Wilders was also on the hit list of van Gogh’s killer, he was placed under police protection.

Two years later, in 2006, Wilders founded his PVV party and placed anti-Islam policies at the heart of its agenda. He notoriously likened Islam to Nazism, comparing the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, and released a highly criticised film in 2008 called “Fitna” that raised a storm of protest across the world. The 15-minute film conflated Islam and terrorism, juxtaposing scenes of beheadings and the 9/11 attacks with quotes from the Koran. He was refused entry to the UK in 2009 while on his way to screen the film at the House of Lords. The Home Office issued the ban because his opinions were considered a “threat to community harmony and therefore public safety”. Wilders was subsequently put on trial in 2010 for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.

Arguing that Dutch freedom of speech safeguarded his right to make incendiary remarks, Wilders was eventually acquitted. But a few years later in 2016, he was eventually found guilty of insulting people of Moroccan descent when he promised supporters “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands.

But the conviction didn’t stop Wilders from making hateful remarks. He went on to call Moroccans “scum” years later and launched a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed several times.

Life under police protection, ‘Nexit’ and a xenophobic manifesto

Because of multiple threats against his life, Wilders has been living under strict police protection for almost two decades. He is guarded 24/7 by armed police, lives in a government-provided safe house and must be escorted anytime he shows up in public.

Geert Wilders prepares to cast his ballot as security guards stand by him during the 2023 general election. © Remko De Waal, AFP

To make up for his lack of public appearances, the “Dutch Donald Trump” (who currently has more than 1.2 million followers on X) has taken to social media to spread his populist ideas. His PVV party landed its first victory in 2010, when it scored major gains in parliament and came in third behind Rutte’s VVC and the Labour party.

Between 2010 and 2012, Wilders briefly experienced a right-wing coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA) and the VVD. It quickly fell through after he refused to back a package designed to lower the budget deficit.

In addition to his Islamophobic and xenophobic stance, Wilders is also staunchly anti-EU and opposes the euro. Years after the UK voted for Brexit, the idea of a “Nexit” (an exit of the Netherlands from the EU) became a core plank of his political platform. This didn’t stop the far-right leader from being elected a member of the European Parliament in 2014. In fact, Wilders forged a Eurosceptic alliance with France’s Marine Le Pen to push their nationalist agenda from within that body.

Le Pen was one of the first to congratulate Wilders on his victory in Wednesday’s elections.

Although he is close to several European far-right movements, he doesn’t always align with their traditional ideologies. When it comes to social issues, Wilders supports the fight against homophobia and defends the right to abortion.

During the final weeks of his campaign for the 2023 general election, Wilders somewhat softened his anti-Islam and anti-EU stance, so much so that he gained the moniker Geert “Milders”. He vowed he would try to become a prime minister for all Dutch people and focused on issues other than immigration, such as the cost of living crisis, to broaden his electorate.

The PVV manifesto, on the other hand, does not mirror Wilders’ “Milder” façade. His party calls for a ban on “Islamic schools, Korans and mosques” and “Islamic headscarves”, a “reduction in the asylum and immigration flood to the Netherlands” and a “sovereign Netherlands … in charge of its own currency, its own borders and [which] makes its own rules”.

This article was translated from the original in French

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Trump attacks judge in NY fraud case who fined him $15,000

Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., October 25, 2023.

Jeenah Moon | Reuters

Former President Donald Trump on Thursday railed against the judge who will deliver verdicts in his $250 million New York fraud trial, one day after storming out of the courtroom in the middle of witness testimony.

Trump’s fusillade on Truth Social followed a dramatic trial day in which Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron put Trump on the witness stand, fined him $10,000 for violating his gag order and shot down a request for a sweeping verdict in his favor.

The latest attacks show Trump, a prolific social media user who is running for president again in the 2024 election, turning to the court of public opinion to fight his mounting legal challenges.

But his efforts are constrained by gag orders in two separate cases, including special counsel Jack Smith’s federal case charging Trump with conspiring to subvert his loss to President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

In that case, Trump is prohibited from publicly targeting Smith or potential witnesses, both of whom he has frequently referenced online and on the campaign trail. When those restrictions were temporarily paused last week, Trump fired off attacks against both the special counsel and his former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, a witness in Smith’s case.

In the New York civil fraud case, meanwhile, Engoron has already ruled twice that Trump violated his narrow gag order, which merely bars him from attacking the judge’s staff.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump is questioned by Judge Arthur F. Engoron before being fined $10,000 for violating a gag order for a second time, during the Trump Organization civil fraud trial in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., October 25, 2023 in this courtroom sketch.

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Upon finding that Trump’s testimony rang “hollow and untrue,” Engoron has now fined him a total of $15,000. The judge has warned Trump that additional violations will yield much more severe sanctions — including possible imprisonment.

With his targets narrowing, Trump’s attacks appear to be intensifying.

In at least four lengthy social media posts on Thursday, Trump ripped Engoron as a “tyrannical and unhinged” and “fully biased Trump Hater” who “should be ashamed of himself” for his handling of the case.

“HE HAS GONE CRAZY IN HIS HATRED OF ‘TRUMP,'” wrote the former president, who also railed against New York Attorney General Letitia James, his ex-attorney Michael Cohen and a New York Times reporter.

Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign, meanwhile, sought to capitalize on the case by criticizing it in multiple fundraising pleas as a “sham trial” led by a “Democrat judge” who “continues to harass” Trump.

Engoron has already found Trump and other defendants liable for fraudulently inflating the values of real estate properties and key assets on years of financial statements. James, who brought the case, accuses Trump, his two adult sons, the Trump Organization and top executives of falsifying those asset values for a host of financial perks, including tax benefits and more favorable loan terms.

The trial, which is scheduled to last until late December, will resolve six other claims in James’ lawsuit. Engoron himself will deliver verdicts in the trial, which is being conducted without a jury — a fact Trump frequently protests on social media and at the courthouse.

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“He is a judge that found me GUILTY before the trial even started,” Trump said of Engoron in his social media screed Thursday.

The posts also called Engoron a “Radical Left Judge” and claimed that he is ignoring a prior appeals court ruling “overturning” his decisions. A New York appeals court panel last month had cleared the trial to begin, denying Trump’s request to delay it.

Engoron had imposed a narrow gag order on Trump on the second day of the trial, after Trump sent a Truth Social post attacking the judge’s law clerk, Allison Greenfield, who sits next to him in court.

About two weeks later, the judge found that Trump violated that gag order by failing to remove the post from his campaign website. Engoron fined Trump $5,000 in that instance and warned him that future violations would yield more severe sanctions, potentially including imprisonment.

During a break in the trial Wednesday, Trump complained to reporters outside the courtroom, “This judge is a very partisan judge with a person who’s very partisan sitting alongside him, perhaps even more partisan than he is.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, October 25, 2023.

Jeenah Moon | Reuters

After hearing about those remarks, Engoron briefly called Trump to the witness stand to explain himself.

Trump said that he was referring to Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, who had been testifying throughout the trial day. But Engoron found that answer unconvincing, and he fined Trump $10,000.

“Don’t do it again or it will be worse,” Engoron warned in court.

In his written order Thursday morning, Engoron ruled that Trump intentionally violated the gag order. He noted that Cohen was sitting in the witness box, not alongside him, and said that Trump’s past attacks on Cohen have been less ambiguous.

“Using imprecise language as an excuse to create plausible ambiguity about whether defendant violated this Court’s unequivocal gag order is not a defense; the subject of Donald Trump’s public statement to the press was unmistakably clear,” the judge wrote.

The clash over the gag order was not the only contentious moment in the trial on Wednesday.

Defense lawyer Cliff Robert had asked for a directed verdict after Cohen, Trump’s once-loyal aide who is now a key witness against him, testified that he did not recall if Trump had asked him to inflate the values of his assets. Engoron denied the request, prompting Trump to get up and leave.

Cohen later clarified that while Trump speaks in indirect ways like a “mob boss,” he did communicate the outcome he wanted, according to NBC News.

Engoron rejected another request for a directed verdict later in the day, telling Robert, “there’s enough evidence in this case to fill the courtroom.”

On social media, Trump complained, “The unhinged Judge, a highly political and fully biased Trump Hater, refused to dismiss this HOAX of a case, and has lost all CREDIBILITY.”

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Happy Rishiversary! Highs and lows of Rishi Sunak’s first year in power

LONDON — Happy anniversary to one of the UK’s most talked-about couples: No. 10 Downing Street and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

It’s been a tumultuous love affair, with a will-they-won’t-they start — and enough bumps in the road to keep a local pothole repair team busy.

As Sunak tries to restore the reputation of his governing Tories — still languishing in the polls ahead of an expected election next year — POLITICO takes a trip down memory lane with a month-by-month rundown of some of the key highlights. Buckle up!

October 2022

It finally happened. After one failed leadership run — in which he lost to Liz Truss and, in a way, to a lettuce — Sunak was elected the new leader of the Conservatives on October 24, 2022.

A day later he became prime minister, and vowed his government would be marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” That was in no way a massive sub-tweet of Boris Johnson.

Sunak’s first port of call was to pick his cabinet. He took a slow and steady approach, which No. 10 insisted was “not indecisiveness” — even as some MPs, accustomed to the adrenalin of the Truss and Johnson administrations, found the wait tedious. Sunak’s first few days seemed to mark him out as a PM in control.

Success rating: 9/10. Congrats, Rishi!

November 2022

November saw a scrap about the COP climate summit. Having initially said he wouldn’t attend the COP27 bash, Sunak caved and traveled to Egypt for the conference on November 7, insisting he absolutely loved the planet.

Later in the month, Sunak had the fun task of creating a new government budget with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, seeking to right the economic ship after the drama of Truss’ brief spell in office.

The cheery document, billed in some quarters as Austerity 2.0 but actually delaying a lot of pain until after the next general election, unveiled a £55 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts, an attempt to ensure that Britain’s economic downturn was “shallower, and hurts people less,” according to Hunt. Something for the bumper sticker!

Its key measures indeed survived contact with the House of Commons and, crucially, didn’t spook the markets.

Success rating: 7/10. COP kerfuffle notwithstanding, Sunak and Hunt could breathe a sigh of relief for a whole eight seconds.

December 2022

Calling it a “winter of discontent” would be lazy plagiarism. So let’s go with “winter of discontent 2.0.”

A whopping 843,000 working days were lost in December to strikes, according to Britain’s statistics authority — the highest since those revolutionary days of November 2011.

With nurses, train drivers, and postal workers all downing tools (or mail?) throughout December, Sunak had a huge problem on his hands, and it didn’t get sorted until some time later. Despite the British love of moaning about train delays, the public largely supported the striking workers — especially the nurses.

Success rating: 3/10. ‘Tis the season of goodwill.

January 2023

It was a month of ups and downs for Sunak, who gave some … mixed messages on following the rules.

Sunak swiftly fired his embattled Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi after an independent probe found that Zahawi had not been sufficiently transparent about his private dealings with Britain’s tax authorities.

In a letter to Zahawi confirming his sacking, Sunak reminded us all he had vowed to put “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level” of his administration.

This is the same dude who started the month by … getting fined by police for not wearing a seatbelt.

Success rating: 5/10. Big boys wear their seatbelts.

February 2023

Sunak seemed strapped in this month, and it ended up being a pretty good one for the prime minister, who finally managed to reach a deal with the EU over contentious post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Sounding like a proud father at a press conference in Windsor, Sunak said Britain and the EU “may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends,” and hailed “a new chapter in our relationship.” A promised rebellion by allies of Sunak’s old nemesis Boris Johnson later came to nothing, which definitely didn’t provide Sunak with a good old chuckle.

Success rating: 10/10. Sunak managed the previously unthinkable: moving post-Brexit policy forward without loads of kicking and screaming from the Conservative Party. Plenty of time for that later!

March 2023

March saw the U.K. build on its much-heralded AUKUS pact with Australia and the U.S., with Sunak joining President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a submarine base in California to hail a new defense mega-deal between the three nations. It marked another win for Sunak’s plan to repair Britain’s battered image abroad and create jobs along the way.

Closer to home, however, the PM had some proper first-world problems brewing.

As voters grappled with ever-rising energy costs, the Guardian revealed that the mega-rich leader’s swimming pool in his Yorkshire home used so much energy that the local electricity grid had to be upgraded.

Such everyman woes provided a great backdrop for another government budget. Chancellor Hunt had them cheering from the rafters across the U.K. as he declared that the country would duck a technical recession this year.

Plans to help with the eye-watering cost of childcare and address Britain’s sluggish economic growth also featured prominently in another fiscal statement that may not have shifted many votes, but came off without major drama.

Success rating: Big deal and a big budget. Rishi, go have a swim to cool off. 7/10.

April 2023

April was — whisper it – a pretty quiet month, no small feat in British politics.

There was the small matter of an investigation being launched into a potential breach of the MP code of conduct by Sunak. It would be a whole four months, however, before that probe found he had indeed broken the rules, but only as a result of “confusion.” We’ve all been there.

Success rating: 5/10. A holding-pattern month.

May 2023

In May, Rishi faced his first big electoral test as prime minister: local elections. He didn’t do well, with the Conservatives losing over 1,000 seats, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats making big gains.

Success rating: 2/10. Blame the voters!

June 2023

Still, nothing proves you’re confronting your problems at home like … heading to the other side of the Atlantic for a big visit to America. Sunak got his global mojo back on a trip that saw an unlikely bromance blossom between Sunak and Biden.

Biden pronounced the special relationship “in real good shape” — and even got Sunak’s name right this time (if not his job title.)

The rest of Sunak’s month was dominated by an angry row with Boris Johnson, who quit in a huff alongside a few allies after a damning report on his conduct in the Partygate affair. The row revealed how few acolytes Johnson still had in the parliament, and arguably strengthened Sunak’s position as the only game in town.

Success rating: 9/10. If it doesn’t work out here, Sunak could always make it big stateside.

July 2023

You can always count on a by-election or two to spice things up, and these were a mixed bag for Sunak. The prime minister’s Tories got a thumping in fights for the parliamentary seats of Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

There was one glimmer of hope, however: A narrow and unexpected win in Uxbridge, Johnson’s now-vacant seat, showed Team Sunak that targeted campaigning against environmental policies seen by some as overbearing could pay off.

Also in June, Sunak made a bold pay offer to striking public sector workers, and helped ease industrial tensions.

Success rating: 6/10. Few expected the Uxbridge result, even if Sunak’s fortunes elsewhere looked dicey.

August 2023

August saw grim headlines on what the government had billed as “small boats week” — a chance to show off all the hard work Sunak’s government was doing to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in unsafe vessels.

As the week unfolded, disaster struck one element of the government’s tough asylum policy. A plan to move migrants onto the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge instead of putting them up in expensive hotel accommodation was derailed by concerns about legionella bacteria in the water supply. It was a PR headache for a government that hardly needed one.

On the brighter side, Sunak carried out a smooth and limited government reshuffle without anybody calling him mean names.

Success rating: 4/10. Nobody had “legionella” on the comms grid.

September 2023

Mr. Brexit Fix-it returned in September as a deal struck by Sunak ensured the U.K. successfully rejoined the EU’s Horizon multibillion-euro science funding scheme. It was another piece of unfinished Brexit business resolved, to the delight of top scientists and other massive nerds.

Sunak also seemed to land on a clear domestic dividing line in September. In a hastily-arranged Downing Street speech after his plans leaked, Sunak took a big red pen to parts of the government’s climate agenda, announcing a slowing of several key U.K. green policies.

A fierce backlash ensued from business groups, climate activists and some members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party.

But the PM’s supporters saw it as the first time Sunak had drawn bold lines in the sand ahead of the election, gambling that tapping into anxiety among motorists could see the Uxbridge trick repeated.

Success rating: 5/10. Nice Horizon deal, shame about the planet!

October 2023

The Conservative Party conference was dominated by … Liz Truss and trains.

Yep, the star of last year’s show made a triumphant comeback on the conference fringes, where she was greeted like a returning hero and urged Sunak to push for economic growth. Truss — plus Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage, who swanned around the place — showed just how fractious the Tories remain, with plenty of Conservative leadership wannabes flaunting their wares.

The conference meanwhile saw endless speculation about whether Sunak would cancel a key part of a major high-speed rail link, an announcement he saved for his big speech at the close, a treat to the North of England, which famously hates useful transport links.

October would get grimmer still for Sunak, as two more by-election defeats suggested Labour really is on the comeback trail. There’s always November!

Success rating: 4/10. A month of Labour gains, trains and Nigel-mobiles.

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Young voters’ turnout in Poland showed it’s ‘No country for Old Men’

By Tom Junes, Historian, Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters, Tom Junes writes.


It was a remarkable sight in Poland on Sunday: in the middle of the night, hours after the first exit polls in the country’s parliamentary election projected a Pyrrhic victory for Law and Justice (PiS), scores of young people were still queueing at polling stations waiting to vote.

Over the past eight years of PiS rule, Polish society has become increasingly polarised and divisions now run so deep making the idea of political reconciliation no longer seem possible at times.

This year’s election campaign was the ugliest and most vicious of Poland’s post-1989 era. Yet, the effect was such that ultimately a large part of the generally non-voting population got motivated enough to take to the polls.

In Jagodno, a district of Wrocław, the last voters cast their ballots just before 3 am. Indicatively, the results from that district echoed a trend among youth.

In 2019, PiS came first among voters between 18 and 29 years of age with 26.3% of the vote share. Last Sunday, the ruling party of the past eight years finished last with a mere 14.9% — and, in Jagodno, PiS even failed to clear 6%.

The most astonishing aspect of these elections was the record voter turnout of 74% — ten percentage points higher than the elections in 1989 that brought an end to decades of communist rule.

And although the total number of eligible voters this year amounted to more than one million less than in the previous elections in 2019, a million and a half more people ended up going out and casting ballots.

Against the backdrop of these elections that were perceived as “free but not fair”, the massive voter mobilisation was a clear win for democracy as such.

This makes the youth vote, traditionally the least prominent voting group, perhaps even more extraordinary. Turnout among voters from 18 to 29 years reached 68.8%, compared to 46.4% in the previous elections of 2019.

An electoral youthquake

In the months before the elections, amidst an ever more polarising climate, media attention started focusing on the younger generation of voters.

In particular, this was because surveys showed a stronger polarisation and gender divide factoring into their political preferences with a striking dominance of the far-right Konfederacja on the one hand and the Left on the other hand.

The youth vote was heralding change to come as most young voters have never known any government beyond the Civic Platform (PO)-PiS duopoly fueled by the persisting Donald Tusk-Jarosław Kaczyński rivalry.

Konfederacja’s rise to double-digit numbers and third place in pre-election surveys propelled it to the status of potential “kingmaker” in what was perceived to herald a further swing to the right in Poland.

The Lewica or Left’s prominence was in turn seen as a consequence of the PiS-led drive to further criminalise abortion and its assault on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

But on the day of the vote, the pre-election predictions concerning youth turned out to be far off the mark as neither the far right nor the Left came out on top.

Voter outflow to the Third Way key?

Both parties arguably fared much better among youth than in older age groups, but it was the Tusk-led PO coalition that held a decisive advantage among younger voters, with the Trzecia Droga, or Third Way, coalition also producing a strong showing.

More so, while the Left is seen as part of the winning camp securing its own voter niche, it lost half a million votes compared to the last elections.

And though Konfederacja appeared as the biggest flop of the night underperforming by even its least ambitious aims, the far right did increase its overall vote tally by some three hundred thousand votes.


In both cases, there was most likely a potential voter outflow to Trzecia Droga. Though frequently portrayed in the media in the weeks running up to the election as at risk of not crossing the threshold, the coalition managed to present itself as a credible alternative to the PO-PiS duopoly for voters who favoured a more moderate or centrist approach than the Lewica or far right were offering.

Perhaps the mass mobilisation in the Tusk-led “Million Hearts March” two weeks before the vote or the fact that Szymon Hołownia, one of the leaders of Trzecia Droga, managed to pull off the best performance in the only TV election debate that took place influenced the outcome.

However, neither during the debate nor in the campaign as a whole did the political parties and their candidates pay much attention to youth.

Yet, the vote ultimately shows that the younger generation voted overwhelmingly against PiS. And young people did so for a variety of reasons provided in the first place by PiS who managed to antagonise the overall majority of young voters.

An opposition victory where caveats apply

Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters.


Youth has managed to swing elections a few times in Poland’s democratic history. In 2007, young voters helped Tusk and PO beat Kaczyński’s PiS in a snap election, and in 2015, the youth vote came out against the out-of-touch PO establishment propelling PiS to power.

And although the country might now see a political moment reminiscent of 1989 leading to the end of PiS rule, Poland’s democratic history shows that the pendulum can swiftly swing the other way. One should not forget that PiS still has the single largest group of political supporters.

It will thus be important for the opposition to navigate carefully in the coming weeks and months facing probable obstruction and stiff opposition from PiS and the country’s PiS-backed president, Andrzej Duda, while having to keep together a disparate political alliance ranging from PiS-curious conservatives to radical left sympathisers.

Taking a page out of Italy’s book

Over the past eight years, Poland was often compared to Hungary for its illiberal tendencies and democratic backsliding under PiS. But last weekend’s election outcome also shows that Poland is not Hungary.

Rather, today’s situation is reminiscent of Italy’s in 2006, when a broad but fragile coalition led by former European Commission President Romano Prodi managed to narrowly oust Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government.


The comparison to Italy should serve as a warning since Prodi’s coalition rapidly fell apart and paved the way for Berlusconi’s comeback.

Tusk, who was the European Council president himself, and like Prodi, twice defeated his country’s inflated right-wing populist opponent, could learn something from his counterpart and seize the opportunity to address young people’s concerns to galvanise his support.

Unless it wants to founder to the same flavour of infighting spurred on by a lack of vision for the future, Poland’s opposition has a distinct opportunity to listen to the youth’s desires and help transform Poland into a country not ruled by old men.

Tom Junes is a historian and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of “Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent”.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Five critical issues shaping Poland’s upcoming election

With the mood growing increasingly tense, Euronews looks at the main issues – and flashpoints – ahead of the pivotal vote.


Poland’s politicians are making big promises, and opposition supporters have flooded the streets – it can mean only one thing: An election is just around the corner.

The pivotal vote on 15 October will see the incumbent right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) face off against Donald Tusk’s liberal Civic Coalition, alongside parties from the left and far right.

Politicians are fighting tooth and claw, but what exactly have been the main issues – and flashpoints – shaping the election so far?

1. Security

Even before campaigns got underway, security was one of the most important topics in Polish politics, with the country lying on the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.

PiS leaders have promised to ramp up military spending and build one of the strongest armies in Europe, emphasising the risk of Russia’s war in Ukraine spiling into its territory.

The populist party is “naturally more sensitive” to this issue because its support base sits in the east and south of Poland on the frontier with Belarus and Ukraine, says Wojciech Przybylski, a political analyst at Visegrad Insight.

But the opposition attaches the same significance to security concerns, he adds.

Other observers take things further, arguing PiS is deliberately over-exaggerating insecurity to influence the vote.

“They are mostly trying to play on people’s fears,” explains Filip Pazderski, head of the democracy and civil society programme at the Polish Institute of Public Affairs. “The war is helping the ruling party because of this rally behind the flag effect.”

Part of this threat perception is the idea that Poland is being “invaded by strange others”, he continues, referring to the country’s long-running migration crisis with Belarus.

“They are using pictures of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea or taking clips from riots in France to claim they if Poles vote for the opposition this is what will happen.”

Anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric has been aired across the political spectrum, with Tusk vowing in a clip posted on social media: “Poles must regain control over this country and its borders”.

2. The EU (aka: relations with Berlin)

Central to debates in the run-up to elections has been Poland’s ties with the European Union (EU), especially its foremost power Berlin.

Since taking office in 2015, PiS has veered towards authoritarianism and undermined the rule of law, bringing it into conflict with Brussels.

Civic Coalition led by Tusk, a former president of the European Council, is firmly pro-European, seeing the EU as the best way of guaranteeing the country’s future security and prosperity.

He has proposed reversing erosions to the rule of law to release billions in frozen EU funds, a welcome boost for Warsaw’s coffers.

In contrast, PiS is whipping up anti-German sentiment and striking an isolationist stance, says analyst Przybylski.

“They are capitalising on the older electorate’s distrust towards Germany… PiS is framing the opposition as agents of Berlin in its supposed big plan to recreate the Second World War in which Germany and Russia attack Poland.”


“These are ridiculous claims,” he adds.

Poland’s de facto leader, deputy PM Jarosław Kaczyński, has repeatedly accused Tusk of planning to sell state-owned companies to German investors, calling him a stooge of Berlin.

3. Ukraine

Issues around Ukraine have played a prominent role in the election campaign.

As a former satellite state of the Soviet Union, Poland was quick to rally behind Kyiv when Russian tanks steamed across the border in February 2022.

The country welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and provided much military and financial support.


But relations have since soured, with Warsaw saying in September that it would stop sending weapons to Kyiv.

Poland’s hard-right – growing in popularity – has tried to inflame hostility towards Ukrainian refugees, while Polish farmers have protested against cheap Ukrainian grain imports flooding the country, helping prompt the policy change.

“PiS is trying to gain additional votes because they have no certainty of achieving a majority like in previous elections,” Przybylski. “They’re trying to play this [refugee] card that is consistent with their isolationism and nationalism.”

However, supporters of both the main parties are overwhelmingly in favour of helping Ukraine, he continues.

Refugees were listed as the least important issue out of 12 social problems in a September poll of Polish voters by IBRiS.


“I think the opposition maintains a good line. They see refugees as a challenge and say they know how to handle it. That this issue that can be sorted out, rather than played,” argues Przybylski.

4. Inflation

As in many European countries, worries about sky-high prices of essentials, like food and energy, have been hotly debated.

“Inflation is very, very important,” says Pazderski. “It used to be even more important, but inflation has got a bit less recently.”

“The opposition would use it to attack the current ruling majority, claiming that it’s their fault,” he continues.

PiS have blamed price hikes on external events such as the war in Ukraine and the EU’s green policies, attempting to imply the problem is out of their control, according to the expert.


Rising prices were named the second most important problem facing Poles in the IBRiS’s September survey.

Last month Poland’s headline inflation rate slowed to 8.2% year-on-year, below analysts’ expectations of 8.5%, according to a flash estimate by Poland’s state statistics agency GUS.

It is the first time the figure has fallen below 10% since fighting broke out in Ukraine and is the lowest level since late 2021.

5. Social policies

While perhaps less prominent than others, social issues have come up on the agenda.

With an ageing population, pensions have been hotly debated, besides policies around “making babies”, such as state support for families with children, notes Przybylski.


Poland faces a huge democratic challenge with population growth flatlining since the early 2000s, meanwhile, many PiS policies limiting abortion rights have drawn fierce criticism.

The conservative party has also promised to expand its hugely popular “500+” child benefit programme, introduced in 2016, with Polish families set to receive a 60% increase in payments from next January.

Przybylski says the Civic Coalition, a catch-all political alliance, has emphasised policies aimed at improving health. Another idea they have floated is offering direct subsidies to grandparents who want to stay at home and take care of infants.

“But the main message of the opposition is that they will also cut down the negative emotions and energy that drive so much polarisation and hatred,” adds Pazderski.

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Bodybuilding, fast cars and misogyny: Slovakia’s populist Robert Fico returns to power

A fan of Vladimir Putin and fast cars, Robert Fico should return as prime minister of Slovakia following parliamentary elections on Saturday. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the career of a politician who was ousted from power five years ago after a journalist was murdered for revealing government corruption, and who used populism and disinformation to rise again.

Following early parliamentary elections on Saturday September 30, the pro-Russian populist Robert Fico, 59, who has been laying low for five years, should return to his former post as prime minister of Slovakia if he can find enough allies to form a government.

With 99.98% of the ballots counted, Fico’s centre-left party, Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), won 22.9% of the vote, beating the centrist Progressive Slovakia party (17.9%).

Twice elected as prime minister of this Eastern European country of 5.4 million inhabitants, Fico has come a long way after he was forced to resign in 2018 following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.

The double murder sparked huge anti-government protests demanding Fico’s resignation, after the murdered journalist revealed ties between the Italian mafia and the Smer-SD in an article published posthumously. Kuciak’s investigation, which focused on Maria Troskova, a former model who became Fico’s assistant, uncovered links between an Italian businessman, the Calabrian mafia and Troskova, threatening thus Fico’s inner circle.

The billionaire businessman Marian Kocner was charged in 2019 with ordering the murder, before being acquitted the following year. However, other suspects were convicted after they pleaded guilty, including the shooter, a former soldier who was given a 23-year prison sentence.

Journalists called ‘prostitutes’

At the time of the murder, Fico was already known for having a difficult relationship with the press: On more than one occasion, he publicly described Slovak journalists, who regularly accused the government of corruption, as “idiotic hyenas” and “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”.

Even though an anti-corruption coalition took power in 2020, Fico managed to keep his seat in parliament following his resignation.

Fico now prefers to avoid all interaction with the press. While campaigning, he addressed his electorate mainly through videos posted on Facebook, YouTube and Telegram – videos that are among the most popular in Slovakia – managing to successfully turn disinformation into a campaign tool.

Read moreSlovakia swamped by disinformation ahead of parliamentary elections

A survey carried out in 2022 by the Globsec think-tank showed that 54% of Slovaks are vulnerable to fake news such as the conspiracy theory that the world is governed by secret groups that want to establish a totalitarian ‘New World Order’.

Body-building and fast cars 

In the streets of the capital Bratislava, the posters of Fico’s party promise “stability, order and well-being”, of which he claims to be the guarantor. In the new world that Fico promises, migrants and LGBT+ people – the targets of his most virulent attacks – are no longer welcome.

“I will certainly never be a supporter of them [LGBT+ people] being able to marry, as we see in other countries,” he told a press conference recently, after saying adoption by same-sex couples, which is not possible in Slovakia, was a “perversion”.

He is married to a lawyer with whom he has a son. According to Slovak media, the couple are separated. The politician – who likes fast cars, football and body-building – is open about his admiration for Vladimir Putin‘s authoritarian rule, writes Slovak sociologist Michal Vasecka in his book “Fico: Obsessed with Power”.

Fico recently announced that he would not authorise the arrest of Putin, who is the subject of an international warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, if he ever came to Slovakia. He also promised on the campaign trail to put an end to Slovakia’s military aid to Ukraine.

“His relationship to Russia is historically determined by the socialist motto ‘With the Soviet Union for Eternity'”, writes Vasecka. Fico, who has spent his life navigating the political chessboard, began his career with the Communist Party when he was a lawyer.

In 1999, he left the Party of the Democratic Left, the political heir to the Communist Party, to found his own, the Smer-SD. In 2006, this party won a landslide victory in parliament, catapulting Fico to the position of prime minister two years after Slovakia joined the EU.

Fico then formed a coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party, which shared his anti-refugee rhetoric and populist leanings, and boosted his popularity during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis by refusing to impose austerity measures.

During the 2015 migration crisis in Europe, he took a stand against migrants, refusing to “create a separate Muslim community in Slovakia” and criticising the European quota programme for distributing refugees.

‘American whore’

Fico first forged a reputation on the European stage as his country’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg from 1994 to 2000.

Having previously hailed Slovakia’s adoption of the euro as a “historic decision”, he is now openly attacking the EU, NATO and war-torn Ukraine in the hopes of appealing to far-left and far-right voters.

True to form, he does this in a provocative and misogynistic manner, having made Slovak President Zuzana Caputova his scapegoat for several years. The anti-corruption lawyer, nicknamed “Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich”, became the country’s president in 2019.

The French daily newspaper Le Monde described in an article one of Fico’s encounters with Caputova in vivid detail. During Labour Day celebrations in May 2022, he called Caputova an “American whore”. And “the more of a whore a person is, the more famous they become”, he said.

(With AFP)

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Beyond forgetfulness: Why we must act on Alzheimer’s disease now

In the face of an increasingly aging population, today’s reality reveals a harsh truth: health systems in the EU and beyond are ill-equipped to provide early and timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and embrace innovative treatments that could help to preserve memory and, with it, independence.

Recent advances suggest that timely intervention may hold the promise to slow the memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease, making early diagnosis more critical than ever before. Yet without the necessary health care infrastructure in place to diagnose and provide treatment, we risk missing the crucial early window and the opportunity to delay — and hopefully in the near future prevent — distressing symptoms for patients and heartbreaking experiences for families.

The EU and its member countries have the opportunity to be remembered for leading in this space by increasing funding for research, improving health care infrastructure to support accurate diagnosis and timely intervention, and enhancing support services at a national and regional level. The forthcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 are the ideal moments to make that pledge. For individuals, families and health care systems, Alzheimer’s disease is a ticking time bomb unless we invest in our future health today.

The EU is not prepared for Alzheimer’s disease 

In Europe, approximately 7 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a number set to double to 14 million by 2050.1 On top of the physical and emotional distress this will cause, there are direct financial and social implications on families and communities, with Alzheimer’s costs expected to reach a staggering €250 billion by 20302 — bigger than the GDP of Portugal3 — placing an additional and substantial weight on global health care systems that are already struggling under cost and capacity burdens.4

Timely diagnosis stands as a cornerstone in determining the appropriate treatment for patients.

That’s why MEP Deirdre Clune is leading the call for a European Parliament hearing to discuss a focused EU strategy on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “Timely diagnosis stands as a cornerstone in determining the appropriate treatment for patients,” argues Clune. “Therefore, the EU must create a strategic framework which lays out clear recommendations for national governments and recognises the toll of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease on societies across Europe, encourage innovation and take on board best practices to develop effective and efficient approaches. Together, with a unified approach and firm commitment, the EU can pave the way for better Alzheimer’s care.”

In the next EU political mandate, policymakers must answer the call by developing a comprehensive EU Beating Dementia Plan that specifically addresses the unique challenges posed by Alzheimer’s disease and building on established coordinated action plans for other significant health burdens, such as the EU Beating Cancer Plan. The European Brain Council and EFPIA’s, RETHINKING Alzheimer’s disease White Paper is a useful resource, calling for policymakers to rethink Alzheimer’s and offering policy recommendations to make tangible changes to improve the lives of people living with the disease.

EU member countries must commit to investing in diagnostic infrastructure, technology and integrated care that can help to detect Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage and ensure timely intervention resulting in the preservation of memory and, thereof, independent living and normal social functioning.

Laying the foundations at national level 

While action is certainly needed at the EU level, huge opportunity lies at the national and regional levels. Each member country has the chance to apply well-funded national dementia plans that tailor their strategies and responses to address the distinct needs of their populations, making a real and meaningful impact on the people and health systems in their country.

Inspiration stems from Italy, which recently launched its Parliamentary Intergroup for Neuroscience and Alzheimer’s, dedicating its efforts to raising awareness, fostering discussions among national and regional institutions, promoting clinician and patient involvement, supporting novel research, implementing new diagnostic models, and strengthening patient access to care.

Italian MP Annarita Patriarca, co-host of the Parliamentary Intergroup, affirms: “Primary responsibility of a member state is to ensure to all citizens the greatest standards of diagnosis and access to treatment and care. Thus, it is necessary to put in place a strong collaboration between the public and private sector to strengthen investments in neurological diseases. Improving patients’ diagnostic and care pathways, especially in a disease area like AD with such a high unmet medical need and societal impact will be the core focus of the intergroup.”

Additionally, during the Alzheimer’s and Neuroscience Conference: a priority for the country in July, members of the Italian Parliament importantly put forward legislative and regulatory solutions to ensure an early and accurate diagnosis.

Leading the conversation on the international stage  

Amid the growing burden of Alzheimer’s disease globally, this is a moment for policymakers to hold each other accountable. Member countries are uniquely placed to do this within the EU but also across the wider health care ecosystem, calling on countries and leaders to honor prior commitments that prioritized investment in relieving major health burdens, including Alzheimer’s.

Encouragingly, the May G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué specifically recognized and supported dementia as a freestanding issue, breaking away from the typical categorization with NCDs. Moreover, the G7 health ministers published a joint Communiqué spotlighting the priority to “enhance early detection, diagnosis and interventions, including developing care pathways and capability and capacity building of health and primary care providers by strengthening primary health care (PHC)”.

These promising steps mean that Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves but also acts as a line in the sand to ensure complacency doesn’t creep in. Collectively, EU countries must assume a leading voice within the international fora, ensuring that Alzheimer’s disease remains a global health care priority and receives the investment it warrants.

Time to commit to action in Alzheimer’s disease 

September marks World Alzheimer’s Month, and its theme Never Too Early, Never Too Late, reiterates the importance of early diagnosis. It presents a valuable foundation to initiate discussions on country- and regional-level strategies to drive and strengthen diagnostic infrastructure and services for the prevention, diagnosis, case management, monitoring and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Unless we act now, a generation of people will be forgotten as they begin to lose their memories.

“Unless we act now, a generation of people will be forgotten as they begin to lose their memories,” shares Frédéric Destrebecq, executive director of The European Brain Council. “By recognizing the urgency of the situation and making concerted investments, we can forge a path toward a more compassionate, empowered future for individuals, families and communities impacted by Alzheimer’s, and remember all those who’ve been lost to this devastating disease.”

It is never too early, never too late, to be remembered for taking action against this debilitating disease.


1 – Jones RW, Mackell J, Berthet K, Knox S. Assessing attitudes and behaviours surrounding Alzheimer’s disease in Europe: key findings of the Important Perspectives on Alzheimer’s Care and Treatment (IMPACT) survey. The journal of nutrition, health & aging. 2010 Aug;14:525-30.

2 – Cimler R, Maresova P, Kuhnova J, Kuca K. Predictions of Alzheimer’s disease treatment and care costs in European countries. PLoS One. 2019;14(1):e0210958. Published 2019 Jan 25. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210958

3 – Published by Statista Research Department, 20 J. GDP of European countries 2022. Statista. June 20, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/685925/gdp-of-european-countries/.

4 – The Economist. Why health-care services are in chaos everywhere. Available at:  https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2023/01/15/why-health-care-services-are-in-chaos-everywhere. Accessed: July 2023.

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Vienna seeks to calm Selmayr ‘blood money’ furor

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Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg signaled his government was de-escalating a row with the EU’s senior representative in the country, Martin Selmayr, who last week accused Vienna of paying “blood money” to Moscow by continuing to purchase large quantities of Russian gas.

“Everything has already been said about this,” Schallenberg said over the weekend in a written response to questions from POLITICO on the affair. “We are working hard to drastically reduce our energy dependency on Russia and we will continue to do so.”

Austrian officials insist that the country’s continued reliance on Russian gas is only temporary and that it will wean itself off by 2027 (over the past 18 months, the share of Russian gas in Austria has dropped from 80 percent to an average of 56 percent).

Some experts question the viability of that plan, considering that OMV, the country’s dominant oil and gas company, signed a long-term supply deal with Gazprom under former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that company executives say is virtually impossible to withdraw from.

Those complications are likely one reason why Vienna — even as its officials point out that Austria is far from the only EU member to continue to rely on Russian gas — doesn’t want to dwell on the substance of Selmayr’s criticism.

“We should rather focus on maintaining our unity and cohesion within the European Union in dealing with Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine,” Schallenberg told POLITICO. “We can only overcome the challenges ahead of us in a united effort.”

Schallenberg’s remarks follow a decision by the European Commission on Friday to summon Selmayr to Brussels to answer for his actions. A spokesman for the EU executive on Friday characterized the envoy’s comments as “not only unnecessary, but also inappropriate.”

Given that the Austrian government is led by a center-right party, which is allied with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s European People’s Party bloc, the sharp reaction from Brussels is not surprising. An official close to the Austrian government said Vienna had not demanded Selmayr’s removal.

Selmayr made the “blood money” comment, by his own account, while defending the Commission chief. He told an Austrian newspaper that he made the remark during a public discussion in Vienna on Wednesday in response to an audience member who accused von der Leyen of “warmongering” in Ukraine and having “blood on her hands.”

“This surprises me, because blood money is sent to Russia every day with the gas bill,” Selmayr told the audience.

Selmayr expressed surprise that there wasn’t more public outcry in Austria over the country’s continued reliance on Russian natural gas, which has accounted for about 56 percent of its purchases so far this year. (A review of a transcript of the event by Austrian daily Die Presse found no mention of the comments Selmayr attributed to the audience member, however.)

Austria’s deep relationship to Russia, which has continued unabated since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has prompted regular criticism from its European peers.

Even so, the EU envoy’s unvarnished assessment caused an immediate uproar in the neutral country, especially on the populist far right, whose leaders called for Selmayr’s immediate dismissal.

Europe Minister Karoline Edtstadler called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive” | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

Schallenberg’s ministry summoned Selmayr on Thursday to answer for his comments and the country’s Europe Minister, Karoline Edtstadler, called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive.” Some in Vienna also questioned whether Selmayr, who as a senior Commission official helped Germany navigate the shoals of EU bureaucracy to push through the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline — thus increasing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — was really in a position to criticize Austria.

Nonetheless, Selmayr’s opinion carries considerable weight in Austria, given his history as the Commission’s most senior civil servant and right-hand man to former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Though Selmayr, who is German, has a record of living up to his country’s reputation for directness and sharp elbows, even his enemies consider him to be one of the EU’s best minds.

His rhetorical gifts have made him a considerable force in Austria, where he arrived in 2019 (after stepping down under a cloud in Brussels). He is a regular presence on television and in print media, weighing in on everything from the euro common currency to security policy.

After Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer recently pledged to anchor a right to pay with euro bills and coins in cash-crazed Austria’s constitution, for example, Selmayr reminded his host country that that right already existed under EU law. What’s more, he wrote, Austrians had agreed to hand control of the common currency to the EU when they voted to join the bloc in 1994.

A few weeks later, he interjected himself into the country’s security debate, arguing that “Europe’s army is NATO,” an unwelcome take in a country clinging on to its neutrality.

Though Selmayr’s interventions tend to rub Austria’s government the wrong way, they’ve generally hit the mark.

The latest controversy and Selmayr’s general approach to the job point to a fundamental divide in the EU over the role of the European Commission’s local representatives. Most governments want the envoys to serve like traditional ambassadors and to carry out their duties, as one Austria official put it to POLITICO recently, “without making noise.”

Yet Selmayr’s tenure suggests that the role is often most effective when structured as a corrective, or reality check, by viewing national political debates through the lens of the broader EU.

In Austria, where the anti-EU Freedom Party is leading the polls by a comfortable margin ahead of next year’s general election, that perspective is arguably more necessary than ever.

Victor Jack contributed reporting.

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How will Russia’s ‘elections’ in occupied Ukrainian territories work?

Despite the martial law imposed in four annexed regions of Ukraine, Russia is holding “elections” to local assemblies. Kyiv regards active participation in them as treason. The EU and the USA condemned Moscow’s actions, calling them “another gross violation of international law”.

Martial law in four partially occupied regions of Ukraine was introduced by decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin on 20 October 2022, less than a month after they were incorporated into Russia.


In May this year, Putin signed a law allowing elections to be held in the territories where the martial law regime is in force. Previously, Russian law prohibited election campaigns and referendums in such conditions.

Early voting in “elections” in Luhansk and Kherson regions began on the second of September, a week before the Unified Voting Day in the Russian Federation. In Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya oblasts even earlier – on 31 August. Early voting, as explained by the Russian authorities, was organised for voters “located in hard-to-reach areas and settlements near the line of contact”.

‘Elections’ with differences

The “elections” conducted by the Kremlin in the occupied territories have a number of peculiarities.

In particular, from the first to the fourth of September, voting took place at extraterritorial polling stations, that is, outside the annexed regions, in Russia. For this purpose, more than 300 such polling places were organised in the constituent entities of the Russian Federation.

In addition, residents of the four occupied Ukrainian regions will not elect their own regional heads of state. They will be appointed by the deputies of local “parliaments” on the recommendation of Russian President Putin. Experts predict that all the current “interim” leaders put in place by the Kremlin will remain in place. All of them are members of the ruling party, United Russia.

It is also noted that only parliamentary parties (represented in the State Duma of the Russian Federation) take part in the “elections” to local authorities. Voting is conducted only on party lists, it is impossible to vote for a particular candidate. The “election commissions” of the annexed territories did not even intend to publish the names of candidates, explaining this by “physical security considerations”.

Russian independent journalists recall that this is how the first municipal elections in annexed Crimea were held in 2014.

They found out that more than half of the candidates in these “elections” were local residents (in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions, 71 per cent), with a third of the candidates in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions being housewives, pensioners, students or unemployed.

Kyiv: Participation in ‘elections’ is collaborationism

Ukraine regards active participation in Russian “elections” in the occupied territories as a manifestation of collaboration and treason. “Candidates” and “members of election commissions” face criminal prosecution.

The Security Service of Ukraine has already launched criminal proceedings against several individuals in the Luhansk region who were involved in organising the “elections”.


Their names have been published in the Ukrainian media.

“The  Geneva Conventions, in which Russia is also formally participating, prohibit the holding of any elections by the aggressor in the occupied territories. For us, these elections do not exist. And for the entire international community too._This is a propaganda show,” Oleksiy Garan, a professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told Euronews.

The Ukrainian authorities do not plan to punish people for voting in the pseudo-elections organised by Moscow. Kiev understands that the Kremlin demands to ensure maximum turnout by any means. During early voting, election commission officials went door-to-door accompanied by Russian military personnel.

“We are differentiating here. Many Ukrainian citizens found themselves in the occupied territory not of their own free will. Terror methods, repressions are being used against them. If we are talking about ordinary people who have to go to vote because otherwise there will be repression against them, there will be no action here. Criminal prosecution awaits the collaborators,” Garany said.

International reaction

The European Union and the United States said that the “elections” held by Moscow in the occupied Ukrainian territories are “another gross violation of international law.”


“Russia has started early voting in the so-called “elections” in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories. This is yet another violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty,” EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano wrote on social network X (formerly Twitter).

The US State Department called the vote in the occupied territories a “pseudo-election” and a “propaganda exercise”, noting that the United States would never recognise Russia’s claim to Ukrainian territories.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that people who support the vote could face sanctions and visa restrictions. We are talking, in particular, about so-called “international observers”.

Blinken stressed that the US will not recognise the results of these “elections” and will continue to support Ukraine.

“This is not an election, but a dog circus.”

The Russian authorities are holding the unified voting day this year on 10 September, although as noted above, early “expression of will” began much earlier.


Golos, an all-Russian public movement in defence of voters’ rights, notes that the 2023 election campaign took place under conditions of “constant and growing pressure on all participants in the electoral process.”

“Golos” believed that this year’s elections cannot be called equal and free in any of Russia’s regions.

Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin reminded that elections in Russia have long ceased to serve as a mechanism for changing power.

“In general, elections in Putin’s Russia are a ritualistic procedure. Their meaning comes down to three main aspects,” he said.

“The first is propaganda when it is necessary to demonstrate that the situation is under control and there is nationwide mass support. The second is the ritual meaning.

“For a significant part of Putin’s electorate, it is important to get a picture that everything is working, that since the elections were held, everything is according to the rules.

“And the third is a test. A test of the effectiveness of regional bosses: whether they can control the situation, whether they can ‘draw’ the right figure and make people accept it and not protest.”

In his opinion, “these procedures” have nothing to do with democracy.

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