Thursday

18th Jan 2018

Magazine

Democracy protests make headway

  • An appartment block in Bulgaria - the Black Sea country is the poorest in the EU (Photo: dimnikolov)

Street protests are no novelty in central and eastern Europe. They were part of the Cold War, brutally repressed in some countries, heralding democracy in others.

In the post-Communist era, democracy is still being fought for in the streets, banner by banner, chant by chant.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

In 2014, thousands of disenchanted voters, students and activists took to the streets again in Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, Sofia and Bratislava. The causes varied, but some of the frustrations were similar: corrupt politicians, vested interests eroding democracy, a gagged press, dubious energy deals, be it with Russia or US oil companies.

In some of the countries, protests paid off this year.

Romania

In Romania, thousands of people in Bucharest and other major cities went out to the streets to show solidarity with voters abroad who had to wait for hours in endless queues only to be denied their right to vote in the presidential elections

.

In Paris and Turin, local police even fired tear gas at voters who were angry at not being able to vote and who refused to go home.

This image, along with anger against the incumbent prime minister, Victor Ponta, who sought to become president, mobilised voters back home. It helped lead to the victory of the underdog, Klaus Iohannis, a no-nonsense mayor of Sibiu, who managed to revamp his town without the corruption usually associated with Romanian politics.

Iohannis is also the first Romanian president to come from an ethnic and religious minority: he is a German-speaking Lutheran.

Hungary

In Hungary, street protests have become the only efficient form of opposition against the government of Viktor Orban, who enjoys a super-majority in the parliament.

In October, Orban was forced to scrap a controversial tax on internet traffic following massive street rallies and warnings from the EU commission about the move.

It represented a major victory for street activism against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Orban, whose actions – including raiding the offices of NGOs – have drawn the attention of the US government. President Barack Obama mentioned Hungary in the same breath as Egypt and Russia when it came to intimidating NGOs.

Washington also banned six Hungarian government officials from entering the US on corruption grounds, a first for an EU member state.

Putin's pawns

Protests continued in November with over 10,000 people showing up in Budapest on a "day of public outrage" against Orban and his Russia-friendly politics.

Orban gave a speech in summer declaring the end of liberal democracy and indicating Russia and China should be examples to follow. The Hungarian leader also signed an agreement with Russia for the extension of a nuclear power plant and was a supporter of the gas pipeline project South Stream, whose construction is currently suspended.

Public dissent over a pro-Russia course was also the trigger for protests in the Czech Republic, where people were outraged by the statements made by their president, Milos Zeman.

Zeman had described the conflict in Ukraine as "a civil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizens", denying any Russian involvement and calling for a roll-back of EU sanctions against Moscow.

At an event marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, protesters pelted him with eggs, called for his resignation and said "we don't want to be a Russian colony".

Putin will visit Prague for a Holocaust memorial in January.

Back to square one

In echoes of Romania, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico lost the presidency of the country in March in a surprising win by philantropist Andrej Kiska.

Fico, who dominated Slovak politics for the past decade, stayed on as prime minister but saw thousands of people protest in Bratislava against a government corruption scandal. If protests continue, they may lead to early parliamentary elections next year.

But chances are slim for Slovak opposition parties to win the elections and form a stable government.

There is the same lack of alternatives in Bulgaria, where protests in 2013 led to the resignation of prime minister Bojko Borisov.

A transition government was then formed by Socialist leader Plamen Oresharski, only to be met with more popular dissent. Early elections held in October 2014 were won by the centre-right and Bulgaria returned to the same prime minister it ousted one year earlier: Borisov.

A former bodyguard and police chief, Borisov seems to have learned that street protests are a force to be reckoned with. In November, he backed down from a contract with US oil company Chevron after thousands marched against the prospect of shale gas exploitation in the country.

But it is unlikely that he will be able to fix the more pressing sources of dissent: corruption and a faltering economy. Bulgaria is the EU's poorest country.

While democracy remains under threat in some eastern European states, the Romanian and Hungarian protests showed the region that people who stand up for their rights can make a difference.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

Analysis

Romania's Obama moment

Romania's election of an ethnic German is being compared to America's election of a black president. But who is Iohannis and what does he mean for Romania and the region?

Magazine

Macron: Hegelian hero of EU history?

The election of the 39-year old newcomer injected new hope and dynamism. But the French president still has to find solid allies in the EU and deliver his ambitious agenda at home.

Magazine

In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

Magazine

In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

Magazine

The EU and US in the age of Trump

America's face changed when Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama. But one year on, the foundations of the transatlantic relationship are still intact.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  2. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  4. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  5. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  6. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  7. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  8. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  9. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  10. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  12. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted

Latest News

  1. Nato prepares to take in Macedonia
  2. Taking full benefit of supercomputers in Europe
  3. Spitzenkandidat system 'difficult to get rid of', hopes lead MEP
  4. Rights NGOs face fresh threats across the EU, agency says
  5. EIB 'more sensitive' to fraud after Dieselgate, chief insists
  6. EU 'hypocrisy' condemns people to Libya, says NGO
  7. Next year's EU election at risk of Russian meddling
  8. Hungary to tax NGOs that 'help' migration

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  2. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  3. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  4. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  5. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  6. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  7. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  8. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  11. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  12. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap