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22nd Jul 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.

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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.

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