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5th Mar 2024

Eastern Europe risks further riots as economic crisis bites

Civil unrest is spreading in eastern Europe as the economic crisis hits the region harder than western states, with anti-government riots kicking off in Lithuania and Bulgaria in recent days and with Estonia and Hungary at risk.

On Friday (16 January), demonstrators attacked the Lithuanian parliament building in Vilnius with stones, smoke bombs, eggs and ice, breaking windows and calling on the government to resign.

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  • The Bulgarian parliament, a target of militant protesters (Photo: EUobserver)

Police dispersed the crowds - estimated to number some 7,000 according to authorities, with tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets - while Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius to hold called an emergency cabinet meeting. A total of 86 individuals were arrested.

Organised by the Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation, the protest denounced public sector wage cuts and increases in taxes aimed at aiding the country's battered economy.

The violent protests come two days after similar events shook Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and follows on from riots protesting International Monetary Fund (IMF)-agreed austerity measures in Latvia earlier in the week.

In Sofia last Wednesday some 2,000 students, farmers and green activists also took up stones, snowballs and bottles against their parliament building and demanded the government resign. A total of 150 were arrested and around 30 injured.

Last week also saw saw the biggest protest Latvia has witnessed since the demonstrations that led to the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. A crowd of young people broke away from around 10,000 peaceful protesters, overturning a police van and breaking windows at the finance ministry.

Lithuanian President Adamkus has suggested that the Vilnius riot was organised by outside elements.

"The idea arises that disturbances are organised from the outside. They started in Estonia with 'the Bronze Soldier'," he said according to the ELTA news agency. "Then followed the event in Riga, and today it was Vilnius. It makes one think about certain sorts of thoughts."

The Bronze Soldier riots broke out in 2007 after Tallinn moved a Soviet-era WWII memorial, amid accusations that clashes between ethnic Russians and Estonians were organised by the Kremlin.

Greek inspiration

But Latvian officials dismiss the idea that the protests are anything other than citizens frustrated at the collapse of their economies.

"It was just spontaneous," Inese Allika, Latvian diplomat, told the EUobserver. "Latvians are normally very quiet, and people obviously are seeing what is happening in other countries in the rest of Europe, such as Greece, and they thought 'Why are we so calm?'"

"There had been a huge economic boom in recent years, then all of a sudden, everything stops."

The riots are not isolated events but a wave of predictable reactions to the economic crisis, Dorothee Bohle, a political scientist at the Central European University in Budapest told this website.

"After a few years of relatively high growth and social advancement, it's all come to an abrupt end and they've been slapped with a very harsh austerity package," she said. "This is essentially a return of the 'IMF riots' we were used to from Latin America in the eighties and nineties."

In mid-December, the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warned such civil disturbances were likely.

"Social unrest may happen in many countries – including advanced economies," as a result of the crisis, he said at the time.

Hungary next?

Estonia could also be hit by the unrest, despite holding relatively high currency reserves, and Hungary is "deeply unstable," the expert warned.

"While Hungary has not hit the headlines in recent weeks, this is only because the country hasn't really stopped having riots since 2006. It keeps coming back sporadically. During national holidays, there has been street fighting regularly since 2006."

In Hungary, as in Greece - where a police shooting sparked violent protests in December - the riots have unique domestic political reasons that combine with the wider economic background, Ms Bohle explained.

"In Hungary's case, it was the prime minister's being caught lying that social supports could continue and then delivering an austerity package," she said.

"[There is] a mistrust and lack of legitimacy in the government. On top of this is the existence of the far right, which may make it into parliament. Hungary is deeply politically unstable."

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