Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

Summer of discontent in eastern Europe

  • Protests turned violent in Belarus last week (Photo: Franak Viačorka)

From Bulgaria, to Serbia, Hungary, and up north to Poland and Belarus, the loosely defined area of eastern Europe is far from having a peaceful summer.

On the backdrop of coronavirus pandemic, lockdown measures, and infection spikes, countries in the region have been engulfed in protests and riots over elections, corruption, and questionable government interventions.

Serbia

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  • Demonstrations erupted after president Aleksander Lukashenko claimed to have won elections by a huge margin (Photo: Franak Viačorka)

Sparked by a decision to reinstate a curfew on Belgrade over the Covid-19 infections, last month's demonstrations in Serbia have been directed against president Aleksandar Vučić's misuse of the pandemic to hold parliamentary elections, which his party won by a landslide.

Critics say that Vučić's decision to open up the country, ahead of the 21 June election, allowed for a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths, with Serbia moving suddenly from a tight lockdown to holding 20,000-strong spectator events.

"Authorities decided abruptly to lift restrictions allowing them to carry on with the election campaign and win big, as almost all opposition parties boycotted the vote", Aleksandar Sekulić, a Serbian human rights activist, told EUobserver.

A local investigative reporting network (BIRN) found that Belgrade underreported Covid-19 deaths in order to move ahead with the election.

The government in Belgrade denies the allegations.

Bulgaria

The month-long protest in Bulgaria is also by no means slowing down.

Calling for the resignation of prime minister Bojko Borisov and accusing the government of corruption, protestors continue to take to the streets of Sofia and several other Bulgarian cities, building camps, blocking crossroads in the capital city in order to draw attention to their demands.

"This protest is not economically motivated. It's driven by anti-corruption and the desire to oust this government", Adrian Nikolov, a researcher at the Institute for Market Economics, a think-tank in Bulgaria, told EUobserver.

Borisov critics also cry foul after the country's chief prosecutor raided the offices of president Rumen Radev, a vocal critic of the governing party.

Hungary

Late last month, thousands took to the streets protesting prime minister Viktor Orbán's perceived attacks on press freedom.

The sacking of the chief editor of the country's leading independent website, Index.hu, was regarded by many as a government-sponsored effort to silence critical voices within the media.

The Hungarian foreign minister, during a news conference, called the accusations untrue, saying that the state cannot intervene in the decisions of a media which is privately owned.

"While public media already functions as bullhorn for government propaganda, more and more of private media lands also in the hand of government-friendly oligarchs", Andras Schweitzer, a senior lecturer at Elte University in Budapest, told EUobserver.

Orbán's allies have repeatedly been involved over the past years in shutting down critical publications or turning them openly pro-government.

Belarus

Dozens injured, over 3,000 detained after last Sunday's presidential vote, which led longtime authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko to claim a new term in office.

International observers raised concerns over the fairness of the electoral process, while the leading opposition candidate, Svetlana Tichanovskaja, fled to Lithuania fearing for her safety and that of her children.

Protesters called Lukashenko's overwhelming victory a sham, as Western powers, including the European Union, demanded an end to violence and the release of all detainees.

Poland

After the arrest of an LGBTI activist accused of hanging rainbow banners on statues, thousands came out to demand her release.

Some 48 protesters were also detained by police.

The fight for LGBTI rights was front-and-centre in the public debate during last month's presidential election.

The ruling Law and Justice Party that backed the reelection of president Andrzej Duda considers LGBTI rights to undermine traditional values.

The commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog based in France, called for the release of the LBGTI activists.

EU and the region

With hundreds of new Covid-19 cases being reported each day and with political tensions that show no signs of waning, the region of eastern Europe is heading towards a dangerous new level of volatility.

The European Union is faced with a daunting challenge ahead.

In order to ensure a stronger partnership with Serbia and step up on Belarus on matters of rule of law, the European Union needs the full support of all its member states.

That includes Hungary and Poland, which have repeatedly looked horns with Brussels over the Union's very own founding values, principles the EU would now need to export.

Bringing democratic values back both at home and abroad will require a difficult yet necessary balancing act by EU officials.

EU visa bans to 'pressure' Lukashenko

Belarus officials who ordered violence and faked elections are to face EU visas bans and asset freezes, foreign ministers agreed on Friday.

Analysis

What's behind the sudden political unrest in Bulgaria?

Demonstrators are demanding prime minister Boyko Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev resign, following a raid on the president's office. President Rumen Radev has been a vocal critic of the government and its record on graft.

Von der Leyen tells Poland and Hungary to go to court

Poland and Hungary should ask the EU's top court to assess linking EU funds to the respect of the rule of law instead of blocking the budget and recovery package, the EU Commission chief said, most MEPs backed her up.

German minister predicts rule-of-law solution in 'days'

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said the will be "able to take decisions" in the next few days on the budget and coronavirus recovery fund. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki will travel to Budapest on Thursday.

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