Region: Economic downturn challenges democracy
East Europe sees corruption, reconciliation and electoral change
Posted: January 2, 2013
Several thousands of Poles marched in Warsaw Dec. 13 to mark the 31st anniversary of the impostition of martial law by a Moscow-backed government and to express grievances with the current democratic system. The protest was organized by the opposition conservative PiS party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the twin of former President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010.
2012 was a year of flux for Central and East European countries, with the specter of economic recession posing serious challenges to authoritarian governments as well as young democracies. The following is an overview of the region's main political developments.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's 2012 started as it continued: badly. At the beginning of the year, the country's political elite gathered in Budapest's Opera House to celebrate the introduction of a new constitution. Outside, 30,000 protesters gathered, chanting "Viktator."
Independent political analysts say the new "basic law" manipulates constituencies in favor of Orbán's Fidesz party and undermines basic democratic checks and balances. Of particular concern is growth in political nepotism. Fidesz loyalists hold positions heading powerful councils overseeing the media, judiciary and budget for nine terms. Even if not re-elected in 2014, their power is now entrenched.
The economic picture is also increasingly glum. Hungary's economy is now in recession; unemployment is at 12 percent, and inflation at 6 percent. Still, Orbán repeatedly rejects conditions to secure a 15 billion euro loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Running high-profile anti-IMF billboard and newspaper advertising campaigns promising "not to surrender" has led to allegations of obstruction.
Having won a landslide victory in 2010, halfway through this term Orbán faces international political isolation and growing internal divisions. Playing on tough conditions, figures from Hungary's well-established far-right are consolidating their positions. Autumn saw increased tensions between Hungarian and Roma communities, including marches and protests. Support for far-right parties remains consistent but low. However, extremist organizations such as Jobbik may gain ground from Orbán's dwindling popularity.
"Europe's last dictator," Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was mocked in a topless protest by Ukrainian women's rights movement Femen, who stripped outside KGB headquarters in Minsk in Dec. 2011 wearing Lukashenko-esque moustaches. The artivists, removed by security services, went missing for 24 hours and claim being kidnapped and subjected to degrading treatment. Belarusian authorities deny involvement.
This summer, Lukashenko faced a new threat, this time from 800 teddy bears, holding pro-democracy messages, dropped by light aircraft. The stunt, masterminded by a Swedish public relations firm, prompted the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador and arrest of two Belarusian men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov for "illegal intrusion." They claim merely uploading photos of the offending bears.
While seemingly farcical, the situation is no joke. When no opposition candidate managed to secure a seat in the country's Sept. 23 parliamentary election, observers both inside and outside the country regarded it as business as usual. Despite a notable absence of the repressive tactics usually deployed against independent candidates, the country's most recent round of voting pointed to widespread manipulation by the authorities, as well as the electorate's continued entrenchment in a Soviet-era mindset. The election was described as "unfree" and "widely fraudulent" by independent observers. Many opposition candidates could not stand, due to obstructive administrative regulations and politically motivated incarceration. According to activist groups, political apathy is increasing, as citizens feel abandoned by the international community.
Last year's soaring inflation has been reduced, but prices are rising faster than real wages. Unemployment remains high. With IMF loan repayments scheduled to start next year and funding sources limited to Russia, the situation is likely to get worse. All indications are Lukashenko has no real economic plan. Increasingly, retaining a grasp on power appears to be his only strategy.
The first half of 2012 in Poland was defined by the buildup to and organization of the UEFA European Football Championship, co-hosted with neighboring Ukraine. However, following the festivities, an economic hangover kicked in. Previously a regional economic powerhouse, Poland's so-called "miracle economy" has seen a sharp decline in growth. Economic analysts suggest relative insulation from the eurozone crisis was, at least in part, due to large-scale public investments in new roads and stadiums for the tournament.
Like austerity measures across Europe, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's structural reforms have proved unpopular. In October, 50,000 people protested in Warsaw under the banner "Wake up, Poland." However, calls from leading opposition party Law and Justice for a vote of no confidence in Tusk remained empty threats.
The end of 2012 provided some respite. A new deal in November, agreed between Poland's leading gas supplier PGNiG and Russian Gazprom, is slated to save more than $1 billion a year. It is also hoped ongoing negotiations in Brussels will conclude this winter in favor of extending and increasing European Union funding over upcoming years. Poland was already a recipient of the biggest allocation of funding to any single member state 2007-13.
After a sweeping victory that reignited the political aspirations of leftists throughout the EU, Robert Fico became Slovakia's new prime minister after the country's March parliamentary election. His center-left party Smer (Direction) won 45 percent of the vote, equating to 83 of the 150 seats in the assembly.
His victory was due at least in part to "Gorilla" and "Sunflower," two leaked intelligence documents implicating large numbers of the previous center-right coalition's MPs in scandals involving bribes for political loyalty, public contracts and privatization deals.
In response to the revelations, large numbers of Slovaks took to the street demanding the resignation of the political "gorillas," showing their dissatisfaction by pelting bananas and eggs at parliament and government buildings. Despite concerns about public cynicism and disillusionment, turnout at the election was 60 percent, suggesting civil society remains strong.
2012 saw indications of growing nationalist sentiment across the Balkan region. In May, former extreme nationalist Tomislav Nikolić was elected as the new Serbian President. July saw the inauguration of Ivica Dačić, former spokesman to Slobodan Milošević, as prime minister.
The October and November decisions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia did little to help reconciliation regional processes. Acquittals of Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, as well as Ramush Haradinaj, former prime minister of Kosovo and leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), were celebrated in Zagreb and Pristina, and derided in Belgrade.
Simmering tensions between Macedonia's Slav and ethnic Albanian minority (a substantial 25 percent of the population) experienced low-level flare-ups throughout the year. However, the Oct. 28 centenary celebrations of Albanian independence passed without major incident across the region.
At the end of the year, Kosovo and Serbia appear to be edging closer to implementing shared border agreements. While negotiations remain precarious, an October meeting between Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi and Dačić are positive indicators of a political will to move forward, the leaders of the two countries had not previously met since Kosovo declared independence in 2008. However, with the EU's ongoing financial difficulties, it remains to be seen if the lure of membership can continue to be a regional pull toward reconciliation. Croatia is set to join in 2013.
Despite multiple bailouts, Greek economic woes show little sign of abating. In August, total unemployment was more than 25 percent and above 58 percent among those aged 15-24. Despite endless debate, it still remains unclear whether the country will exit the eurozone. Marches and riots are commonplace, and tough conditions have facilitated the rise of nationalist groups such as Golden Dawn.
Harriet Salem can be reached at