Trends of 2019: Eastern Europe and Russia

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2019 in Eastern Europe looks like it will be quite similar to 2018. Then and now uneasiness towards Russia grows, corruption entrenches itself further, and illiberalism appears to threaten to infect the entire region. These challenges threaten to further weaken the liberalism and democracy introduced into the region since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Nonetheless, brights spots remain in the region, which stretches from the Caucuses in the east to Slovenia and Czechia in the west. The following trends will define this vast region in 2019:

The  Caravel ’s sections are divided along these geographical lines.

The Caravel’s sections are divided along these geographical lines.

Backsliding on Corruption:

The Berlin-based Transparency International released the results of its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018. The data shows that Eastern Europe stalled in its efforts to combat corruption last year. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia barely improved; Serbia, Albania, and Azerbaijan noticeably declined.

Moldovan oligarch and head of the ruling Democratic Party (PDM) of Moldova Vlad Plahotniuc pictured in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moldovan oligarch and head of the ruling Democratic Party (PDM) of Moldova Vlad Plahotniuc pictured in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moldova faces an inflection point in 2019 especially as it prepares for a parliamentary election on February 24 between the pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) led by President Igor Dodon and the corrupt, ruling Democratic Party (PDM) led by the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. An analysis by the Jamestown Foundation suggests Plahotniuc’s ultimate political goal is retaining control over the apparatuses of government in Moldova, rather than any advancing any clear political ideology. The government introduced a new first-past-the-post electoral system at the behest of the PSRM and PDM for the 2019 parliamentary election, which will disfavor the smaller pro-European opposition parties. Barring surprising parliamentary results, Moldova will remain a poster child for one of the problems stymieing anti-corruption efforts across the region in 2019: state-capture by wealthy oligarchs.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pictured in 2018 at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. (Wikimedia Commons)

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pictured in 2018 at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. (Wikimedia Commons)

Salome Zurabishvili became the first female president of Georgia last year after a campaign backed by billionaire former-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream party. Former-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement backed her opponent, Grigol Vashadze. Foreign Policy reports that the campaign proved more of a referendum on the two men backing the candidates, rather than the candidates themselves. Ultimately observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that Zurabishvili “enjoyed an undue advantage” due to help from the state. In a similar fashion to Russia or Moldova, a private individual was allegedly able to capture the state and use its resources to aid his ally. Nonetheless, Georgia was one of the highest scoring countries in Eastern Europe according to Transparency International. 2019 will hopefully see further advances made despite Zurabishvili’s limited powers, which the parliament curtailed in 2012.

For some aspiring members of the European Union—Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro—2019 will be pivotal to doubling down on their existing efforts. For others—Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo—it will be a chance to stop backsliding and resume efforts to fight graft. Even those countries marked as improving in Transparency International’s index were criticized by the NGO for failing to reform the electoral financing system, as in Montenegro, or for growing public weariness of slow-moving reforms, as in Ukraine. Pivotal elections are fast approaching in Ukraine, with presidential election set for March 31 and parliamentary elections set for October 27. Despite President Petro Poroshenko swearing in his speech announcing his candidacy that he would lead Ukraine to membership in the EU and NATO, a popular position in the war-torn country, he remains third in polls of the race.

Unlike their Eastern European neighbors, many of whom are only in the beginning stages of joining the EU, Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU over a decade ago. Despite that, the two countries share with their neighbors a common fight against corruption. Progress has been slow in both countries and they remain under the Cooperation Verification Mechanism of the EU to ensure they meet the bloc’s standard for rule of law and corruption. The most remarkable cases of corruption in the European Union lie not in Romania and Bulgaria, but rather Hungary, which “decreased by nine points over the last seven years,” according to Transparency International. Hungary’s decline stems from repeated assaults on the rule of law by the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Containing Illiberalism in the EU:

Amidst the gloom of corruption, a bright spot amongst the eastern member states of the European Union remains liberalism. Despite the high profiles of Hungary and Poland, both of which the European Commission reprimanded in recent years for their attacks on the rule of law, on free civil society, and democratic norms, other members have not followed in their footsteps.

Protestors demonstrating against the government’s response to the murder of Slovak investigative journalist pictured in Slovak National Uprising Square in the capital Bratislava on May 18, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Protestors demonstrating against the government’s response to the murder of Slovak investigative journalist pictured in Slovak National Uprising Square in the capital Bratislava on May 18, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in late February, civil society stepped forward and pushed the government to investigate the assassination and bring the culprits to justice. When the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico resisted, the protests in March 2018 grew to the largest since 1989. Ultimately they led to the resignations of Fico and several other officials and several suspects have been charged with the crime.

Opponents of the illiberal bent of Hungary and Poland feared Czechia might drift into their illiberal orbit after Andrej Babiš’s ANO party won the most seats in the 2017 Czech parliamentary election. Babiš is a populist billionaire with extensive business holdings and his firm Agrofert remains under investigation by the EU for improperly receiving tens of millions of Euros of subsidies. Despite the unsavory allegations following Babiš, Czechia differs from Hungary and Poland according to an analysis by Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He argues that firstly, ANO is constrained by a coalition partner; and secondly, Babiš lacks a clear ideological agenda, unlike Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice ((PiS) in Poland. Rohac likens the potential fate of Czechia not to its illiberal neighbors but rather to Italy under Berlusconi, with the “coming years [...] likely be wasted on scandals and media stunts.”

The notable tests of the rise or fall of illiberalism will come in the form of the several elections held in the eastern members of the European Union in 2019. The first, the Slovak presidential election, will occur on March 16 and 26, followed by the European Parliament election between May 23 to 26, and culminating in the Polish parliamentary elections, which must be held by November 2019.

While the most popular party in Slovakia, the Smer Party of Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and former-Prime Minister Robert Fico, has yet to choose a candidate for the presidency, polls expect them to win the race if they do. A victory by Smer ensures a continuation of moderate, center-right politics in Slovakia.

Next is the European Parliament election, which will be especially important for Poland, despite the expected low turnout there. If the opposition Civic Platform party (PO) wins the European Parliament election, it will enter the parliamentary elections later in the year with significant momentum, Professor Aleks Szczerbiak of the University of Sussex argues. Local elections held in October 2018 suggest the PO and its allies will struggle to win the parliamentary elections outright. The PO performed well in its urban strongholds, yet the ruling Law and Justice Party won 9 of the 16 regional assemblies in Poland. In the parliamentary elections, the PO may fail to beat PiS but it may prevent PiS from winning a majority of seats. Such a result would resemble the situation in the Czech Republic, with the illiberal tendencies of PiS curtailed by their need to retain coalition partners.

Growing Uneasiness Towards Russia:

Fear of Russian revanchism defines the foreign policy of the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia. All fought to free themselves from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, with Ukraine and Georgia suffering from Russian aggression since independence. This traditional uneasiness in Eastern Europe has spread through to nations oft considered close to Russia.

While Belarus and Russia have squabbled in the past over energy subsidies, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s recent bluffing about turning westward suggests the most recent diplomatic kerfuffle between Belarus and Russia is the most serious.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, pictured in October 2018 at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, at the Kremlin. (Kremlin)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, pictured in October 2018 at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, at the Kremlin. (Kremlin)

For over a decade, Russia exported subsidized oil to Belarus, which then refined and exported the oil to the rest of the world. This equated to the subsidization of the Belarusian state by the Russian government to the tune of billions of dollars, though that amount has dropped over time. The Russian government announced a change in its tax policy in September which would end the flow of oil below world prices to Belarus. In retaliation, Belarus threatened to route its oil supplies via the Baltics, bypassing Russia completely. In the waning days of 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko met repeatedly to solve the dispute, to no avail.

Concurrently with the energy dispute, calls erupted in Russia advocating for the unification of Belarus and Russia. A similar outcry arose in 2011 during elections for the Duma, Russia’s parliament. The two states signed the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State in 1999, which called for economic and military unification, while stipulating independence. The treaty has yet to be fully implemented and Lukashenko rejected Russian plans to build a military base in Belarus in November 2018. These incidents paint a picture of a country working to prevent the balancing act between west and east, which defines its foreign policy, from tipping too far towards the east.

More of the Same within Russia:

Despite looming throughout each of the above trends as a provocateur and alternative to the European Union, Russia remains unaffected by them domestically. Rather, Russia’s domestic situation will resemble that of past years: continued authoritarianism punctuated by ineffective rumblings of discontent.

In the March 2018 election incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin won 76 percent of the vote with voter turnout at 67 percent. Despite these impressive numbers, the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported immediately prior to the election that the Russian government suffered from a negative approval rating despite personal approval for Putin. Extensive protests against government plans to reform the pension system further demonstrated the insignificance of opposition to the regime in Russia, with only a few thousand protesting across the country on the first weekend and protestor numbers dropping further from there on subsequent weekends. Admittedly, the protests led Putin’s approval rating to drop by nearly 15 percent after he took personal responsibility for the pension reform, with his approval rating resting at 70 percent. So long as Putin continues to separate himself from the deeply unpopular Russian government, his popularity will guarantee the authoritarian state he rules will remain unresponsive to the simmering discontent of the Russian people.