Rumblings in Eastern Europe

While much attention in Europe in recent months has been focused on other crises (migrants, Islamic State), something has been happening in several Eastern European countries. Prolonged anti-government protests have exploded in several countries across the region, from Poland down to the Balkans and out to Moldova. Rather than just a day of short-lived anger, drawn-out movements have developed in several countries for various but often similar reasons. These movements could mark a new era in the region in terms of democracy and the power of the people to influence the often corrupt elites that govern.

Although many movements have taken place, it is in Moldova where the government has most recently successfully changed hands, although this does not mean the crisis is over. On January 20, after weeks of protests and months of corruption scandals, a new Moldovan government was appointed. The appointment of the new pro-EU government did not, however, do anything to quell the demands for new elections by protesters. Even supporters of pro-EU policies have continued their protests as newly appointed Prime Minister Pavel Filip is seen as being linked to powerful oligarchs in the country. Protests near the parliament have continued. And although the protests have put pressure on politicians, Filip has stated that he will not stand down as prime minister and that the government needs a chance to prove themselves. Many would think that chance has already been had.

Other movements have not been so successful in changing governments. In Montenegro, protesters have been gathering for months to call for new elections. Such events have sometimes even resulted in confrontations with security forces and arrests being made. The government continues to refuse to meet the demands of the protesters and Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, who has led the country as prime minister of president since 1991, refuses to step down, despite the movement showing no signs of abating.

Protests have also sprang up in Kosovo although for different reasons. The issue here is a newly agreed upon (brokered by the EU) deal with Serbia concerning the Serbs in the north of Kosovo getting more autonomy. Opposition lawmakers have released tear gas canisters in the parliament at least six times over the past few months and protests have repeatedly developed outside the legislature, often resulting in low-level violence. Despite the continued disruptions to parliamentary proceedings and demonstrations, the government continues to press on, although it has extended its vacation period in early 2016 in an attempt to cool the situation while opposition members continue to threaten more disruptions.

Meanwhile progress remains precarious in Macedonia, due to hold early elections this spring. After months of political scandals after the opposition released recorded conversations of the government revealing several instances of corruption. After large-scale protests took place in Skopje for months on end, negotiations between the government and the opposition, mediated by the EU, resulted in a deal for early elections this April. However, just recently, the opposition said the elections could not be organized in a proper way so soon. The government has stated that it will go ahead with the date in April anyway, leading to concerns regarding the legitimacy of the polls and how the opposition will react to the results if they lose.

Poland has also been the scene of large-scale anti-government protests in recent weeks as many accuse the government of anti-democratic moves regarding a new media law and reforms to the constitutional tribunal. Over the last month, thousands have taken to the streets in Polish cities to protest against these moves, seen as a way for the newly elected Law and Justice (PiS) party to increase the influence of its own ideology in the media and the judiciary. However, despite this controversy, support for the government has actually risen in Poland, potentially revealing an increasingly divided political environment. Latest polls put support for the new government at 36%, a six point increase from December. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue or if PiS will push too hard in its reform agenda and cause a backlash from a larger section of the Polish society.

Large-scale protests have however led to a successful change in government in one country in the region – Romania. Following a fire at a nightclub in Bucharest in late October 2015 that killed over 60 people, thousands protested in the streets of Bucharest. Several days later, former Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned and was replaced by Dacian Cioloș. Protesters were able to express their frustration with corruption in the country and poor governance, in such a large-scale and coordinated way that the government fell. Of all the countries, this is the one example where a government has actually fallen and changed successfully.

It is unclear if these separate movements are a sign of change in the region. Whatever the outcome, there seems to be no signs of a let up in 2016. Protesters have already taken to the streets in Moldova, Montenegro, and Poland this year. Tensions remain high in Kosovo and Macedonia, where new elections should be held in April. The year could be a turning point as elections are due in several countries and political pressure could continue to mount on politicians in the region. Although as Moldova proves, even pressure to resign and form a new government does not always appease the public as the new elites often look and act shockingly similar to the old elites.

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