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July 15, 2020

EUROPE: CEE PULSE

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 6 mins)

Growing concerns over political corruption and erosion of democratic institutions are driving large public protests across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets in Bulgaria and Serbia calling for government changes, while demonstrators in Russia’s far-east city of Khabarovsk are demanding the release of the region’s arrested governor. Authorities’ attempts to weaken public media in Slovenia and undermine the independence of central bank in Ukraine should be watched closely as well.

Bulgaria

The largest public protests since 2013 are raising the risk of government instability. Public demonstrations – triggered by a series of events implicating close links between the country’s top politicians and powerful oligarchs – have been taking place across the country for nearly a week now. Demonstrators are calling for the resignation of the chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev as well as the government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (GERB) over an alleged failure to investigate the involvement of special state security forces in guarding a private beach villa located on the public land and associated with an influential politician Ahmed Dogan (Movement for Rights and Freedoms). Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office released recorded phone conservations suggesting that the protests and other attacks on the government are supported by another oligarch, Vasil Bozhkov, currently taking refuge in the UAE from multiple legal charges at home.

Borissov is reluctant to resign as this would suggest his political defeat ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for spring 2021. While the government’s resignation would likely result in a snap general poll, the vote would be organized by a caretaker cabinet appointed by President Rumen Radev (associated with opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party), which could complicate the ruling GERB’s electoral campaign. On top of that, the country is dealing with a sharp resurgence of Covid-19, and the government’s resignation could be perceived as irresponsible by its core electorate.

As a result, Borissov will attempt to wait out the demonstrations, expecting that the protest momentum will soon dissipate (as it did in 2013-2014 protests). The escalation of protests in size, scope and violence as well as a potential drop in GERB’s popularity would make a resignation more likely. Finally, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party is calling for a vote of no confidence on Borissov’s cabinet next week. For now, the government is more likely to survive the motion, but the situation remains volatile.

Russia

Following the vote on constitutional amendments earlier this month, Russian authorities moved to arrest former journalist Ivan Safronov, raided offices of opposition media outlets and detained a popular governor of the far-east Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) over the alleged ordering of two murders in 2005. While such clampdowns on opposition/independent political figures and civic activists are not unusual in Russia, Furgal’s arrest has triggered large anti-government protests in Khabarovsk on 11-12 July. This public reaction reflects the fact that Furgal was a highly popular governor, but also the growing public disappointment with the wider economic and political situation in the country. Independent polls indicate that 28% of respondents are ready to take part in protests over economic issues, which is the highest figure since late 2018. From a political perspective, Furgal’s arrest sends a clear signal to the systemic opposition parties to curb their ambitions ahead of the September 2021 parliamentary election.

Serbia

Protests have been rocking the country for a week now. Initially triggered by the cabinet’s decision to renew curfew in the capital Belgrade amid resurging Covid-19 infections, spontaneous demonstrations quickly gained a broader anti-government sentiment and attracted nationalist groups amid the renewed talks between Serbia and Kosovo. While regular public demonstrations have been a common feature of the country’s domestic political scene in recent years, the latest round of protests has been exceptional for its violence, including attempts to storm the parliament. The riots, however, appear to have lost momentum and the number of participants has been steadily declining in recent days. The presence of violent right-wing groups as well as Covid-19 fears are likely discouraging greater citizen participation in such rallies.

However, public discontent with the worsening economic situation and highly concentrated political power in the hands of President Aleksandar Vucic remains high. In this context, the Serbian government faces a difficult challenge to prevent a further surge of Covid-19 without triggering renewed protests. To placate tensions, President Aleksandar Vucic hinted that he will shortly step down as head of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and suggested a potential increase in public sectoral salaries and pensions at the start of 2021. However, the latter promise seems unlikely given the strained public finances.

Slovenia

Proposed amendments to public media laws reinforce concerns about the Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s illiberal intentions, following the footsteps of his close ally Viktor Orban in neighboring Hungary. Some of the most controversial changes presented by the culture ministry last week propose to revamp the financing scheme of the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija as well as the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). These services could see significant cuts in their funding at the expense of private media channels such as the Nova24TV which is linked to the ruling right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). Moreover, the amendments would expand the government’s role in appointing board members in the STA. The legislative proposal will undergo public consultation until September and notable changes could still be expected. The main signpost to watch is whether these controversial proposals secure backing from the SDS’s three junior coalition partners, which give Jansa’s government a slim one-seat majority in parliament.

Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to propose the new head of the country’s central bank (NBU) for parliament’s approval by Friday, 17 July. Following the resignation of the previous NBU governor over “systematic political pressure” and Zelensky’s recent comments about the need to lower interest rates, the appointment will be an important signal for investors and Ukraine’s international partners as to whether the Zelensky administration is still committed to safeguarding the independence of the bank – one of the main prerequisites for the continuation of the IMF’s USD 5bn stand-by program.

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