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September 2, 2020

Europe

EUROPE: CEE PULSE

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 5 mins)

With Russia’s support, the disputed President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko looks likely to cling onto power for now. The stability of Bulgaria’s government will be tested by resurgent protests and parliament’s position on the constitutional changes proposed by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Hungary’s new border restrictions amid a steep rise in new Covid-19 cases are fueling a new dispute with the EU. The probability of Romania’s government remaining office until the general election expected in December has significantly increased after the failed confidence vote earlier this week. Finally, Serbia and Kosovo will seek ways to improve bilateral relations in the US- and the EU-mediated talks scheduled on 4 and 7 September respectively.

Belarus

With increasingly evident backing from Russia, the disputed President Alexander Lukashenko appears likely to remain in power for now despite the continuing protests and strikes. Earlier this week, Lukashenko instructed the head of the country’s Supreme Court Valentin Sukalo to propose constitutional changes that would reduce the country’s systemic dependence on individual leaders, including Lukashenko himself. Demand for constitutional reform is also one of the goals of the newly announced political organization “Together” by presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka’s team. The constitutional change proposals – supported by Moscow too – may simply be an attempt to appease protests but may also signal the start of the power transition away from Lukashenko towards a more parliamentary system in the long term.
On the sanctions front, the Baltic States imposed unilateral restrictions against Lukashenko and 29 other state officials. Lukashenko is threatening to retaliate by redirecting cargo transit flows away from the Lithuanian and Latvian ports. Such a move would not significantly affect the Baltic economies but would be costly for the Belarusian state-owned industrial companies.

Bulgaria

This week’s events will test that stability of Prime Minster Boyko Borisov’s government. A large anti-government demonstration is planned in the capital Sofia on 2 September, which may revive the dissipating protest momentum in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the start of the autumn session in parliament should reveal whether the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) managed to secure backing from the absolute majority of deputies (120 out of 240) to initiate lengthy procedures to amend the constitution. A resurgence of protests and failure to advance the constitutional changes would significantly weaken Borisov’s standing and may lead to his resignation. In such case, the ruling GERB would still get a chance to form a new coalition government with a new prime minister. If unsuccessful, snap parliamentary election would be the most likely outcome.

Hungary

Following a steep increase in new Covid-19 infections during the past week, the government as of 1 September reintroduced border controls and restricted entry for non-Hungarian citizens (with some exceptions). One notable exception has been made for the Czech, Polish and Slovak citizens, who are allowed to enter Hungary with the proof of previously booked accommodation and a negative Covid-19 test. The move has triggered criticism from the EU, with the EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders referring to these exceptions as discriminatory and calling for their immediate removal. The dispute will further heighten tensions between Hungary and the EU amid ongoing discussions to link the distribution of EU funds to rule of law conditionality in the 2021-2027 EU budget.

Meanwhile, all returning Hungarian citizens from abroad are required to self-isolate for 14 days or produce two negative tests within five days. Unlike in spring, the government appears unlikely to impose curfew restrictions, introduce separate shopping lanes for seniors or discontinue in-person teaching in schools

Romania

The chances of minority government led by Ludovic Orban (National Liberal Party, PNL) remaining in office until the general election expected in December have increased significantly as after the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD)-initiated vote of no confidence was postponed due to lack of quorum in parliament on the voting day, 31 August. This was a notable setback for the opposition PSD and its recently elected leader Marcel Ciolacu, who has already expelled four deputies from the party for not showing up to vote. Given the recent failure and insufficient backing in parliament, the PSD will likely abandon the censure altogether. However, political rivalries will remain high and the opposition PSD is expected to seek a reversal of the government’s decree reducing the pension increase to 14% (down from the initially planned 40%) as of September. Such a reversal would be significant blow to the country’s already strained public finances. However, the final decision on the issue may be delayed by President Klaus Iohannis by asking the parliament to reconsider the legislation or request its review by the Constitutional Court.

Serbia/Kosovo

International efforts to normalize Serbia-Kosovo relations are regaining momentum. The US-mediated Serbia-Kosovo talks are scheduled to take place on 4 September in Washington DC, followed by the EU-led meeting on 7 September in Brussels. While details remain scarce, negotiations in the US are expected to focus on economic aspects, and the EU-led talks should tackle political issues. Resolution of the long-lasting conflict would facilitate the EU accession prospects for both. However, for any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to hold in the longer term, wide political and public support at home is crucial.

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