January 29, 2021

Europe

EUROPE: CEE PULSE

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 5 mins)

Uncertainty over deliveries of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU poses risks to Bulgaria’s vaccination campaign, which already lags behind EU peers. In Poland, protests are reemerging over a tightened abortion law. Meanwhile, Russia is starting to lift Covid-19 restrictions despite its slow vaccination progress. Finally, Estonia’s new coalition government is expected to focus on the pandemic, economic recovery, and renewable energy.

Bulgaria

As of 28 January, the country has administered 33,000 doses (0.5 per 100 people) of Covid-19 vaccines, lagging well behind its EU peers. The slow rollout appears to be associated with a prioritization of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the procurement process over Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines. For 2021, the government has initially pre-ordered 4.5mn shots from Oxford-AstraZeneca, compared to only 1mn doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and 0.5mn shots from Moderna. While the orders for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were subsequently topped up by another 2.9mn doses, their deliveries are expected to increase only in Q2. Without the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – which is still subject to approval from the European Medicines Agency and agreement on supply volumes with the EU – Bulgaria is scheduled to receive 315,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines by the end of Q1, which is sufficient to inoculate 2.3% of the country’s residents. This suggests that Bulgaria’s vaccination campaign will remain slow in the near term, potentially delaying the economic reopening and hurting the ruling parties ahead of the 4 April parliamentary election.

Estonia

A new coalition government consisting of the country’s two largest parties, the liberal Estonian Reform Party (ER) and the Centre Party (EK), was sworn in on 26 January. The far-right EKRE party, whose controversial rhetoric and proposals have largely dominated the country’s political scene, has moved into opposition. The new cabinet – led by ER leader Kaja Kallas – holds 59 seats in the 100-seat parliament and enjoys support by some smaller parties. The strong parliamentary majority bodes well for government stability, but frictions between the two coalition partners could arise around the presidential and local elections scheduled for August and October respectively. Ethnic minority rights (particularly Russian) – an important EK constituency – could emerge as another point of contention. In terms of the policy agenda, the handling of the pandemic and Estonia’s economic recovery will be top priorities. The Kallas government is also expected to prioritize the development of renewable energy to speed up the country’s transition away from oil shale, which accounted for 57% of the country’s total power generation in 2019.

Poland

On 27 January, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal published in the Journal of Laws a long-delayed justification of its October ruling, which puts in force a law banning nearly all abortions in the country. The move has reignited protests, which are expected to continue throughout the week. So far, the scale of the demonstrations remains much smaller than last autumn, but it could pick up given the sensitivity of the issue and significant public opposition. This could further dent the popularity of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party as recent surveys show that around 70% of the population opposes the ruling. However, the issue does not appear to stoke significant internal tensions within the United Right coalition.

In terms of Covid-19, the government is starting a cautious reopening. As of 1 February, shops in supermarkets, art galleries and museums will be allowed to reopen under strict sanitary conditions. All other restrictions have been extended at least until 14 February. However, hundreds of small businesses, such as restaurants or gyms, have announced plans to reopen on 1 February regardless of the existing limitations. Recent surveys show that around half of respondents would support such actions, which suggests widespread public fatigue with the pandemic restrictions.

Russia

A steadily improving epidemiological situation over the past month has prompted the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. During the past week, the capital Moscow reopened various cultural and entertainment facilities, lifted the requirement for at least 30% of employees to work remotely, and extended working hours of restaurants, bars and clubs. Although there is no recent data on vaccination progress, the government claims that 2.7mn doses of the Sputnik V vaccine have been distributed to vaccination centers across the country as of 28 January. Considering the relatively slow rollout to date, the government’s target to inoculate 20mn residents by the end of Q1 appears highly ambitious. The vaccination progress will largely depend on how quickly the country manages to ramp up the production of the Sputnik V and EpiVac vaccines, the only two approved vaccines in Russia. The third domestically developed vaccine is expected to receive regulatory approval in mid-February. The pace of vaccination will likely be uneven across Russia due to different levels of vaccine availability, logistical challenges, and varying competence of regional authorities in charge of implementing the inoculation campaigns.

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