The Fidesz party’s departure from the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament (EP) will weaken Hungary’s leverage in the EU and limit space for dialogue with key members of the bloc. Russia is still deliberating its response to sanctions imposed by the EU and the US. A crisis in Slovakia’s four-party governing coalition will likely lead to significant changes in the cabinet. In Slovenia, the cut off of funding for the national news agency is renewing concerns over media independence in the country.
The ruling Fidesz party’s decision on 3 March to leave a center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament (EP) was a preemptive move to save face after the EPP had approved amendments to its internal rules that paved the way for Fidesz’s eventual expulsion. Fidesz’s departure from perhaps the most influential political network in the EU will inevitably weaken the party’s leverage in the EU and limit space for dialogue with key members of the bloc. With the EU budget and recovery fund agreed, the incentive to keep appeasing Fidesz had become ever weaker and the balance within the EPP group has shifted accordingly. In front of the domestic electorate, Fidesz is playing the victim card and is accusing the EPP of dirty power games during the pandemic and the betrayal of conservative values.
For the EPP group, the departure of 11 of Fidesz’s deputies – who maintained their voting rights despite the suspension of the party from the EPP party alliance in March 2019 – is a manageable loss. However, one signpost to watch is whether Fidesz’s ally parties in CEE – such as the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or the Slovenian Democratic Party – chose to follow in Orban’s party’s footsteps.
On 2 March, the US government announced sanctions on Russia over the use of chemical weapons as well as the poisoning and arrest of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. New restrictions (travel bans and asset freezes) concern in total ten Russian state officials and nine entities (seven research institutes, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)). In addition, the US Department of Commerce restricted exports to 14 entities located in Russia, Germany, and Switzerland “based on their proliferation activities in support of Russia’s weapons of mass destruction programs and chemical weapons activities.” Finally, the US expanded existing sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, including additional limits on foreign and financial assistance, arms sales and their financing as well as exports of security-sensitive goods. Washington is expected to impose additional sanctions on Russia in the coming weeks over its alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election, a large-scale cyber-hack linked to Russia as well as intelligence reports that Moscow was offering bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops in Afghanistan. Given the military-intelligence nexus of these issues, the US could target Russian military, defense and cyber capabilities and associated individuals/entities.
The most recent round of US sanctions is unlikely to affect Russia’s economy or policy course. Moscow considers Washington’s actions as interference in its domestic affairs and pledges to respond, including “asymmetric actions.” This might entail, for example, diplomatic measures, military provocations, new cyber-attacks, administrative harassment of US/Western companies operating in Russia and other actions. While not directly related, there are discussions of taxing large foreign IT companies for the use of data of Russian citizens.
Rising political tensions over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic have escalated into a major government crisis after the Minister of Health Marek Krajci (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, OL’aNO) – signed an agreement to acquire 2mn doses of Sputnik V vaccines from Russia. Two of OL’aNO’s junior coalition partners Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and For the People (ZL) had previously opposed the deal and are now demanding a major cabinet reshuffle, including the replacement of Health Minister Krajci as well as Prime Minister Igor Matovic (OL’aNO). Negotiations are expected to continue in the coming days, leaving multiple scenarios open.
The most likely option is that the four-party coalition will remain in place (for now) with significant changes in the cabinet. If, nonetheless, the talks break down and ZL with SaS decide to leave the government, OL’aNO could attempt to lead a minority cabinet with We Are Family (SME Rodina). OL’aNO partnering with the remaining far-right and center-left parties in parliament is unlikely. A third option could be a technocratic government tasked to lead the country through the pandemic. Finally, an early election appears the least probable scenario amid the pandemic and poor reelection prospects of OL’aNO, SME Rodina and ZL.
On 26 February, the Slovenian Government Communication Office (UKOM) suspended funding to the national news agency STA for the second time in the past few months. UKOM stated that payments to STA were not possible because the two parties have not signed a contract for 2021 due to insufficient documentation provided by the STA to assess its financing needs. The dispute once again raises concerns about attempts by the right-wing government led by Janez Jansa (Slovenian Democratic Party, SDS) to gain greater control over the media, following in the footsteps of Hungary and Poland. Such concerns have been amplified by the establishment of a new private news agency, called the National News Agency, by a member of the ruling SDS. More generally, Jansa’s illiberal intentions will raise tensions with Brussels ahead of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the Europen Union in the second half of 2021.
Germany: Chimconnect Gmbh; Pharmcontract Gmbh; and Riol-Chemie. Russia: 27th Scientific Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense; Chimmed Group; Femteco; Interlab; LabInvest; OOO Analit Products; OOO Intertech Instruments; Pharmcontract GC; Rau Farm; and Regionsnab; Switzerland: Chimconnect AG.