The third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is peaking at different times across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Slovakia has finally exited a month-long government crisis. Ukraine is concerned over escalating fighting in Donbas. In Slovenia, the departure of three deputies from the Modern Centre Party has further weakened Janez Jansa’s government.
Health data shows a worsening epidemiological situation in Croatia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine, all of which have either tightened restrictions or are actively considering it. The third wave appears to be close to its peak in Hungary, Poland, and Serbia, where no meaningful reopening should be expected at least for another two weeks. Infections are also close to their high point in Bulgaria, but the government – likely driven by electoral considerations – is starting a gradual reopening as of 1 April. While the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovakia appear to have passed the third wave’s peak, their governments are reluctant to ease restrictions ahead of the Easter break, particularly as hospitalization levels remain high. The expectedly greater deliveries of the Covid-19 vaccines in the coming weeks/months – particularly in EU member states – should accelerate the immunization progress across the region; at the same time, this will test the governments’ preparation for a larger-scale rollout.
Almost a month-long government crisis has been resolved this week after Prime Minister Igor Matovic (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, OLaNO) agreed to swap positions with the Minister of Finance Eduard Heger (OLaNO). Today, 1 April, President Zuzana Caputova (independent) appointed the Heger’s cabinet, which now has 30 days to win a vote of confidence in parliament. This will likely be a formality as the four-party governing coalition holds 93 out of 150 seats in parliament. Besides Matovic and Heger swapping posts, there are two new appointments in the cabinet: Minister of Health Vladimir Lengvarsky and Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, who is yet to be nominated by a junior coalition member, We Are Family.
Heger’s government is expected to continue the previous government’s agenda, which focused primarily on handling the pandemic and tackling high-profile corruption. In general, Heger’s appointment will likely improve the cohesion of the four-party coalition government. Still, continued disagreements between Matovic – who remains the leader of the largest parliamentary group OLaNO – and other government members might remain a source of instability.
The three-party governing coalition led by the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) is continuing to crumble. On 26 March, three deputies from the junior coalition member center-left Modern Center Party (SMC) departed from the party following internal disagreements on the SMC’s role in the government. One notable defector was the speaker of parliament, Igor Zorcic. The loss of three deputies has further weakened Janez Jansa’s (SDS) government, which now holds only 38 mandates in a 90-seat parliament. While Jansa has informal backing from the right-wing Slovenian National Party and two ethnic minority deputies, it appears that the government is already struggling to muster a majority in parliament. A clear indication of this was the government’s failure to remove Zorcic from office on 30 March. The weakened position in parliament will further limit the government’s ability to pursue its policy agenda and make it more susceptible to potential no-confidence motions in the future.
The country’s military is voicing concerns over renewed fighting along the front-line in Donbas and the buildup of Russian armed forces close to the area. In the last week of March, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported nearly 1,000 ceasefire violations. While this clearly signifies the end of the ceasefire observed (with some violations) since last July, the overall level of fighting remains lower than, for example, in 2019 or the first half of 2020. The renewed fighting may provide the impetus for another Normandy Four summit, which President Volodymyr Zelensky has long advocated.
While there may be multiple factors driving the latest flare-up, one of the greatest concerns is long-standing water shortages in Crimea, which had been aggravated by Kiev’s closure of the North Crimean Canal in 2014. Russia has called this an ‘act of genocide’ and may put military pressure on Kyiv to renew water supplies. In an extreme case, a Russian military incursion into southern Ukraine along the water canal cannot be completely ruled out.