August 3, 2021

Europe

EUROPE: CEE PULSE

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 5 mins)

Relatively low immunization rates and gradually rising Covid-19 infections in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) raise concerns about the new wave of the pandemic. This week, Bulgarian parliament will vote on the government of Prime Minister-designate Plamen Nikolov, nominated by the largest parliamentary group There is Such People (ITN). Tensions between Belarus and Lithuania could rise further as Vilnius is tightening control of its border to prevent the inflow of irregular migrants. In Poland, opposition Civic Coalition (KO) is seeking to capitalize on the highly unpopular salary hikes for politicians initiated by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Region

While the epidemiological situation across most of the CEE countries remains favorable, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Serbia or Slovenia and some other countries in the region are experiencing an uptick in Covid-19 infections. Given the spread of the highly infectious Delta strain and a limited use of sanitary measures, the epidemiological situation could be expected to deteriorate in the coming weeks, particularly as the school year restarts. Low immunization rates and slow vaccination campaigns during the summer months leave the region vulnerable from the health and economic perspectives. With the exception of Hungary, all CEE countries have fully vaccinated less than 50% of their population. The share of fully immunized residents is particularly low in Ukraine (5%), Bulgaria (15%), and Romania (25%). As a result, an increasing number of countries in CEE will consider mandatory vaccination for certain groups of the population, which could heighten political and social tensions.

Bulgaria

This week parliament will vote on the government of Prime Minister-designate Nikolov – a little-known business manager with limited experience in politics – nominated by the largest parliamentary group, ITN, following the 11 July general election. Today, 3 August, Nikolov presented the proposed members of his cabinet to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! We are coming! (IBG-NI) parties, from which ITN is seeking support for its minority government. Negotiations with these three parties will be crucial for government approval as the remaining two parties in parliament – the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Movement of the Rights and Freedoms (MRF) – are expected to vote against Nikolov’s cabinet. Even if Nikolov wins the parliament’s approval (55% probability), his minority government would likely be unstable and face considerable challenges in advancing reforms. If Nikolov fails to win parliament’s backing (45% probability), a smaller parliamentary group – most likely the BSP or DB – would get the final chance of forming the government. At this point, a technocratic government would have the most chances of winning support from a fragmented parliament. Otherwise, the country would risk holding the third general election in less than a year.

Belarus/Lithuania

The center-right coalition government led by Ingrida Simonyte (independent) is stepping up its efforts to tackle the surging inflow of irregular migrants, facilitated by the Alexander Lukashenko regime in neighboring Belarus. This year Lithuania has detained around 4,000 undocumented migrants – mostly from the Middle East – and the government projects this figure could reach 10,000 by the end of 2021. In comparison, the country registered only around 80 illegal border trespassers in 2020. Today, 3 August, the government has ordered the national border agency to stop admitting irregular migrants into the country through the border with Belarus, including the use of force when needed. In addition, next week the parliament will hold a special session to adopt amendments expanding the legal powers of the country’s armed forces to support the national border protection agency. However, authorities are cautious about the greater use of armed forces to seal the border due to risks of incidents with Belarus, which is planning to hold a large scale joint military exercises with Russia in September. In addition, the government plans to expedite the construction of a fence along the 679km border with Belarus and is also stepping up cross border traffic controls with Belarus amid Lukashenko’s earlier warnings of increased flows of guns, drugs, and radioactive materials.

Poland

As anticipated, the return of Donald Tusk to domestic politics has boosted the opposition party KO, which gained around five percentage points in opinion polls during the past month. The KO’s surge came mostly at the expense of Szymon Holownia’s Poland 2050 movement, which saw a similar decline in support in the past month. This week, KO is seeking to extend its gains by criticizing highly unpopular salary hikes for politicians proposed by PiS. Last week, President Andrzej Duda signed a decree on raising salaries for members of parliament, government members and other senior officials by 40-75% starting 1 August. This week, the PiS has also submitted to parliament a draft bill on increasing the pay for the country’s president and local government officials. In response, KO is proposing to freeze politicians’ salaries until the end of 2023. A recent opinion poll showed that 84% of Poles oppose such pay hikes.

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