In Central Europe, Governments Are Caught in the Middle

7 MINS READNov 25, 2014 | 10:00 GMT
Protesters hold flags and placards during a rally in front of the parliament building in Budapest on Nov.17.
Protesters hold flags and placards during a rally in front of the parliament building in Budapest on Nov.17.

Throughout late October and the first weeks of November, street protests took place in Budapest, Prague and Bratislava, as well as in smaller cities and towns across Central Europe. The demonstrations had different goals, most of them related to domestic political concerns such as government corruption. However, protesters throughout Central Europe have also publicly raised concerns regarding the perceived pro-Russia foreign policy orientation of their governments. As the Ukraine crisis continues, the region is struggling to balance its ties to the West with its economic and political relations with Moscow. To maintain this balance, some governments have vocally opposed EU-sponsored sanctions on Russia and are continuing to cooperate with Moscow on a range of projects.

The Hungarian, Czech and Slovak government positions toward the Kremlin vary because of the differing levels of energy dependence and commercial ties with Russia among these countries. Nonetheless, recent tension in Central Europe will contribute to more domestic unrest and likely make it difficult for regional governments to effectively maintain ties with both the European Union and Russia.

The largest protests took place in Hungary, where, in a series of demonstrations, participants expressed their grievances on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. On Oct. 28, an estimated 100,000 people in Budapest — around 6 percent of the city's population — marched to oppose a proposed tax on the Internet. Two weeks later, more than 10,000 people protested in Budapest and in more than 20 other Hungarian towns over the Fidesz party-led government's refusal to address corruption charges levied by whistleblowers and the U.S. State Department against Hungary's tax authority. During the protests, many shouted slogans and displayed signs voicing their opposition to the government's friendly relationship with the Kremlin.

Hungary, located on the flat Hungarian Plain to the west of the Carpathian Mountains, is a small country surrounded by more powerful geopolitical players. Budapest depends on NATO for security, the European Union for funding and investment, and Russia for energy. As a result, Hungary is pursuing a multilayered foreign policy strategy, maintaining its ties to the European Union and NATO as a member of both organizations, while also pursuing stronger political and economic relations with Russia. Hungary's leadership has voiced concerns over EU-imposed sanctions on Russia's economy, temporarily cut reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine, and publicly committed to starting construction on the Gazprom-led South Stream project. However, Hungary has thus far refrained from taking steps that could jeopardize the country's EU and NATO memberships.

Though the ruling Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, won the spring 2014 parliamentary elections with 44 percent of the popular vote, long-standing concerns over corruption and centralization of power are now coming to a head. The Oct. 28 protest represents the largest anti-Fidesz demonstration since Orban took power in 2010, and it shows that Orban's relationship with the Kremlin is significantly undermining the government's popularity. Many of the Fidesz party's center-right supporters oppose Orban's efforts to cooperate with the Kremlin, making the prime minister's core constituency vulnerable to the opposition. Fidesz is unlikely to completely change course and will continue to balance between the European Union and Russia, but pressure from Western governments and the Hungarian public will continue to influence policy decisions. In fact, Hungarian officials have already indicated that the country may resume reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine next month.

Protests Divide the Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on Nov. 17 inspired around 5,000 people to protest what they perceived to be the Czech leadership's pro-Russia stance. Czech President Milos Zeman became a particular target and was pelted with eggs. The protests followed several smaller anti-Russia demonstrations in Prague that began after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July and took place in front of the Russian Embassy, the local headquarters of Russian bank Sberbank, and Prague's main square.

The Czech Republic is generally flat and surrounded by low mountains. The country formed a part of the Holy Roman Empire and was later a part of the Austrian Empire, before becoming a part of Czechoslovakia. As a member of both NATO and the European Union, the Czech Republic is highly integrated with the West. Only 3.7 percent of the Czech Republic's exports in 2013 went to Russia, and the country received only 5.6 percent of its imports from Russia that year. The Czech Republic is thus both more geographically distant and less economically dependent on Russia than is Hungary, allowing it more room to maneuver when it comes to shaping its policies regarding Russia. Nevertheless, as a borderland country, the Czech Republic still strives to balance its foreign ties and maintain both commercial and political relations with Moscow.

The Czech government has employed a mixed policy when it comes to Russia. Center-left Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babis, head of the right-leaning junior coalition partner ANO 2011, both publicly voiced reservations in early September regarding the imposition of new sanctions on Russia, but they eventually adopted the European Union's common sanctions position. However, the Czech government has maintained its commercial and political ties with Moscow, and government officials confirmed Nov. 18 that Zeman issued an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the country.

The Czech Republic's struggle to balance between the European Union and Russia is threatening to widen the divide between the country's president and prime minister. Though Zeman used to be a member of the Social Democratic Party, which Sobotka now leads, Zeman left the party after disagreeing with its leadership in 2007. Following the Nov. 17 protest, Sobotka publicly criticized Zeman, saying the president should have consulted with the government before making some of his recent pro-Russia statements.

Even Slovakia Feels Russia's Pull

Unlike in Hungary and the Czech Republic, protesters in Slovakia have not tied their grievances to the government's foreign policy choices. A few hundred protesters gathered in the eastern city of Kosice on Nov. 11, and several thousand demonstrated in Bratislava on Nov. 14 and Nov. 17 over government purchases of overpriced CT scanners for a public hospital. Public outrage over the purchase led to the resignation of the country's minister of health and of the speaker of parliament — both members of the ruling Smer party.

Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Habsburg Empire before becoming a part of Czechoslovakia after World War I. Despite its mountainous geography, militaries throughout history have repeatedly been able to invade Slovakia through its valleys. Slovakia only came to existence for the first time as an independent, sovereign state in the 1990s. As a result, Slovakia strives to maintain close commercial and political relations with all its neighbors and regional powers.

Today, Slovakia is highly integrated into the European market and is the only Visegrad Group member in the eurozone. In 2013, only 4 percent of Slovakia's exports — mainly vehicles, machinery and electronic equipment — went to Russia, but 10 percent of its total imports, including critical energy supplies, came from Russia. Slovakia's leadership works to maintain these business relationships and prevent any disruption to Slovakia's trade with Russia. Nevertheless, as a major transit state for Russian energy flowing to European markets, Slovakia does have some leverage in its relations with Russia.

Though Slovakia's divided relations with the European Union and with Russia have yet to contribute to domestic unrest, Slovakia's geopolitical imperatives may ultimately add to its existing domestic political challenges. In September, Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, shared the Czech Republic's reservations regarding an expansion of sanctions on Russia, but like the Czech leadership he ultimately supported EU sanctions. Unlike Hungary, however, Slovakia — the largest provider of reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine — withstood Russian pressure and did not cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Slovakia is less reliant on Russia than is Hungary, but future pressure from the Kremlin could further constrain the Slovak government and contribute to domestic conflict.

Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are each facing external pressure that could exacerbate existing domestic political unrest. While the protests that took place throughout the region over the past weeks varied in size and motivation, the struggle of regional governments throughout the ongoing crisis in Ukraine to balance relations with the European Union and with Russia will place added pressure on governments to make unpopular policy decisions regarding ties with the Kremlin. As seen in Hungary and the Czech Republic, this balancing act has contributed to domestic unrest and heightened existing domestic political tension. As the crisis in Ukraine continues, Central European countries, caught in the borderlands, will experience more political tremors in the form of protests and a decrease in the popularity of incumbent governments.

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