Eastern Europe Witnesses a Quiet Revolution

9 MINS READJul 15, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
An anti-government protester shouts at supporters of Romania's Social Democratic Party (PSD) coming to attend an EU elections rally in Targoviste on May 19, 2019.

An anti-government protester shouts at supporters of Romania's Social Democratic Party (PSD) coming to attend an EU elections rally in Targoviste on May 19, 2019. Protests to demand transparency might close the gap between the European Union's eastern and western halves.

  • Civil society organizations in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans are likely to continue their vocal rejection of perceived shortcomings in democracy and the rule of law in their countries.
  • While these groups will not always succeed, they will become a political force that governments in the region will have to take into consideration in their policymaking.
  • Anti-government feelings will contribute to the emergence of new anti-establishment political forces, which, in turn, will contribute to growing political instability and increasing political risk in the region.

A quiet revolution is sweeping Eastern Europe. From the Czech Republic to Albania and from Slovakia to Romania, people are taking to the streets to demand greater transparency from their governments. So far, the results have been modest, but it's a trend that will play an important role in the region for years to come, as well as one that will influence future government decisions and election outcomes. At a time when the European Union is harboring growing worries about the state of democracy and rule of law in its eastern members and candidate countries, voters are sending the message that they want their governments to become more transparent — something that might ultimately help mend the growing rift between the Continent's western and eastern halves.

The Big Picture

After the collapse of communist regimes in Europe between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, several countries in Central and Eastern Europe joined the European Union; many more in the Western Balkans, meanwhile, aspire to do so one day. In recent years, the bloc has expressed concern about the health of democracy in some of its central and eastern members, as well as in some of its candidate countries. Recent demonstrations across the region show that large sectors of society in these countries share these concerns.

Protests Inside and Outside the EU

Throughout the first half of 2019, protests roiled countries across Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In the Czech Republic, people hit the streets several times to demand Prime Minister Andrej Babis' resignation over alleged fraud involving EU funds. The protests peaked in late June, when, according to organizers, around 250,000 people protested in Prague in the largest demonstration since the end of communist rule in 1989. 

In neighboring Slovakia, thousands have also turned out in recent weeks to protest the government and demand that authorities solve the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was gunned down alongside his fiancee while looking into alleged political corruption linked to organized crime. As with the Czech Republic, the Slovak protests were also the biggest since the fall of communism three decades ago. 

Further to the southeast, several Romanian cities have witnessed intermittent protests since 2017 in response to government reforms that have increased control of the judiciary and softened the penalties for corruption-related crimes. According to activists, some of the protests gathered more than 500,000 people.

People are expressing anger against their governments outside of the European Union, too. In Albania, opposition parties have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama for months, accusing him of electoral fraud. Some of the demonstrations have led to violence, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon when some demonstrators tried to storm the country's parliament in April. In neighboring Serbia, people have also staged protests against the government since last November, when unknown assailants beat an opposition politician. The protesters are demanding greater freedom of the press and other political liberties, along with increased government transparency. Some protesters have also called for President Aleksandar Vucic's resignation. 

A map showing the distribution of anti-government protests in Eastern Europe and the Balkans

Opaque Governments Run Up Against a Vocal Society

The origin of all these protests varies: In cases like Albania, opposition parties have led the rallies, while in others like Romania, the political opposition has backed demonstrations that were originally launched by civil society organizations or groups created on social media. Whatever their origin, these protests share common themes, including demands for greater government transparency, a more robust fight against corruption and deeper freedom of the press. The protests have also been contagious: For example, some of the organizers of the Czech protests admitted taking inspiration from the events in neighboring Slovakia. 

This is a notable trend for a region in which democracy arrived relatively recently. Over the past three decades, these countries (especially those that have joined the European Union) have become democracies, but there are signs that the process has slowed down or even begun to reverse in recent years. The European Union has expressed concern about weakening democracy and the rule of law in Poland, Hungary and Romania and threatened to take punitive measures against them. Brussels is worried that governments in the region are acquiring too much control over the judiciary, pressuring critical media outlets and being too lax on graft. The European Commission has also warned countries like Serbia and Albania, which aspire to join the European Union one day, to become more transparent. 

According to Transparency International, most countries in the area rank below the EU average on corruption. In its most recent Corruption Perception Index report, the body warned that "democratic institutions and values are at risk" in the region. This reveals one of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans' main social and political contradictions, which pits increasingly opaque governments against civil society groups that are demanding more transparency from their leaders.

Enjoying Modest Successes

Civil society organizations and political parties pushing for more transparent governments in the region face significant challenges. The first is to retain momentum. More often than not, mass protests fade after a few weeks as governments make cosmetic concessions that do not significantly alter the status quo. For example, large protests in Serbia have failed to move Belgrade to make any concessions.

In addition, many of the governments in question enjoy widespread popularity despite the internal and external EU pressure against them. In many such cases, the opposition also remains divided despite its common antipathy toward the government. This is the case in Hungary and Poland, where the governing parties won elections for the European Parliament by a wide margin in May, despite EU concerns about the rule of law in both nations.

The protests suggest that, three decades after the introduction of democracy, large segments of Eastern European societies do not want to slide back toward authoritarianism.

In some cases, however, local and international anger has forced governments to change course. In the wake of a poor performance in EU parliamentary elections and a loss in a nonbinding referendum on government policies, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila announced last month that Bucharest would abandon some of its most controversial judicial reforms, as well as some recent decisions to soften penalties for corruption-related crimes.

In Slovakia, anti-government protests also forced the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico in early 2018 and helped propel activist and political outsider Zuzana Caputova to the presidency in March. Then, in May's European Parliament election, Fico's Smer party lost for the first time in over a decade to a coalition of relatively new, pro-EU political forces. 

What It Means for Europe

In the coming years, the emergence of a civil society that is willing to protest government measures that weaken democracy and the rule of law will have several impacts in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. To begin with, it will counterbalance government moves in the opposite direction. The protests will not always succeed, while governments will not become more transparent overnight. Nevertheless, the protests suggest that, three decades after the introduction of democracy, large segments of Eastern European societies do not want to slide back toward authoritarianism.

Anti-government sentiment will also open the door to anti-establishment political forces across the region. In some cases, it could lead to genuinely democratic forces taking over and implementing reforms to strengthen the rule of law and the separation of powers in their countries. In others, it could lead to the emergence of nationalist and populist forces — a trend that is already manifesting itself across the European Union. In either case, a more volatile political environment will contribute to the social and political fragmentation that is occurring across Europe, which is leading to higher political risk, greater political uncertainty and more unpredictable elections. 

For the European Union, the situation represents a strategic dilemma. The bloc's main institutions and largest member states, Germany and France, will welcome pressure by civil society groups to make their governments more transparent. But there is a fine line between supporting these movements and being seen as a meddler. Euroskeptic forces across the region will likely portray EU support for anti-government protests and threats to punish governments as an example of EU interference in domestic affairs. Nationalist forces could also use EU actions to exacerbate anti-EU sentiment in a region that already has mixed feelings about Brussels. 

Over the past three decades, the desire to join Western international alliances such as the European Union and NATO made former authoritarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans introduce political and economic reforms to transform themselves into market democracies. The process was largely successful, as all the countries that joined the bloc in the 2000s and early 2010s are, for the most part, democratic nations, while most of the candidate countries have introduced democratic reforms under EU sponsorship. 

Germany and France will welcome pressure by civil society groups to make eastern governments more transparent. But there is a fine line between supporting these movements and being seen as a meddler.

But recent events have raised concerns in Brussels and other Western European capitals about the health of democratic values and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Countries like France have gone as far as to say that countries that do not respect EU values should no longer receive money from the bloc. But the European Union's own internal political disputes also contribute to the widening gap between the Continent's east and west, as many eastern member states have become more skeptical of the benefits of EU integration and, therefore, less willing to follow Brussels' guidelines. At the same time, some candidate countries may become less willing to follow EU guidance if they believe they will not join the bloc for the foreseeable future. 

The recent decision to give control of the bloc's main political institutions to nationals from "core" countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Italy instead of states in the east represented, in part, a reaction by western EU member states to eastern governments' behavior. More than that, it was also a sign of a growing disconnection between the bloc's east and west — a process that could end up splitting Europe irrevocably. Recent demonstrations in many eastern countries, however, show that a sizable section of civil society is willing to make its presence felt to demand greater government transparency, less corruption, more freedom of the media and stronger rule of law, all as part of an effort to prevent that gap from widening. Such pro-democracy protests are not necessarily pro-EU, but demands for greater transparency could certainly help bridge the split between the bloc's east and west.

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