Unlike many parts of the world, Eastern Europe saw rather fewer game-changing events in 2017. Instead, the region’s various powerful actors seem to have used the year to consolidate their power and influence, and prepare for the inevitable movements and confrontations which 2018 will bring.
This crystallisation of power has had chilling effects on democracy, with many countries now better described as ‘competitive authoritarian states’ than democracies.
This in turn has restricted the ability for political opposition and civil society to operate freely within the region, and although the refugee crisis seems to have abated, xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment remain strong. This is something which many governments have sought to manipulate and co-opt in an attempt to justify their legitimacy.
Insulated from the world
Surprisingly, events taking place in other parts of the world seem to have had little impact on Eastern Europe this year. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to launch Brexit talks has not divided the pro-Europe and Euro-sceptic EU countries in terms of their demands.
Similarly, Russia’s hopes of détente with the US after the inauguration of President Donald Trump were quickly dashed by the ongoing investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Russia and the former USSR
Despite three years of sanctions and continually low oil prices which have squeezed government revenues and massively reduced household income, Russia has remained stable; while President Vladimir Putin’s popularity remains high after 18 years as the country’s de facto leader.
His decision to run in the March 2018 elections was expected, and his likely victory will see him lead Russia until at least 2024. Putin’s main rival, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, has been barred from running in the election; so journalist and reality TV star Ksenia Sobchak has taken up the cause.
She is the daughter of Putin’s mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, and has positioned herself as an ‘against all’ candidate. Ms Sobchak believes that her job is to present an alternative vision of Russia free from the watchful control of the Kremlin, and has proposed radical constitutional and economic reforms designed to decentralise power in Russia.
However, many however view her as an instrument of the Kremlin itself, designed to increase youth turnout in a time when the nationalist fervour that followed the annexation of Crimea is beginning to fade.
While Putin’s victory is almost certain, for authoritarian regimes elections can be moments of weakness – as was seen in the 2012 Bolotnaya protests – and it is worth considering what the key aims and objectives of Putin will be. Every election thus far has brought with it dramatic changes in Kremlin policies and attitudes.
Internationally, Russia has continued its attempts to undermine Western democracies with cyber-attacks and misinformation campaigns. In France, President Emmanuel Macron was the victim of Russia-induced negative propaganda, however French political parties and intelligence services seem to have been far better prepared than their American counterparts in being able to fend off these attacks.
Russia was also implicated in an alleged attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, in order to prevent the country becoming a member of NATO.
However, the most recent concern for Russia has been China’s introduction of the One Belt One Road initiative, which is likely to involve massive investment in Central Asia and could threaten Russia’s primacy within its ‘near abroad’ region.
Political life in Ukraine has been as turbulent as ever in 2017, with several assassinations taking place in Kiev and the rebel territories in the east – which Ukraine blames on Russian Secret Services.
However, the conflict which has dominated the headlines has been between former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the former President of Georgia and ex-Governor of Odessa, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Once close allies, Saakashvilli resigned from government in Odessa in November 2016, claiming that the president was doing nothing about corruption. Having had his citizenship revoked, he entered the country illegally and began staging rallies against the president.
While this conflict is seen as farcical by many Ukrainians, it shows how political dissent against the government has grown, and the police’s aggressive crackdown on protesters is a throwback to the dark days of the Ukrainian revolution and Euromaidan.
Ukraine, Europe’s most corrupt country, has also failed to fulfil its promises to the EU on tackling corruption, suggesting that economic elites have once again captured the state. Although future reforms have been promised, they are far from guaranteed.
Governments in Hungary and Poland have continued their inexorable march towards authoritarianism. Hungary in 2017 saw the conflict between Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his former benefactor, George Soros, become increasingly vicious – with Orban attempting to close Soros’s NGOs and the Central European University which he helped found.
The government also launched a nationwide billboard campaign playing heavily on anti-Semitic themes and accusing Soros of trying to destroy Hungary by encouraging illegal immigration. Although these billboards were taken down as a result of domestic and international outcry, Orban’s position seems unassailable.
However, the shift in enemy from the refugee to Soros belies the fact that Orban’s system of everyday nationalism requires ever more outlandish threats and enemies in order to legitimate his rule. The inevitable clashes with the EU over fundamental rights and freedoms may see him back down from such aggressive rhetoric over the next year.
In Poland, civil society has been far more successful in resisting the authoritarian tendencies of the governing Law and Justice party. Proposals which would have given the government much greater control over the judiciary were vetoed by the President after large protests and strong opposition from the EU.
Similarly, Romania saw mass protests against government proposals which would in effect de-criminalise most forms of corruption, and pardon people convicted of corruption.
While the protests resulted in the withdrawal of the bill and the resignation of several ministers – as with both Hungary and Poland – the opposition has been unable to capitalise on their government’s backtracking, suggesting that it remains only a minor inconvenience to those in power.
The dramatic courtroom suicide of General Slobodan Praljak at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in December brings to an end the long and protracted process of hunting down and trying the major perpetrators of war crimes during the Yugoslav conflicts.
This hopefully should allow the region to put this part of its shameful past behind it, and should be seen as a success for both post-war governments and the EU, who have made membership conditional on the tracking of these criminals.
Further signs that the region has been able to put its past behind it can be seen in Serbia, where former ultra-nationalist Aleksandar Vučić was elected president on a pro-European, anti-corruption platform.
He has also pledged to avoid conflict with Serbia’s neighbours, suggesting that the country – once seen as a haven for ultra-nationalism and xenophobia – may be making the greatest strides of all towards reform.
A look forwards
2017 has been a year of entrenchment for those in power in Eastern Europe, as they continue to centralise power while dealing with an increasing public backlash against this centralisation.
Organisations such as Freedom House fear that this will create a vicious circle, inevitably leading governments to become more authoritarian in response to popular protests.
However, protests have failed to empower oppositions or create a domino effect with other countries as they did during the Color Revolutions of 2003-4, showing how the post-communist legacies of suspicion of formal government and institutions persist today.
In the months ahead, all eyes will be on the Kremlin – not because Putin has much chance of losing – but because many believe that Russia must change course; while elsewhere more stringent control over civil society and further entrenchment of elites seems inevitable.