Central and Eastern Europe in 2013: Emerging and submerging
There were record floods, changes of government, protests – lots of those – and the European Union got larger by one member. Croatia voted against gay marriage, Ukraine’s president hitched the country’s wagon to the east and for several countries, the impact of the choice of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline over the Nabucco project will be felt for a long time to come.
No year in the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe has been without its twists and turns, and 2013 has been no exception.
Perhaps one of those most profound events, however Central, Southern and Eastern Europe is defined in terms of constituent countries, was that which did not change – when Germans chose to keep Angela Merkel at the helm in Berlin.
Beyond the dramas of politics and the issue of the pace of the economic recovery of the countries of the region, some of those countries were united in natural disaster, as one-in-100 year rains inundated the Czech Republic, Austria, southern and eastern Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Belarus, Poland, Hungary and Serbia.
As if it did not have enough on its plate, the European Union had to muster disaster aid for most, in the same year that is also was under pressure on the issue of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, from Syria in particular.
With these notes excluding the year-long political dramas in Bulgaria, a topic to be covered elsewhere, the list of elections, changes of government and protests is considerable.
Albania held parliamentary elections in June, putting the Alliance for a European Albania, headed by socialist leader Edi Rama, in power, meaning an ouster for Sali Berisha.
Armenia saw Serzh Sargsyan, in office as president since 2008, win election to that office once more in an expected decisive victory in February 2013.
The Czech Republic made Miloš Zeman its president in a two-round election in January. Among the several controversies to attend Zeman in coming months was his appointment in July, after the resignation of prime minister Petr Nečas in a corruption scandal in June, of his associate Jiří Rusnok to head the government. Czechs went to the polls in parliamentary elections in October, but the question of forming a government by the Czech Social Democrats, ANO movement and Christian Democrats continued into December.
In what may have been the region’s least-noticed election of 2013, Croatians elected its members of the European Parliament in April, but far more controversial was the 66 per cent majority vote in a referendum at the beginning of December to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thus excluding the possibility of gay marriage.
Cyprus made Nicos Anastasiadis its president in February, succeeding Dimitris Christofias.
Montenegro returned Filip Vujanović to the post of president in April, not without the opposition and others unhappy at a constitutional court ruling that it was permissible for Vujanović, president since 2003, to do so, in spite of challenges that he was exceeding a constitutional term limit.
In Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili reached the end of his two-term limit, with Bidzina Ivanishvili ally Giorgi Margvelashvili winning the presidential post in a 61 per cent victory. In turn, Ivanishvili, prime minister since October 2012, stepped down, with Irakli Garibashvili taking over as head of government – accompanied in office by most of the members of Ivanishvili’s cabinet. In spite of Ivanishvili’s gesture about stepping down so that, as he put it, there was no excessive concentration of power, few could doubt who really was running the country.
Among the most-watched elections in Central and Eastern Europe were the local elections in Kosovo in November. Considerable political effort, including in Serbia which does not recognise Kosovo as independent, went into trying to keep the elections on an even keel – no altruism there, though, as improved relations with Kosovo are crucial to the EU aspirations of Serbia. Not without controversies and partial re-runs, the local elections in Kosovo doubtlessly were among factors that saw Serbia given a date for the start of EU accession negotiations: January 21 2014.
At the level of engagement with the EU, Georgia and Moldova signed a much-awaited and significant deal with the bloc at the Vilnius summit in Lithuania towards the close of the year, but by then all eyes were on Ukraine, with mass protests in Kyiv as president Viktor Yanukovych caused huge shock waves by announcing that his country would not be putting pen to paper with the bloc, instead opting for Russia and its loan-and-cheaper gas deal. As 2013 nears its end, this is a narrative in which the final word is far from spoken. But as much as the Danube flooding of June produced images of a submerged Europe, the Yanukovych move seemed a submerging of his country’s European prospects but also a drowning defeat for European diplomacy.
There was no shortage of dramatic visual images from Turkey, after protests, initially against the development of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, continued from May and spread to a large number of cities and towns, in an uprising over a range of issues, not least of which was what critics called a threat to secularism from the Erdogan government.
Greece, customarily far from exempt from strikes and protests in 2013, crept towards signs of stabilisation by the end of the year – off a low base of catastrophe. By November, Petros Christodoulou, deputy chief executive of the National Bank of Greece, was saying that a drastic drop in government borrowing costs since the outbreak of the crisis in 2009 marked a “great improvement and a great perception of the country” by foreign investors. Amid the lengthy series of engagements with credits the Troika – the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission – there also were some defiant signals from Greece’s governing politicians about not accepting any further austerity measures, signals directed in particular for the benefit of the domestic audience. Arguably, however, it was not the continuing saga of the economic crisis in Greece that gained the most attention, but the dramas surrounding Golden Dawn and the mass arrests of leaders and members of what its detractors call a neo-Nazi group.
Hungary, along with Romania and others, had the excessive deficit procedure against it by the European Commission lifted, with leaders in Budapest hailing what they described as an economic recovery.
For a number of Central and Eastern European countries, the choice by a European consortium on the building of a natural gas pipeline from Azerbaijan had profound ramifications. In June, the consortium announced that it was choosing the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, through Turkey, Greece and Albania, over the Nabucco West pipeline, that had been planned to run through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria.
Oh, and in 2013 the dispute between Athens and Skopje about the use of the name Macedonia continued. Again.
(Main photo: Photo: Sándor H. Szabo, ORFK, via government of Hungary website)