COVID-19 Ravages Central Europe

Democratic Security Outlook: 11 - 17 January

11 January 2021

Every Monday Visegrad Insight releases a weekly update on key developments in Central Europe from the point of view of democratic security.

Our team monitors for important political, civil society, economy and foreign policy updates and where possible hints at risks and developing scenarios. Currently, we monitor the situation in the following 10 countries.

 

Higher risks for:

Belarus

  • There have been ongoing reports and analysis suggesting that Russia wants to replace Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk. The existence of such information alone – whether or not substantiated – will raise tensions in the country. Expect opposition forces to utilise the messaging to show the weakness and subservience of the regime and push back from Lukashenka’s government. 
  • In response to Lukashenka’s plans to hold the so-called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly next month, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced that for Belarusians opposing the regime there will be an alternative online event. This will perhaps embolden and encourage similar actions from the opposition movement.

Czechia: 

  • The government is expected to ask the Parliament to prolong the state of emergency in the Czech Republic related to the COVID-19 pandemic by another month.
  • There will continue to be a widespread distrust of the COVID-19 vaccination which is fueled by disinformation websites, many of them pro-Russian, and many public commentators are urging the government to take firmer action against the spread of disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines (particularly against the Pfizer and Moderna).
  • The alleged Russian hacking of US government agencies may have used Czech software, JetBrains. Except for more information and disinformation around the issue during the following week.
  • Austria has closed its border with Czechia due to the number of COVID-19 cases.

Hungary: 

  • Most likely in a domestically-focused effort to steer the narrative – after the world watched the chaotic scenes of Trump supporters storm Capitol Hill in Washington – the Orbán government is ready to defend its version of democracy from Joe Biden. Expect similar sentiments to grow as Biden rolls out his foreign policy geared to shoring up democratic institutions across the world. 
  • Budapest is on track to become insolvent by November 2021 due to the financial squeeze Viktor Orbán’s administration has placed on municipal budgets and falling revenue during the pandemic.
  • The Virological Research Group of Szentágothai Research Centre at the University of Pécs and the Austrian biotechnology company CEBINA have launched a joint COVID-19 vaccine development project. The first phase of preclinical animal testing of the vaccine is to be carried out as early as February 2021.
  • Hungarian Foreign Ministry Blames Brussels for Slow Vaccine Rollout; watch for similar sentiments to increase this week. 

Moderate risks for:

Bulgaria:

  • The COVID-19 epidemic is beginning to show how severe its impact has been with the release of low employment rates that could mar the economic outlook of 2021 for Bulgaria.
  • According to Eurostat, 30 per cent of Bulgarians cannot afford to adequately heat their homes. Expect populist and Eurosceptic narratives to focus on this failure of the government in the coming weeks.

Estonia

  • A negative COVID-19 test will be required to enter Estonia from 15 January.
  • There are numerous fake accounts posting on Facebook pages of Estonian publications.

Poland: 

  • Moodys ranks Pekao as A2 bringing some stability to the market from last week.
  • Ordo Iuris (an ultra-conservative legal think-tank in Poland) announced it is suing the Women’s Strike’s leadership for defamation. Whether successful or not, expect more direct attacks on domestic democratic movements from government-friendly initiatives.
  • Related to above, Women’s rights activists have announced legal action against the Polish government for the restrictive abortion measures in the country; however, they have chosen the European Court of Human Rights as their venue. Watch for more pushback from the government and PiS-friendly organisations.
  • Poland expects the first delivery of the Moderna vaccine this week.

Romania:  

  • Today, the police are beginning protests against wage freezes; if they spread throughout the week, expect disruption at numerous levels of government and growing resentment from the populace.
  • Ministerial calls for state-owned companies to be reformed.

Slovakia

  • Austria has closed its borders with Slovakia and Czechia due to the number of COVID-19 cases, and if the situation continues to worsen, you can expect other regional countries to do the same.
  • The government will escalate the rollout of vaccines this week after criticism over the lethargic programme.

Lower risks for:

Latvia: 

Lithuania

  • Lithuanian diplomats and Joe Biden’s team working on Eastern Europe policy, focusing on developing support for flagging democratic initiatives and repositioning the US’s stance on the Eastern Partnership.
  • Lithuanians are also struggling with the cost of utilities, as 1 in 4 say they cannot afford to heat their homes adequately.

 

This report was written by Galan Dall and contributed by Zsuzsanna Szabó, Wojciech Przybyski, Inês Consonni, Quincy Cloet, and Albin Sybera. 

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