Analysts expect stable economic growth for the countries of the v4 region. Nevertheless, social dissatisfaction may grow if the progressive 'oligarchization' of economic systems will be maintained and the ruling parties will continue to keep their countries away from the Western standards.

Slovaks Went to the Streets

In the usually peaceful Slovakia, the previous year began with powerful protests against corruption and the government’s links to organized crime. The immediate reason for the protest was the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnierova, who were shot on February 21. The police immediately linked the murder with the work of Kuciak, who investigated the connections between Prime Minister Robert Fico and members of the Italian mafia living in Slovakia.

Slovakia has been always considered one of the most corrupt countries in the region but during the government of Robert Fic0 and his party Smer, the perception of the degree of corruption reached a record level. The Smer party, originating from the communist party of Slovakia, from the beginning was associated with leading Slovak businessmen. Many of Fico’s cabinet members were also entrepreneurs who routinely used their government position to create a conflict of interest.

A sticker with a photo of slain journalists

Smer’s policy has been and remains a strange Central European tangle. Nominally, the party is left-wing, but in fact, it favours the interests of business often derived from the communist secret services. Fico himself intertwines the leftist and often pro-European rhetoric with the nationalist one. He strongly argued against the EU’s emigration policy and his government voted against the allocation of refugees.

In March 2018, Fico was forced by the protests to step down as head of government and was replaced by Peter Pellegrini.

Demonstration in the Czech Republic 

In the summer of 2018 and then on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November, 14, anti-government protests swept through the Czech Republic. As in the case of Slovakia, protesters demanded the fight against corruption and the resignation of the Prime Minister, suspected of illegally seizing over 2 million euro from European funds.

At the demonstrations, the flags of the European Union were present, which is rather rare in the usually eurosceptic Czech Republic.

Earlier in October, local elections and recall elections to the Senate took place. The party of Prime Minister Babis, ANO, won the local elections, although it was soundly beaten in Prague, finishing only in the fifth position. However, the elections to the Senate were definitely taken by the opposition Civic Party.

Protests in Hungary

In Hungary, the election was definitely won by Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Orban. At the same time, the election observers from the OSCE considered them free but not fair. Opposition parties did not have equal opportunity to advertise on billboards and state media aggressively promoted the ruling party.

In December, protests against the so-called ‘slave law’ that raised the overtime limit to 400 hours per year, while giving employers three years to pay for it. The social protest combined with the civil protest against the closure of the Central European University funded by George Soros.

‘Slave law’ is largely a consequence of Orbán’s anti-emigration policy. With unemployment at 3.4%, there is simply a shortage of labour in Hungary, which became a serious problem for an economy largely based on foreign investments.

Central Europe is Getting Tired

The anti-government protests that swept through Central Europe had, in almost every case, especially in Poland, and to a lesser extent in Hungary, the nature of contesting the non-liberal form of government. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, governments do not openly introduce anti-liberal legislation, but the practice of exercising power in which corruption prevails and the ‘oligarchization’ of the economy unfolds, creates a closed system and non-liberal socio-political reality.

Protest in Hungary, 15 March 2018

Signs of social fatigue caused by the form of government that distinguishes Central Europe from the West were more frequent in 2018 than in previous years. However, it is definitely too early to unambiguously say that we are dealing with the depletion of the formula of non-liberal democracy.

In Hungary, despite the protests, Fidesz’s position remains unthreatened, in Poland PiS does not have such a big advantage over the opposition but still leads in polls. Smer continues to rule in Slovakia, and despite the government crisis of the beginning of last year, Robert Fico remains the party leader and, in the opinion of commentators, continues to exercise real power in the country. In the Czech Republic, Andrei Babiš’ position is weaker, but his party remains the leader of the polls.

Central Europe is Getting Tired

This year, all countries in the region will pass through the European Parliament election test. In addition, there will be presidential elections in Slovakia and parliamentary elections in Poland in autumn.

There is a high likelihood of a positive global economic situation, which will probably benefit the currently ruling in the region.

Writing his essay Milan Kundera had no doubt that Central Europe belongs to Western culture and that the West is much poorer without the cultural richness of the region. At the same time, he wrote it when in each of our countries the ideology from the East was dominating and Pewex’s stores were the only sign of the existence of a market economy.

Repeating to Hungarians or Poles that we are culturally different from the West may be politically useful in short-term and in certain circumstances – for example during the refugee crisis – but it is doomed to failure in the long term.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was also published in Polish on Gazeta Prawna.

Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight


Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

Download the report in PDF

The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.