The CEE Electoral Year Spun By A Revolutionary Moment

2023 in anticipation of 2024

31 January 2023

Wojciech Przybylski


By January 2024, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) will experience a first wave of developments that will condense in a potentially globally transformative electoral year.

The revolutionary force of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine is reshaping global dynamics and consolidating the hyped-up role of CEE on the political, economic and social maps of Europe.

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As CEE has entered 2023, the second year of enhanced conflict, its resilience will be tested on all grounds. A set of global factors from defence sector performance to the social-economic system bring a third year of consecutive stress tests. All of that bears fruit for an adverse democratic security situation.

Ukraine and European Security System

While Ukraine will bleed on the battlefield isolating Europe from the immediate aggression of Russia, the EU will run on borrowed time to continue its international realignment as a foreign policy actor.

With one year anniversary of Ukraine standing up to the Russian invasion approaching on 24 February, Europe must be eternally grateful for the Ukrainian sacrifice. By all likelihood, Ukraine will dramatically increase war casualties among military personnel and the civilian population and largely due to the continued lack of enough heavy armour and combined military capabilities.

One should remember that Moscow is willing to sacrifice its personnel and equipment at higher rates of attrition than Ukraine because it is still more resourceful.

Also, it is betting on Europe becoming less resolved over time and especially during the 2023-2024 electoral cycle.

Therefore the EU must use the moment and its reform momentum to further align its foreign and security policy along the immediate and persistent threat.

While individual member states will continue to support Ukraine in direct action, there is also much programming work ahead of the collective.

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Hence, this year, the EU will draft its global strategy, which will be passed onto the new parliament and Commission to be elected in May 2024. The documents are already in preparation and are expected to be first presented after the Swedish presidency passes its baton to Spain.

Towards a New Strategic Autonomy

The strategic documents of the EU were in the past decades treated lightly and for good reasons. Yet, the EU has been demonstrating an increasing role as a foreign policy actor whose plans and long-term goals are reforged, as the case of the revamped EU’s strategic compass has shown.

From the transformative moment of Brexit, through green and digital agenda rules setting and a fundamentally new experience as an arms exporter, the EU has collectively been developing ambitions for a more independent role in global affairs.

However,  it is far from how the French imagined strategic autonomy since the dependency on the US as a security provider has only increased.

The transatlantic partnership delivered an effective vaccine response, substantial military assistance and increased energy security. Importantly, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge these accomplishments.

As a result, European autonomy from autocratic regimes has only increased along with its resolve to act in the domestic and international arena.

Over the course of 2023, the concept of strategic autonomy – alive already for over a decade – will therefore resurface through the backdoors of European policy planners.

They may try to reform the idea but will have to watch out against China and Russia trolling on the subject, like Vladimir Putin when he reportedly said last week, “Of course, the time will certainly come, and there is no doubt about it when Europe will somehow restore its sovereignty. Apparently, this may require some time,” – quoted by the TASS agency.   .

To take strategic autonomy seriously will first and foremost mean cutting ties with those who maliciously exploited our vulnerabilities and bringing on board all the rest.

As we recommended in the recent foresight report, Europe put enlargement and neighbourhood agenda higher on the priorities list and demonstrate Europe’s potential to manage itself – the critical test of its ability for autonomic action.

In parallel, one other European concept, bore by French political philosophising, will be tested by practical diplomatic efforts to restore the European format of a security system. Just like when Londong surprised everyone and joined the European Political Community (EPC) format. After 44 European leaders met in Prague last autumn, the meeting will have its second iteration in Moldova this year.

While the importance of the EPC varies from country to country, for Chişinău and Moldova’s President Sandu, the format is one of the rare opportunities to build essential ties with Western allies while expecting Russian wrath at some point to be unleashed on the fragile and exposed tiny neighbour of Ukraine. In a nutshell, it’s a rare diplomatic gem for advocating Moldova’s ambition regarding NATO and the EU.

However, none of the policy planning or new diplomatic formats will mean as much as the steps that Germany will (or will not) take with respect to military supplies for Ukraine.

While undergoing an understandably long deliberative internal process, it wastes precious time regarding its impact on the international system and Europe in particular.

The lack of necessary German leadership has been exploited by the divisive politics of Poland and is likely to divide Europe further.

German Security Policy in the European context

As the EU has moved on in better coordination with NATO – having signed the third and most significant joint declaration on 10 January – Germany has also made its first bold steps to exit its comfort zone. It remains to be seen to what extent it will be able to reclaim its past role as the leader of Europe in peacetime, given the war conditions.

The recent decision to donate Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine has made the headlines, but until the delivered numbers grow by the hundreds, it will be more of a diplomatic gesture than a meaningful act of support for the battlefield.

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It is easy to illustrate by the rate at which Ukraine losses tanks, which is estimated to be between 40 and 90 units every month, coupled with the new offensive planned by Russia.

At the same time, massive purchases of armour, jets and additional military equipment by Poland will reach a record number in terms of GDP (nearly 3 per cent) and will be matched by a significant increase in military personnel. Polish modernisation of the army, along with its security strategy, is already paving the way.

Warsaw still needs to update its strategic documents to account for developments since the war started. Still, many of its core assumptions are going now to the blueprint. For instance, it will affect the future German security policy that will see a more integrated approach and will likely be followed by army modernisation.

While Poland’s role is significantly increasing both due to the strategic context and equally so due to its bold actions, Germany is the main heavyweight change that Europe needs to be able to deliver security in the new global situation.

And when speaking about security in the global context, we need to consider that part of the world is looking past and beyond the ongoing hostilities in Europe. Though none of the other military theatres is as prominent as Ukraine, there are people at arms in Africa just as tensions rise around Taiwan.

Furthermore, there are new topics, including armed forces considerations of climate change, energy supplies and shifts in global supply chains overall, which have finally been noted in the NATO 2030 strategy and already considered in individual countries’ approach to security.

Comprehensive human security is becoming increasingly significant globally, even more in the aftermath of the recent pandemics and preparations for the potential next one.

Democratic Realignment in the CEE and Globally

As the war in Ukraine erupted and shook the world, it has also placed world democracies closer together. The increased interest of CEE in Taiwan and cooperation with South Korea or Japan, as well as Australia, were clear examples of another type of Zeitenwende, in which the CEE region has been slowly realising it is positioned on a global and not just a European map. And with the expected assistance from friends far away comes a responsibility to take international and not just regional interests. As in the past years of the pandemic, it will only be easier with an apparent weakening of China-friendly posture and its more apparent troubles.

For the countries in the CEE geographic vicinity, the situation has already changed. Armenia has been reckoning with a shift away from the not-so-much-protective problematic arm of Moscow. Its delicate position is just an example of the increasingly complicated security context in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The past security arrangements in that space will deteriorate further, opening doors for more EU engagement with a potentially strong interest and involvement of CEE, which for several years has been building links through investments, democracy assistance and diplomatic ties.

While all eyes focus on Ukraine and Moldova – both in immediate danger – the other backyard, especially sensitive from the point of view of CEE, as well as the whole of the EU, will remain the Western Balkans. Serbia, in particular, will be the decisive actor whose steps towards or away from the EU direction will depend on much of the remaining partners. In 2023, there is no longer an option to remain in between.

Looking to the north, CEE’s security progress will equally depend on the progress of Finland and Sweden towards NATO. With Hungary reluctantly dragging its feet on ratification, most eyes will be on Türkiye and Erdogan as the primary obstructor of such a prospect. For now, all talks between the interested parties have been indefinitely suspended.

During the last V4 meeting in Slovakia, Viktor Orbán told his regional partners that Hungary will ratify nordic countries’ membership at the parliamentary session early this year, which many EU leaders pointed out occurs in early February. Although the attention is directed at Türkiye, the Hungarian declared ratification in February can still be a litmus test of how Orbán treats communication with his V4 partners in the new political reality following the war in Ukraine.

Electoral Calendar and Regional Cooperation

Before the presidential election in Türkiye in May, which the Economist called a make-or-break moment for Turkish democracy, there are going to be several less dramatic but also significant races.

The Czech presidential race concluded with a massive victory of Petr Pavel, who is expected to be a supportive ally of the current government in its pro-Western approach but pushing for a bit more progressive policies everywhere he can.

Bulgaria is scheduled for another race in early April after the current reformist government stumbled over the vested interests of shady groups operating the external EU border. Yet, having demonstrated resolve and talent in the outgoing government, the We Continue the Change party is potentially apt to deliver a lot more should it become a minority partner in the forthcoming ruling constellation.

In Slovakia, after Prime Minister Heger gave up on efforts to reconstruct a majority-backed cabinet in the second half of January, deputies passed an amendment to the constitution which allows the Parliament to shorten its current term before the regular elections in 2024.

Although populist leader Fico and his Smer-SD appear to have benefited from the protracted political crisis in combination with popular dissatisfaction over the rising costs of living, it is far from clear whether Fico would be able to form a stable coalition.

The uncertain situation in Slovakia may not be resolved even by the elections planned for 30 September this year; it is not excluded that there might be a potential eruption of dissatisfaction in Slovakia that will bring back populist forces and challenge the otherwise hawkish position of Bratislava on the war.

However, once the technical government survives past spring, the chances of an early race will diminish. Why all the trouble with an early vote, if all the opposition may need to win, is just sit and wait?

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Poland’s general election in the autumn of 2023 will be the most closely observed race in Central Europe and Europe this year. After a failed attempt in Hungary to break away from the authoritarian politics of Viktor Orbán, the promise of reversing the decade-long trend remains only with the victory of the opposition led by Donald Tusk.

With an uneven playing field, dirty tactics and generous subsidies of the incumbent government, it will not be an easy battle. The far-right PiS government is fighting for life even at the cost of generous EU subsidies, while the opposition is for less tangible goals like civil liberties, the rule of law and transparency.

For the Polish democratic setup, it will be the final make-or-break moment as well, but for voters, the socio-economic cost-balance sheet does not present a clear picture yet. In principle, the rival parties have been increasing the volume of promises but following the same direction in terms of policies that relate to employment and social and public services.

The situation might change once Donald Tusk presents (or not) the new programme, which is likely to happen in spring.

CEE Cooperation Despite Many Odds

In this context, it will also be decisive for the future of regional EU formats, such as the Visegrad Group itself — with the Czech rotating presidency taking over from Slovakia in July, which needs leadership change in Warsaw even to think of restoring its past significance.

Also, the Three Seas Initiative presided over this year by Romania, and in search of reinventing itself in the wartime realities and with suspended EU funds that constitute 90 per cent of the investment momentum so far is mainly dependent on future Polish leadership.

While the format is likely to continue until 2025 as a presidential format, its expected deliverables must be reviewed from the point of view of integrating logistical routes with Ukraine — the current priority.

Luckily, the EU is stepping into that process regardless of political branding and confirms priorities to develop railroad systems that bring the Europe-whole-and-free idea closer.

As our team continues to observe, project and advocate for EU and regional policies that improve the democratic security in CEE, we will be taking into account and monitoring the global trends and asking ourselves questions as listed below.

While some claim, with many rights, that the onset of the Russian war of aggression, along with the past pandemic, has ended globalisation as we knew it, the impact of objectively global trends and drivers remains the untapped potential of change for CEE and the EU.

For brevity, we list below those that will be a continuous part of our foresight analysis in this and the following years. The list is not exhaustive and revolves around those factors that have impacted the democratic setup or are likely to.

Overall, we expect 2023 to be the darkest moment, just before dawn. With a moment of clarity as to the direction for CEE — for better or worse — to be only confirmed through the 2024 EU and US elections.

Climate and energy and food

  • Will summer heat waves impact energy security and plans for the next winter?
  • To what extent the heating costs will aggravate the energy poverty question?
  • Will CEE be able to rip the benefits of the green transition or merely pay the costs?
  • How the energy transition contributes to the competition between the EU and the US?
  • What will be the more prolonged impact of food (in)security on Europe’s neighbourhood?

Economy, migration, and health system stretch 

  • Will the forthcoming demographic reckoning — exacerbated by depopulation and the continuous childbirth decline — finally change some CE national government’s positioning towards migration?
  • Will the strain on national health systems in this post-pandemic era lead to a collapse of the socialised system or large-scale reform?
  • How will governments in the region prepare to meet the challenges of new epidemics?
  • Mental health has been grossly underfunded, but will there be a tipping point where the psychological traumas on new generations lead to ambitious assistance programmes?
  • While there has been a recent turning of the tide, inflation levels are still high, so what measures will governments implement to aid society’s most vulnerable?
  • Will CEE governments grasp the opportunities for markets willing to adapt and attract new forms of industrial production and onshoring in the EU?

Civil society and democratic security

  • Will the kleptocratic tendencies witnessed in several CEE capitals lead to investment screening?
  • Will the EU stand tall with its values over the rule of law battle and conditionality implementation?
  • How can we maintain civic liberties and freedoms while triggering citizens’ agency and activism?
  • Abuse of programmes like Pegegus has increased the level of scrutiny for police and security systems. Still, will the new oversight effectively curb abuse from authorities?
  • Which policies, recently or soon to be implemented, will have an impact on depolarisation and aid in social cohesion?
  • Will the region be able to cope with the levels of sacrifice required to maintain meaningful solidarity and humanitarian assistance?
  • Will secularisation and the rise of a new spirituality be sources for civil activism?




This article has been prepared in the framework of a cooperation programme between major press titles in Central Europe led by Visegrad Insight at the Res Publica Foundation.

A Romanian translation was published on PressOne.

Featured image: New Planet by Konstantin Yuon and is Public domain US

Wojciech Przybylski


Political analyst heading Visegrad Insight's policy foresight on European affairs. His expertise includes foreign policy and political culture. Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and President of the Res Publica Foundation. Europe's Future Fellow at IWM - Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and Erste Foundation. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017. He has been published in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Journal of Democracy, EUObserver, Project Syndicate, VoxEurop, Hospodarske noviny, Internazionale, Zeit, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Onet, Gazeta Wyborcza and regularly appears in BBC, Al Jazeera Europe, Euronews, TRT World, TVN24, TOK FM, Swedish Radio and others.


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