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The recent political history of the countries of Eastern Europe

People protest a chaotic response of the government to the coronavirus pandemic Prague, Czech Republic - Credit: Getty Images

Following claims that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed Eastern and Western Europe further apart, we look at the recent political history of the key countries.

Often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, the country has suffered a widespread crackdown on the protests that followed last year’s disputed election, which saw Alexander Lukashenko – president since the post was first established 26 years ago – claim victory with 80% of the vote.

Some 400 journalists have been detained while opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country. The United Nations Human Rights Office cited more than 450 cases of torture, sexual abuse and rape since the clampdown started.

Bulgarians are set to return Boyko Borisov for a fourth term in office when they go to the polls next month. Bulgaria was rocked with widespread protests last summer after it emerged prime minister Borisov had approved a raid of the president’s quarters. Protesters also accused the government of failing to address corruption.

President Ruman Radev is a vocal Borisov critic. He came under fire for refusing to condemn Russian activist Alexei Navalny’s arrest in January. He has pledged closer relations with the EU while also improving historically important ties with Russia.

The country has recently been gripped by a cash-for-favours scandal which saw Juri Ratas resign as prime minister in January, to be replaced by Kaja Kallas, its first woman leader.

A senior member of Ratas’ Centre Party remains under investigation for a €39 million (£34 million) loan to a property developer in exchange for a €1million (£865,000) donation. The money had been earmarked as part of Estonia’s Covid relief package.

Since 2019, Ratas had ruled in a controversial coalition with the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant EKRE party. Its leader, Martin Helme, was accused of making white power gestures during his swearing-in and is known for pushing far right conspiracy theories. Estonia has accused Russia of stoking tensions between Estonians and the country’s ethic Russian community.

Branded the “illiberal democracy” of central Europe, Hungary is perhaps the most vocal EU critic among the Visegrad Four, which also includes Czechia, Slovakia and Poland. Its populist leader, Viktor Orbán, and his ultra-conservative Fidesz party, have – like their Polish counterparts – been accused of rolling back democratic reforms. Last year Orbán joined Poland’s president in vetoing an EU-wide Covid stimulus package.

Hungary was the first EU country to approve the distribution of Chinese and Russian vaccines.

Opposition parties are looking to unseat populist prime minister Andrej Babis in elections this October. He has been heavily criticised for his “chaotic” Covid response. The country was initially praised for its handling of the pandemic last spring, but went on to have the EU’s worst infection rates. Babis will face an unlikely alliance between the left-leaning Pirate Party and centre-right group, Spolu.

Polling suggests each could win 20-25% of the vote. Their anti-corruption, small-government agenda has cut through in recent weeks, not least due to an investigation into allegations of misuse of EU funds by Babis.

Latvia’s parliament, the Seimas, recently stepped up its campaign against Russia TV channels being broadcast to the country. The issue has been a running sore in relations with Russia, and is controversial with ethnic Russians living in the country, who make up around 25.4% of the population. The nation’s pro-Russian opposition party, Harmony, has branded the move a “violation of free speech”.

MORE: How coronavirus created a new iron curtain

The party currently holds 23 out of 200 seats in parliament. Tensions with Russia rose when a monument dedicated to Soviet soldiers in the Second World War was destroyed in the city of Jekabpils by Latvian nationalists in February.

The ultra-conservative Law and Justice party has been in power since 2015 and has made Poland one of the ‘awkward squad’ of nations within the EU.

Its efforts to increase political control over the judiciary have been particularly controversial, with protestors taking to the streets and claims from the EU that Poland’s democracy was being weakened. There have been similar accusations about the government undermining the media. In January, the country introduced a near-total ban on abortions.

Last year, the country blocked an EU Covid recovery bill over clauses threatening financial penalties on countries passing anti-democratic legislation, despite Poland having one of the worst infection rates in Europe at the time.

Prime minister Florin Citu came out in support of the EU’s much-maligned vaccine programme recently, saying there would have been “chaos” had member states been responsible for their own procurement. He replaced Ludovic Orban, who resigned following poorer-than-expected election results last year. The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians – a far-right party – stunned pundits when it gained 9% of the vote and became the fourth largest party in parliament.

The party advocates for “family, fatherland, faith and freedom” and campaigned on a platform of unification with Moldova and an opposition to progressive politics and further European integration.

Slovakia suffered one of the worst Covid death rates, despite being the first to close its borders and introduce mask-wearing. In response, prime minister Igor Matovic sought supplies of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine – infuriating Brussels. Talks collapsed after a junior coalition partner pulled its support for the plan.

The country suffered an image problem and political crisis after the 2018 shooting of a young journalist and his fiancée at their west Slovakian home. The murders shone a light on alleged corruption and led to the resignation of the PM and his cabinet.

The country has struggled to restore economic and political stability since the events that started with the Euromaiden protests in 2013 and the ethnic division and deadly conflict with Russian-backed forces which followed.

Kiev has been lobbying Brussels to do what it can to halt the controversial Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline from Russia to Germany which would bypass the lucrative natural gas routes through its own lands. The Ukrainians believe NS2 is part of a wider Russian strategy aimed at them.

A European hotspot for fintech firms, it has also been particularly active in attempting to attract British firms looking to maintain European links after Brexit.

Also a Nato member, Lithuania joined several other states in  the region in snubbing Chinese president Xi Kinping’s ‘17+1’ summit of Eastern European countries and recently banned Chinese scanning equipment on national security grounds.

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