Central and Eastern Europe CEE in focus
By Dennis Barton and Paul Taylor
In addition to the inflationary wave created by the US, the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine, and sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, are having severe negative economic consequences on the people throughout Europe. These are being particularly felt in the Central and Eastern European countries, including the Visegrad four nations of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
For historical and geographical reasons, these countries are closely tied to Russia economically through trade and their partial dependence on Russian energy exports. All four countries are experiencing sharp economic contractions, with their rising inflation rates currently standing at between 14 and 20 per cent. Their governments have all committed to raising military spending, further reducing the resources available for economic and social investments that would help increase living standards. Also, a large proportion of the huge wave of refugees leaving Ukraine has come to the Visegrad four countries. As the war drags on into winter and intensifies, the number of refugees entering these countries could once again increase significantly.
Falling living standards in CEE have led to a rise in social protests and strikes around the region. The largest of these to date have occurred in Czechia, where over 70,000 people protested in September. On 8 October, thousands of trade union members, Social Democrats and Communists met in Prague in opposition to rising prices and declining living standards. The protest was organised by the Czech Confederation of Trade Unions. Radio Prague International reported that the demands included state regulation of the cost of essential products and an increase in the minimum wage to CZK 18,200.
In late September, demonstrations also took place in Slovakia, with thousands protesting the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, in opposition to the economic burden being placed on the population by the pro-war policy of the government. The effects of the war and the energy crisis have also overshadowed the local and regional elections in Slovakia on 29 October. As Balkan Insight reported, “Everyone can feel the impacts of the conflict,” noted local and regional politics expert Daniel Klimovský from Comenius University in Bratislava. “It’s impossible to avoid the war.”
Smaller, although significant, demonstrations have also taken place in Poland and Hungary as living standards are squeezed. Over the past couple of weeks in Warsaw, thousands of trade unionists have protested about pensions, and teachers have taken to the streets to protest against the underfunding of education and low wages. Representatives of local governments have also demonstrated about rising energy prices, and at the end of October, a demonstration of different groups occurred in Warsaw, combining demands for the government to intervene to control energy prices with those for more action on climate change and investment in sustainable energies. In Hungary, the main protests have been organised by teachers and students, where tens of thousands have demonstrated against President Orban’s cuts in government spending on public education and for an end to teacher shortages and low pay.
This social dissatisfaction is leading to growing political instability in the CEE countries. All four countries are governed by right-wing parties and coalitions, although they are divided on how to respond to the growing crisis. For example, the right-wing nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland have taken conflicting approaches towards supporting Ukraine militarily and increasing sanctions against Russia. The Polish Law and Justice party led government has strongly supported arming Ukraine and increasing economic sanctions, whilst the Hungarian Fidesz led government has taken a more sceptical stance to the war and blamed the EU’s sanctions policy for rising inflation and energy bills.
Meanwhile, the right-wing coalition government in Slovakia has lost its governing majority after one of the coalition parties left the government over disagreements about how to tackle inflation. Representatives of the government and coalition fared poorly in the recent local elections, which saw a record-low turnout with only 43 percent of eligible voters participating. Also, in Czechia, the far-right tripled its number of seats in the local government elections held at the end of September as social dissatisfaction in the country grows.
Defeating the far-right
Growing social anger, political instability and the rise of the far-right are not unique phenomena in Europe today, as seen by the far-right entering governments recently in Italy and Sweden. The far-right has had some success in taking advantage of the political space vacated by the left, who have become a political irrelevance or have tied themselves firmly to their governments’ pro-war stances. The far right is also attempting to harness growing resentment and opposition to the ruling governments and shift politics further to the right by, for example, building hostility towards refugees.
The CEE countries are both suffering from some of the highest inflation rates in Europe, whilst their governments commit themselves to ever-increasing military spending that is pushing them to impose cuts in social spending.
The challenge for the left in CEE and other European countries is to lead the growing social protests and strikes triggered by the economic downturn and soaring inflation. This must include showing how NATO’s escalation of the war in Ukraine and sanctions imposed against Russia are threatening both security and peace in Europe and adding to the fall in the living standards of its populations.