Each week we bring you the ten most important pieces of news from Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.
Compiled by: Hristo Voynov and Eva Jovanova
- Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is becoming an even bigger problem for the Ukrainian authorities. After being accused of accepting money from Ukrainian businessman Serhiy Kurchenko in order to organize protests, police went to his house to arrest him. He was taken into custody after he unsuccessfully tried to evade arrest on his roof. The arrest did not work out as he was un-arrested by supporters who clashed with police. At the time of writing, he is residing in a protest camp near the Parliament building, much like the 2013 Euromaidan protests. Police attempted to raid the camp and arrest him in the middle of the night, but did not catch him and protesters have doubled up their defensive structures. In Georgia, major protests were held in support of Saakashvili. It is clear that he is one of the most popular politicians in Ukraine, as evident by the massive assistance he is receiving in the face of direct threats from state security services. What is unclear is where this will take Ukraine, as the current administration appears determined to shut him down.
- Macedonia’s former Prime Minister and leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski announced his resignation last Friday. Even though Gruevski won last year’s parliamentary election by a small margin, he failed to form a coalition with any of the other parties and thus had to move into opposition. Gruevski was implicated in corruption and official misconduct by the wiretapping scandal which started in February 2015. Since then, Gruevski had scrupulously attempted to stay in power, which led the country to an impasse, culminating with a bloody fiasco in Parliament this April. VMRO-DPMNE scheduled a Congress meeting for December 23, where a new party leader should be elected.
- Contrary to previous assertions, it seems that Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło will soon leave office to be more active in European politics. This is likely to be in response to the idea that the EU is targeting Poland and the resulting need for better representation of Poland within EU structures. Szydło and her party, which has a major lead in opinion polls, are accused of pushing forward judicial reforms that would reduce the independence of Polish courts, and so she would be a perfect advocate for the controversial reforms within the EU. Poland’s Defense Minister is also under heat as military police have detained the former head of military counterintelligence, General Piotr Pytel, over claims that he illegally cooperated with Russia. Pytel claims the communication was focused on troop transportation to help bring Polish troops in Afghanistan home and that the arrest is retribution over personal matters.
- Montenegro’s Parliament boycott seems to have come to an end today. After more than a year since last year’s election, when opposition MPs decided to boycott the Parliament due to an alleged election fraud, today most of the opposition MPs have decided to return to the Parliament, restoring its capacity to vote on bills that require a ⅔ majority of votes. The 81 seater Parliament of Montenegro counts MPs from 13 different parties – 6 in government coalition and 7 in opposition. Democratic Front (DF) with 18 seats was the biggest opposition party blocking Parliament, whereas the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled the country for over 25 years either as a President or as a Prime Minister, with 35 seats won a significant majority in the last election.
- Former Czechian president Bohuslav Sobotka has officially resigned and the new ANO led administration has been revealed. It includes multiple ANO figures from the previous coalition government and various newcomers to the political scene. In an impressive move, the first reading of the 2018 state budget was accepted. However, this progress just means new challenges are coming up in the upcoming presidential election. One of the two major candidates, Jiri Drahos, has already stated that he is afraid of misinformation being used to influence the results of the campaign, specifically originating from Russia. He was told by ex-president Sobotka that the Czech intelligence agencies are aware of the issue and are dealing with it.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens today. This is the first visit to Greece by a Turkish President in the last 65 years. The stalled peace talks over Cyprus, territorial and maritime disputes between the two countries, as well as the Turkish citizens who seek refuge in Greece after Erdogan’s hunt for Gulenists had begun after the 2016 coup d’etat attempt are the topics which will domineer the conversation. Even though this visit is probably a once in a century spectacle, not much is expected to change in the relations between the two countries.
- Russia’s upcoming elections have been scheduled for March 18th, 2018 and Vladimir Putin is officially running. If he wins his fourth presidential campaign, he will stay on as president until 2024. Putin is the only candidate with the real potential to win as his approval rating is and has consistently been very high, but also because no other candidate has the background or public support to challenge him. Russia’s term limits are set up so that one president may only have two consecutive terms in office, meaning that Putin’s sky high approval ratings might become an issue when he cannot again run for office. On the same day, Russia was banned from the 2018 winter Olympics over doping allegations, which to Putin, and much of Russia, is part of the effort to smear Russia’s reputation by unfairly preventing them from competing.
- Serbia furthers its negotiations with the EU by opening two other chapters. The EU Member States ambassadors decided on Wednesday that Chapter 6 (Company law) and Chapter 30 (External relations) should be opened. Opening of the Chapter 33 (Financial and budgetary provisions) was also considered, however five EU Member States, among which were France and Germany, opposed the decision. These countries criticize Serbia for breaches of Chapter 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights). So far, Serbia has opened ten out of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire.
9. Various leading liberal European politicians penned a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker calling for suspension of European Commission funding to Hungary because of what they see as anti-European behavior. This has given Hungarian President Viktor Orban a new talking point that the EU is conducting a witch-hunt against Hungary. A Hungarian opposition party has presented the counterpoint, that the Orban regime is “fighting everyone” and thus alienating allies himself. This is, of course, all a matter of interpretation. However, the EU is not the only one in Orban’s sights this week. He also accused George Soros, the controversial Hungarian-American billionaire behind the Open Society Foundation of “signing up” for the election by funneling money into the country to function as a political party. This was after the OSF declared that it would open up more offices in the country to help organize projects related to housing, education, health, and poverty.
- Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia move closer to establishing a roaming free zone. The first step is aligning the roaming prices in these countries with the roaming prices of the 28 EU member states. The second step should be equalizing the roaming tariffs with the domestic tariffs, leading to a roaming-free zone. Two weeks ago, Macedonia signed a similar agreement with neighboring Bulgaria.