Eastern Europe on the Cusp
At the moment, the entire world has its eyes fixed on Egypt. And rightfully so — after all, big things are happening there! However, in this article, I shall take a look at another region of the world that is not so far from the Middle East. In fact, if anything, it serves as a transitional buffer between the Western world and the Middle East.
To begin with, for the better half of the previous century and even for the first decade of this century, eastern half of Europe and its surrounding areas did not have witness the stability that was and is being enjoyed by its western counterpart. There were, and still are, a number of reasons behind this: corrupt governments, regional strife, internal and external conflict, ethnic issues, economic stagnation, and so on. In fact, before the Middle East took the title from it, eastern Europe was serving as the playground for warfare.
However, let us stay away from history for sometime. In the past few years, eastern Europe seems to be witnessing a call for change. Take any country: Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, and probably Greece, if you want. With each passing day, more and more people have taken to the streets, protesting against their respective governments and craving for a change. Mind you, this region is not alien to protests and revolutions: these folks have had a history with protests, be it the Later Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union. Yet, the current line of protests that we are witnessing today is different from anything in the past — this time, there are hardly any popular figures involved. Instead, the focus in more on the demands of the citizens, the collective masses. Of course, the ratio and chances of success — that is a different story! More often than not, governments have found some way or the other to hold their ground, be it by making minor changes to their economic policy as a means of appeasement to the masses or by outright ignorance of citizens’ demands.
Let us start with Russia, shall we?
The most recent wave of protests against the Russian government started back in December 2011. The parliamentary elections resulted in an absolute majority for Vladimir Putin’s party. However, several videos appeared in international media and on the internet, showing ballot stuffing at polling-booths and other unfair practices. While elections in Russia had rarely gone clean in the past, and any evidence of ballot stuffing was taken more as a thing expected, this particular case saw numerous protesters take to streets, seeking fresh elections and even opposing Putin’s 2012 Presidential re-election bid. What began at Moscow’s Pushkin Square soon spread to several other parts of that big country, and the entire Christmas Eve of 2011 was marked not by celebrations but primarily by protests. Even though the protests intensified around March 2012 and opposition against Putin gained momentum, he did manage to secure his re-election to the Presidential seat.
The protests against Putin are still on, even though the momentum has fallen considerably. Russian case is a peculiar one: Putin has both his share of critics as well as supporters, and taking sides is not the easiest task. In the early part of 2013, certain policies of Russian government have attracted a good deal of criticism, such as the increase in penalty amount for violation of protest permits as well as strict monitoring of popular protest leaders. Bluntly speaking, while these measures may have invited criticism, they have also proven, ironically, successful in curbing the spirit of revolution and revolt across many parts of Russia. Big countries require bigger steps, it seems.
Moving on, the recent protests across Turkey have a slightly different manifesto, though it seems the government will end up going the Russian way, if it intends to curb the protests as soon as possible. The Turkish government has already shown that it is not shy of using police and force to stop the protesters, if needed. It seems highly unlikely that Prime Minister Erdogan will resign in the light of the protests, and if he continues with his tenure, following the Putin model is the easiest choice for him, sadly.
As of now, the protests in Turkey are entirely anti-government. Yet, the picture is not entirely one-sided either. Erdogan has his share of supporters as well, and just like Putin, he too does not hesitate in using their support as a medium to shun the opposition. Fact is, that if there are millions in Turkey who are raising slogans against Erdogan, there are millions who are siding with Erdogan as well. Furthermore, just like Russia, Turkey too currently does not have many worthy candidates who can be pitched as viable alternatives to the current leader. Just like Putin, Erdogan too is aware of this fact, and thus, if needed, Erdogan can adopt Putin-like measures to curb the protesters and maintain his authority.
Coming to two more countries from eastern Europe: Romania and Bulgaria. First things first: unlike the Russian and Turkish cases, protests in Romania and Bulgaria have indeed resulted in certain changes (so yes, at least the governments here are willing to acknowledge the protests). The case of Romania is a curious one: back in January, folks started protesting against the resignation of Raed Arafat, the Health Minister. Arafat had resigned amidst a big turn of events, which also included, among other things, public criticism of the health ministry’s new plans by none other than the President Basescu. Yes, public criticism, aired on national TV. Arafat, on the other hand, is a public figure with much credibility (he is also the man behind the country’s best mobile emergency service).
The protesters managed to get their voices heard in Romania, because Arafat was quickly called back to office. However, since then, several protests and demonstrations and swept the country, demanding the resignation of President Basescu and also criticizing the government. Following the protests, the Prime Minister Emil Boc had to resign, and Victor Ponta took over as the new PM. While the government has conceded to some of the political demands of the protesters, the issue of environment and practices such as fracking have yet not been addressed, even though they are on the manifesto of the protesters. In fact, by and large, the new government has only continued the policies of the older one.
Now, Bulgaria. The situation is slightly similar to Romania — amidst big-time anti-austerity protests, the government had to resign in February 2013. The protesters claimed that the Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov, did not meet his electoral promises of eradication of corruption and improving the economy. A new interim government has been appointed under the leadership of Plamen Oresharski. Here, have a quote:
“Bulgaria is in a deep institutional crisis, continuing economic depression and worsening disintegration of society. Maybe we won’t be able to become rich and prosperous in our term, but our minimum task is to give Bulgarians bigger hope.”
By the way, these February 2013 protests were the largest that Bulgaria has ever seen, following the demise of Communist regime in the country.
The protests are still on, with the most common demands being putting an end to local oligarchs, reforming the electoral process and curbing corruption in the country.
While Turkish protests have received the limelight, the cases of Romania and Bulgaria have remained lesser known to the world. All these protests, all throughout the region of eastern Europe, are expressing the people’s desire to have a governance that is free from vices and a state that is not stagnant. Such changes, however, cannot be brought about simply by changing the leadership and/or the government. Deeper and more concentrated efforts are needed if a serious change is to be implemented, and sooner or later, the protesters shall have to realize and recognize this fact!
Sufyan bin Uzayr is a writer based in India and the Editor of Brave New World (www.bravenewworld.in). He is associated with numerous websites and print publications and has also authored a book named “Sufism: A Brief History”. You can visit his website (www.sufyanism.com) or find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/sufyanism).