Emerging Europe This Week

Caving to EU pressure, Hungary finally backs Ukraine deal

Catch up quickly with the stories from Central and Eastern Europe that matter.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

European Union leaders struck a deal on Thursday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán lifting his veto on a 50 billion euros financial aid package for Ukraine.

“This locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding for Ukraine,” European Council President Charles Michel said.

As part of the deal, EU member states agreed to debate the implementation of the Ukraine aid package every year and “if needed” the commission, the bloc’s executive body, could be asked to propose a review in two years.

Thursday’s breakthrough avoids a messy split within the EU, papering over mounting concern that Western support for Kyiv is splintering. Earlier, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council, had called on Orbán to decide once and for all if Hungary “is part of our community”.

Rejecting the idea that the EU was facing so-called “Ukraine fatigue”, Tusk told reporters that, “What we have instead is Orbán fatigue.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked his most senior military commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, to step down on Monday but the popular general refused, triggering speculation that he will be dismissed instead.

Tensions between the two have been simmering for weeks amid the failure of Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive but the suggestion that Zaluzhnyi could be forced out nevertheless came as a shock to many.

Oleksii Goncharenko, a Ukrainian opposition MP and ally of the general, told the Guardian that he understood that “yesterday the president asked Zaluzhnyi to resign but he declined to do so”.

He blamed personality clashes for the conflict. “Personally I think this is a bad idea. There are not fundamental issues between them but Zelensky’s office has been concerned that Zaluzhnyi has been making political not military statements,” Goncharenko said.

French President Emmanuel Macron this week called on Europe to take responsibility for its own defence, arguing that it cannot outsource its security to “big powers” such as the United States.

During a state visit to Sweden, the French president also urged his allies to increase support for Ukraine “whatever the cost” and regardless of what the US does.

Macron’s speech came as Olaf Scholz, his German counterpart, and four other northern European leaders called on their partners to “redouble their efforts” and “urgently” send Kyiv more weapons including artillery, drones, tanks and air defence systems.

“We must renew our resolve and redouble our efforts in order to ensure that we sustain our support for as long as it takes,” wrote the five leaders in a letter to the Financial Times.

Other news from the region

Poland’s new foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, this week called on Germany to “think creatively” about “compensation” for the losses caused to Poland during World War II. Sikorski however, avoided using the word “reparations”, which became a contentious issue under the former Law and Justice (PiS) government. He also pledged to “end the cold war” PiS had waged against the EU and Germany. “We are thinking about the future, although we know that historical issues will continue to play an important role in our relations with Germany for a long time to come,” said Sikorski on a visit to Berlin.

Renew Europe MEPs have proposed the rapid creation of a mini-Schengen between Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, to be operational this summer, to ease the heavy tourist traffic between the three EU Balkan countries. The proposal was written in a letter sent to Greek Immigration and Asylum Minister Dimitris Kairidis and was signed by Daniel Laurer (PP) and Romanian MEPs Dacian Cioloș and Vlad Gheorghe, as well as Greek MEP Georgios Kyrtsos. While Bulgaria and Romania will become Schengen members on March 31 for air and sea borders, Austria continues to block their full membership.

Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister, Besnik Bislimi, said on Wednesday that a regulation enforcing a euro-only policy for cash payments would enter into force as planned on February 1, while announcing a transition period for local Serbs who still use Serbia’s currency, the dinar. However, Bislimi did not specify how long this transition period will last, while also playing down claims that implementation of the policy would damage thousands of Kosovo Serbs who take their pensions from Serbia. The decision to offer a transition period follows pressure from the international community to postpone implementation.

Moldova’s central bank on January 30 officially applied to join the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), the simplified payment integration initiative that enables countries in Western Europe to effect cashless bank transfers and direct debits in euros. “Today’s a historic day for Moldova—it’s the day that Moldova’s National Bank has made a clear and unequivocal statement that it wants to be part of European financial systems,” BNM Governor Anca Dragu said. SEPA, which currently includes 36 countries, was introduced in 2008 for credit transfers and for direct debit transactions in 2009.

Armenia has formally joined the international criminal court (ICC), officials said this week, a move which traditional ally Moscow has denounced as unfriendly. The Hague-based court in March issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the war in Ukraine and the illegal deportation of children to Russia. Yerevan is now obliged to arrest the Russian leader if he sets foot on its territory. “ICC Rome statute officially entered into force for Armenia on February 1,” the country’s official representative for international legal matters, Yeghishe Kirakosyan, told AFP.

A new report monitoring of the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan found that in 2023, local officials resorted to forced labour in districts with a shortage of voluntary pickers, forcing some employees of several state organisations to pick cotton or pay for a replacement picker. The report notes however that the central Uzbek government has a clear policy prohibiting forced labour and did not directly order mobilisation of state employees to address the shortages. The report comes at a time when global brands and retailers are carefully monitoring the viability of sourcing from Uzbekistan.

Serbia is considering reintroducing compulsory military service, its president said Tuesday, citing tensions in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe. President Aleksandar Vučić said top army commanders gave him “a strong argumentation” in favour of the reintroduction of a mandatory draft, which was suspended in 2011 in a push to professionalise the armed forces. The populist Serbian president did not specify when the draft would return. He said the national parliament, which is dominated by his allies, would vote on the proposal, which comes after a long campaign by nationalists in favour of it.

Hundreds of reporters gathered in Zagreb on Wednesday to protest a bill seeking to criminalise the leaking of information from police investigations. Hrvoje Zovko, the head of Croatia’s Association of Journalists (HND), criticised the bill as a government attempt to stifle criticism. “We are asking the government to abandon [it],” he told Politico. The bill, known as Lex AP and now under debate in the Zagreb parliament, proposes that “unauthorised disclosure of investigative or evidentiary acts” be punished by up to three years in prison.

Photo: Slovak PM Robert makes a point to his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán at the European Council meeting on Thursday. © European Union.

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