Romania’s ruling coalition collapses: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Romania’s government will face a no-confidence vote in parliament after junior partner USR-Plus resigned from the government on Tuesday. The party’s resignation caps a week of political turmoil that erupted when Prime Minister Florin Cîțu fired justice minister and USR-Plus member Stelian Ion for not signing off on a 10 billion euros regional infrastructure development programme. “This morning we did what we announced,” Dan Barna, leader of USR-Plus, posted online on Tuesday. “We registered and resigned, together with the USR PLUS ministers, at the prime minister’s office. We are moving forward.” All six ministers from the junior coalition party have quit. The governing coalition, which has 56 per cent of seats in parliament, is composed of Cîțu’s Liberals, USR-Plus, and the Hungarian minority party UDMR.

Poland’s finance ministry plans to introduce a minimum tax rate for large corporations to compensate for lower healthcare contributions from the self-employed within its flagship “Polish Deal” economic programme, it said on Wednesday. Poland announced plans in May for non tax-deductible health contributions of nine per cent, but Deputy Finance Minister Jan Sarnowski said on Wednesday that rate would be lowered to 4.9 per cent for the self-employed after criticism that it would hurt small businesses. The tax on large corporations designed to cover this shortfall would amount to 0.4 per cent of the company’s revenues, plus 10 per cent of expenses used for tax optimisation purposes, he said.

The prime ministers of Austria, Czechia, and Slovakia are taking a common stand against more Afghan refugees in the European Union amid growing concern in the bloc over an influx of migrants from Afghanistan. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said on September 7 that there would be no place for Afghan refugees in the European Union and they should stay in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries. “There is really no place for them in Europe,” Babiš said after meeting his Austrian and Slovak counterparts at the southeastern Czech town of Lednice. The three countries, alongside fellow EU members Poland and Hungary, have long taken a tough position on migration, leading to deep divisions within the bloc over the sharing of refugees.

On Tuesday, Czechia pledged 530,000 euros to Lithuania to secure the its border with Belarus in the wake of thousands of migrants crossing over from the former Soviet republic. Lithuania has faced an influx of mostly Iraqi migrants in the past few months streaming from neighbouring Belarus. It has accused the government of Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging the migrant flow in retaliation for EU sanctions against his country following the diversion of a passenger plane to arrest a dissident journalist aboard. Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite and Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek signed a document that’s expected to expedite construction of the fence along the border with Belarus. “Lukashenko continues to weaponise illegal migration as a means to blackmail Lithuania and by extension, the EU,” said Kulhanek. “He has to be stopped.”

Bulgaria has imposed new anti-Covid restrictions as the country battles a rapid surge of infections due to the delta variant. The country has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the European Union since the start of the pandemic. Despite this, Bulgarian citizens are the most hesitant in the bloc to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Only 20 per cent of adults in Bulgaria, which has a population of seven million, have so far been fully vaccinated. That puts it last in the EU, which has an average of 69 per cent of adults fully vaccinated. Bulgaria has access to all four of the vaccines approved by the EU — those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson. But since the start of the pandemic, more than 19,000 people in Bulgaria have died of Covid-19, the EU’s third-highest death rate, behind only Czechia and Hungary. In the last week, an average of 41 people have died each day.

EasyJet rejected an unsolicited takeover approach from Wizz Air, according to people familiar with the plan, as the Hungarian discount rival sought to take advantage of a recovery in the short-haul aviation industry. The preliminary offer was conditional, all-stock and had a low premium, EasyJet said Thursday in a statement without identifying the bidder. It was rejected unanimously by the board and has been withdrawn, the UK airline said. Shares of EasyJet fell as much as 14 per cent, as the company said it will instead raise two billion US dollars in stock and debt. The money will provide a buffer for EasyJet to get through the slow winter season and position it for a tentative return to leisure travel.

Eastern Europe

Two leading opposition figures who challenged Belarus’s discredited presidential polls have been jailed for trying to threaten national security and seize power. Protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova was jailed for 11 years while lawyer Maxim Znak received 10 years. They joined an opposition council after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in 2020’s disputed election. Prosecutors accused the council of trying to stage a coup. On Monday, a court in Minsk, the capital, found Kolesnikova and Znak guilty of crimes including plotting to seize power, threatening national security and extremism. They both denied the charges against them and denounced the trial as a sham. Their lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.

Ukraine has collected 18 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas in its underground storages and plans to increase the reserves to up to 20 bcm by the start of the 2021/22 heating season in mid-October, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on Wednesday. Ukraine produces 65 per cent of the gas it consumes and imports the rest from Europe. The country used to buy gas from Russia but stopped in November 2015 after Kyiv’s relations with Moscow soured over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support for separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of state energy firm Naftogaz, said last month additional volume of gas in reserves may be required to avoid shortages in winter due to problems with insufficient coal supply for thermal power generators. Shmygal did not disclose the details of imports and the gas price at which Naftogaz will buy fuel.

A recent crisis in which Azerbaijani troops blocked the road connecting two cities in southern Armenia has raised questions about the slow pace of construction of an alternate road that avoids Azerbaijani territory. The main road connecting the cities of Goris and Kapan in Armenia’s Syunik region runs alongside – and in some cases across – the de facto (though not yet formally delineated) Azerbaijani border, in territory which Baku regained control of as a result of last year’s war. Since early 2021 Azerbaijan has been setting up border guard posts and erecting signs reading “Welcome to Azerbaijan” on their sections of the road, and on August 25 they blocked a 21 kilometres section of it. The blockade lasted for nearly 48 hours and was resolved with the help of Russian border guards, which patrol the Armenian side of the border.

North East Europe

Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Andres Sutt this week proposed the introduction of NATO-like expenditure rules for cybersecurity spending of the private and public sector to close the investment gap and tackle cyber threats. While there are a number of initiatives on the EU level – like the Cybersecurity Act, or the NIS2 directive – these measures will not have a tangible effect unless the investment is stepped up considerably, Sutt stressed during the Tallinn Digital Summit on Tuesday. “Our aim should be no less than to agree on a global framework on cybersecurity, just like NATO has the two per cent target of GDP on defence, we have to have a comparable target, methodology and benchmark for cybersecurity,” he said. Sutt emphasised that cybersecurity is chronically underfunded and that it needs to be put at the top of the priority list if the digitalisation of the private and public sectors is supposed to be successful.

Latvia says it has prevented more than 1,000 people from illegally entering the Baltic country since a state of emergency was declared at its border with Belarus a month ago, amid accusations that Minsk is intentionally sending migrants into EU member states. The Latvian State Border Guard said in a statement on Wednesday that its officers turned away 27 migrants from crossing the border with Belarus the previous day, bringing the total number of attempted crossings during the crisis to 1,005. The EU member state on August 10 declared a three-month state of emergency in several southern and southeastern regions following an influx of migrants coming from its neighbour.

The Lithuanian government on Wednesday scrapped the requirement for passengers on intercity buses and trains to have the Covid-19 immunity certificate and temporarily allowed unvaccinated students to attend lectures if they take preventive tests. The decisions will take effect next week. “This would apply to absolutely all means of transport: buses, ferries and trains,” Deputy Health Minister Ausra Bilotiene Motiejuniene told the cabinet. However, passengers will be required to keep a safe distance and wear facemasks, she noted. The cabinet also allowed higher education students to attend lectures without the immunity certificate until October 15, provided that that take a preventive Covid-19 test.

South East Europe

A fire at a temporary hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated in North Macedonia has left at least 14 people dead, the country’s health minister said on Thursday. All 14 were patients, and 12 others being treated at the centre suffered injuries in the fire that broke out Wednesday evening, the country’s health minister, Venko Filipce, said. No health workers were reported injured what Filipce described as a “terrible accident.” The fire, which began at around 9pm at a mobile hospital in Tetovo, in the country’s northwest, was extinguished within 45 minutes, but it had spread quickly through the building, one fire official told a local news outlet.

Thousands of people in Europe have died because of Western Balkan coal power plants breaching pollution limits, according to a new report published this week. The report by CEE Bankwatch Network and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air claims 19,000 people have died over the past three years, as a result of air pollution caused by the plants in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro. The report warns the pollution caused by these plants affects not only people in their own countries but also those in neighbouring EU countries, particularly in Romania, Hungary and Greece.

Arriving in a military helicopter, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was inaugurated in the state’s old capital on Sunday amid clashes between police and protesters who oppose continued Serb influence in the tiny Balkan nation. Hospital officials in the city of Cetinje said at least 60 people were injured, including 30 police officers, in clashes that saw police launch tear gas against the demonstrators, who hurled rocks and bottles at them and fired gunshots into the air. At least 15 people were arrested. Sunday’s inauguration ceremony angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which declared independence from neighbouring Serbia in 2006. Since Montenegro split from Serbia, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for a recognised Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the Serbian one.

A report published on Tuesday by the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, KIPRED, about the potential for Russian media disinformation to undermine Kosovo’s statehood urges the authorities to address UN member states with an appropriate strategy to counter it. The executive director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, Lulzim Peci, told a press conference that the authorities are doing nothing to counter what he called the “Russian diplomatic war against Kosovo”. “The reactions of Kosovo’s institutions have come without a proper policy on how to act towards Russia and the same institutions have not built any narrative about the Russian state,” Peci said.

Central Asia

Education authorities in Uzbekistan have decreed that schoolgirls are to be permitted to wear Islamic headdresses in a reversal of secular rules preventing the wearing of religious dress in state-owned premises. Education Minister Sherzod Shermatov made the announcement on September 3 during an open dialogue with heads of education departments in the regions. “Taking into account our national values, girls will, as an exception, be allowed to wear headscarves … made from white and light-coloured fabrics and tyubeteikas [skullcaps] at school,” the ministry said in a statement. Shermatov said the uniform rule changes were introduced after the government received large numbers of petitions from parents.

A prominent campaigner who has documented the plight of Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region says he has barred from entering neighbouring Kazakhstan. Gene Bunin, a dual US and Russian national, is best known as the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database, which contains entries for nearly 25,000 people incarcerated, detained or unaccounted for in Xinjiang. The United States says that Beijing is carrying out a genocide against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic people in Xinjiang, where experts estimate more than a million people are incarcerated in camps and jails. Kazakhstan is one of several former Soviet states that have appeared to toe Beijing’s line on Xinjiang. Thousands of Kazakhs have family ties to Xinjiang, where Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic group after the Uyghurs.

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov has been reportedly hospitalised with Covid-19 even as authorities continue to deny the presence of the coronavirus within the country’s borders. Two separate sources close to the government told RFE/RL on September 8 that the 61-year-old Meredov has not been seen in public since August 20 and is currently being treated for coronavirus in a newly built hospital in the village of Yzgant, in the south-central region of Ahal. Media reports say that another sign of Meredov’s illness is that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s upcoming visit to Uzbekistan is being prepared by Deputy Prime Minister Esenmurad Orazgeldyiev and not Meredov, who is also a deputy prime minister and normally is responsible for the organisation of the president’s foreign trips.

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