Political instability in central Europe seems to be spreading. Slovakia
already lacked a government following last weekend’s inconclusive
election; left-wing leader Robert Fico has been asked to form a government,
but putting together a majority coalition could take weeks. Now
Lithuania faces faces the possibility of early elections after the new
social democratic candidate for prime minister failed to win
parliamentary approval.

Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus, who is inconveniently away on a
visit to Turkey, had nominated Zigmantas Balcytis to head a new
government after the previous one (also headed by the social democrats)
fell apart last month. But although Balcytis won the vote
in parliament 52-48, there were 32 abstentions (apparently from the
populist Labour Party), meaning he lacked the required overall
majority. If no new government can be formed within 60 days, fresh
elections will have to be held.

The former Soviet-bloc countries of central Europe present an odd
mixture of social and economic progress together with political
instability. On one hand, the transformation that places like Slovakia
have undergone in the last decade or so has been remarkable. EU
membership is popular, and most countries in the region are keen to
adopt the euro. But recent elections seem to have delivered more power
into the hands of nationalists and populists.

Professor Jacques Rupnik, a leading authority on the region, this week in Le Mondesuggests
that this should not be a matter of great concern. While some measures
of economic liberalism, such as the flat tax pioneered by Slovakia,
have proved unpopular, today’s populists do not challenge the
fundamentals of economic integration and political liberalisation.
Rupnik says that now the basic work of democratisation has been
achieved, “we are in a different phase”: central Europe is stable
enough that it can afford to indulge in some populism.

And those outside the EU are still keen to come in. Overnight in Ukraine a coalition agreement was finally announced
on the formation of a new government by the leaders of 2004’s “Orange
Revolution”, who have since become political rivals. For the time being
at least they have agreed to bury their differences, and the new
government is expected to pursue integration with the west. Ultimate
goals are membership in both NATO and the EU.

Peter Fray

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