Regional News Update – March 16

Czech Republic

More cuts to education budget

The Finance Ministry came out with a new proposal to lower the state budget: a 15 billion CZK  (approx. 600 million EUR) cut in public education funding. The ministry aims to slash 4.4 billion Kč by the end of this year, 4.6 billion Kč the next, and 6 billion Kč in 2014. Teachers’ unions fear that the cuts will result in up to 17,000 layoffs. Educators intend to encourage their secondary-school students to join university students in the mass protests against education reforms.

Protesters call for government dissolution

Protests were held in a number of Czech cities on Thursday, March 15, organized by a group called Holešovská výzva. According to estimates, approximately 2.5 thousand people gathered on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, 4 thousand protested in Brno, and about a thousand each in Ostrava and Hradec Králové. Gatherings were held in a number of other cities as well. Holešovská výzva is calling for the immediate resignation of the government and the president and new elections.


Unexpected turnout and results at Parliamentary elections

The Slovakian general elections, held on March 10, saw an unexpected 59.11% voter turnout. On March 9, the morning before the election, one thousand gathered in Bratislava to protest the Gorilla controversy, one of many scandals affecting this year’s election. Despite controversy and the dropping out of 85 candidates two days before polls opened, voter turnout was higher than predicted 43-48%. The results of the election were equally surprising. With 1,134,280 votes cast in its favor, Smer, a Slovak social democratic party led by Robert Fico, won 44.4% of all votes and 83 seats in Parliament. This makes Smer the first party since the fall of communism to win the majority of seats, meaning it can govern without a coalition. The Christian Democratic Movement, in second place, received only 8.82% of all votes.
Despite the overwhelming victory for the Smer party, Fico said after the announcement of the result that he would like to encourage other parties to join him in a coalition. The former prime minister stated that he hopes to create, “a socially-oriented state and solidarity” in the Slovak Parliament. Ján Figel, leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, said he welcomes the idea of a coalition with Smer but also encourages what he believes to be necessary opposition from other parties in Parliament. Other elected parties are more skeptical of Fico’s willingness to form a coalition government.


EU freezes part of Hungary’s funds

As of Tuesday March 13, the European Union has partially suspended 495 million euros from Hungary’s 2013 cohesion fund grants. The freeze will be effective until June 22, provided that Hungary meets its target to cut the budget deficit to under 3 percent of the GDP this year. The new deadline gives less time for Hungary to address its deficit problem than the predicted six months that was first recommended by the European Commission. Although Finance Minister Gyorgy Matolcsy expressed confidence that Hungary will be able to meet the requirements on time, economists remain skeptical of the country’s fiscal balance.

Thousands attend anti-government protests, Orbán rebuts

An anti-government rally hosted by the Hungarian Solidarity Movement saw an estimated 6,000 supporters on Saturday, March 10. The protest focused on issues of poverty,  fair tax systems and free higher education. At another anti-government protest on March 15, (the anniversary of the 1848 Spring of Nations revolution), that was planned a long time in advance by the Facebook group “One Million For Press Freedom”, thousands gathered to protest against laws limiting the media, and other restrictive measures introduced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party. A government-sponsored rally took place on the same day, originally billed as a “March for Peace.” The Prime Minister spoke to tens of thousands gathered in front of the parliament building in Budapest, saying that he will not let the EU take Hungary hostage.


Berlin did not meet austerity goals

Despite its calls for fiscal prudence in other EU countries, Germany has struggled to meet its own austerity goals. According to figures released for 2011, the government had saved less than half of what it intended in the federal budget. Only €4.7 billion of the €11.2 billion in stipulated austerity measures were implemented last year. With a goal to eliminate all borrowing by 2020, Germany will have to restrict its spending significantly. Angela Merkel’s cabinet hopes to agree on the foundations of the 2013 federal budget sometime this month.


Commission attempts election reform

The Central Election Commission announced on Monday that there will be a televised debate between candidates before the next election. Lidziya Yarmoshyna, head of the commission, told the public that both presidential and deputy candidates would be given the chance to appear in television or radio debates. Yarmoshyna also announced reforms in the nomination process for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Yet this news left many Belorussians and observers from abroad skeptical about the possibility of actually transparent elections in Belarus.

Longest administrative arrest in Belarusian history

On February 29, four members of the Young Front group – Dzmitry Kramyanetski, Mikhail Muski, Raman Vasilyeu and Uladzimir Yaromenka – were arrested outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Minsk. According to what many believe to be a falsified police report, the four threw toilet paper at the ministry building in protest. After being detained for three days in Minsk, the four were sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest, the longest recorded administrative sentence in Belarus. Young Front is a group aimed at upholding principles of democracy and civil society in Belarus.


Slovenia may see another recession

According to the Slovenian Statistics Office, Slovenia experienced a reduction in economic activity in the final quarter of 2011 and may fall into a double-dip recession. The Slovenian Chamber of Commerce called for companies to invest outside the European Union in order to pull the economy out of recession.


Referendum on joining Eastern customs union

The Social Democratic Party of Moldova is looking to organize a referendum on Moldova’s joining the customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moldovan officials hope this will allow more travel flexibility and create a precedent to attract investors. Two-hundred thousand signatures are needed to initiate this referendum.


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Stephanie Scerra, Taylor Fleming, Lisa Han, Ariel Smallwood, Adrienne Zulueta

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