Just over 20 years after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the certainties established by the collapse of the Iron Curtain no longer seem to apply.
In the wake of the financial crisis, Europeans are questioning whether the liberal market economy can deliver prosperity — and whether their financial system will last longer than the next few months.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, where democracy appeared to promise prosperity and integration into the European Union, the parliamentary system and the rule of law are under increasing challenge from governments on the left and right alike.
Both in the EU proper, and in the countries to Europe’s east — where Russia jostles with Brussels for geopolitical dominance — governments stand accused of pushing aside critical media, manipulating institutions to entrench party rule and (sometimes) jailing opponents.
And, busy dealing with the financial crisis, the European Union appears unable to curb the trend.
Just months after Victor Orbán’s right-wing Hungarian government introduced a new constitution and placed the country’s supreme court and media under the supervision of figures close to the government, new centre-left Romanian premier Victor Ponta is accused of plotting similar measures.
After Ponta ignored a constitutional court ruling to the contrary and effectively dismissed democratically elected conservative president Traian Băsescu, condemnation from Brussels and several NGOs followed last week.
Centre-right Băsescu was meant to serve as president until 2014. But after suspending him from his post, Ponta’s Social-Liberal Union (comprising ex-communists, social democrats and liberals) decided Romanian electors should vote on whether he could keep his job on 29 July.
The SLU accuses Băsescu of having "abused his office" by introducing austerity measures that have "impoverished the population" in 2009-10, reported French catholic paper La Croix on Sunday night
Those measures included a cut to public servant salaries of 25 per cent, adds centre-left Parisian daily Liberation. Describing the tiff between the president and the prime minister as a "dirty war", Liberation asserts that the president’s past measures show he has "as little respect for the rule of law" as his centre-left opponents.
Still, PM Ponta may have put in danger Romania’s "institutional equilibrium", argues Francophone Swiss paper Le Temps:
"Since arriving in power, the young head of government (39) has piled up sackings of top public servants, the bosses of public radio and television and even the head of the Romanian cultural service, one of the most respected institutions in the country."
Yet regardless of the outcome of the struggle between the young prime minister and his veteran opponent, the institutional stocks of Romania’s political class are likely to diminish even further.
Romanians’ confidence in their political system has been shaken in recent months, with the resignation of former centre-right premier Emil Boc amid anti-austerity protests in March. Boc’s technocrat successor, Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, lost a no-confidence vote in May after continuing with earlier austerity measures.
Socialist Victor Ponta supplanted Ungureanu after that no-confidence motion. But just two months into his tenure, Ponta was already facing one big scandal: the revelation that he had plagiarised his doctoral thesis, writes Spain’s El País.
"It was a case of cut-and-paste plagiarism," alleges a report by the Romanian National Council for the Certification of Degrees, Diplomas and University Certifications quoted by El País. Out of a work totalling 307 pages, 85 were "copied without citing", the official body found.
However, just one day later, the Romanian education minister dissolved the council, alleging "irregularities" in its operations, continues the Madrid paper.
The Romanian institutional tit-for-tat and allegations of government heavying of opponents follow similar manoeuvres in Hungary, where Victor Orbán’s nationalist government is accused of having muzzled the media and put in place government oversight of the country’s judiciary.
Last week a Hungarian government-appointed media council ruled that the last anti-government voice in the electronic media, Klubradio, had lost the right to broadcast over its 95.3 frequency.
Regulators ruled that the station couldn’t continue to broadcast because it hadn’t signed every page of its application — and that it also hadn’t numbered all of the pages of the application correctly, says liberal Munich paper the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The Orbán-friendly media council announced last December that it wanted to strip Klubradio of its frequency. But after the court of appeals struck down that decision, the media council did not give back Klubradio its frequency, continues the Süddeutsche:
"Instead, the council re-advertised the frequency and then ruled the anti-government broadcaster out of bidding again."
Klubradio’s latest travails come as the European Commission continues with a treaty-infringement case against the Hungarian government at the Court of Justice of the European Union reports German-language Budapest paper the Pester Lloyd.
Under the measures, all judges turning 62 in 2012 would have to retire. Before the change to a Hungarian law, the age of retirement for judges had been left unchanged at 70 since the late 19th century.
"The EU criticised the new retirement laws as…an attack on the independence of the judiciary," says the Pester Lloyd
Still, while opponents in many Eastern European EU members are having a hard time being heard these days, at least they aren’t facing murder charges.
During the European football championships in the former Soviet nation, Ukraine’s public prosecutors announced it would be pursuing murder charges against former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, says Spanish diplomatic paper Correo Diplomatico.
Tymoschenko — already in jail for having abused her office during a Ukraine/Russia gas pricing dispute — maintains the latest charges have been cooked up by prime minister Victor Yanukovitch to further discredit her.
The attorney general’s office maintains Tymoschenko was involved in the assassination of businessman Yevgen Shcherban and his wife in a contract killing that took place in 1996.
Like in many other Eastern European nations, Ukrainian politics was marked by corrupt privatisations and string-pulling political godfathers in the 1990s.
This recent history has often helped triumphant political leaders to push opposing leaders out of contention — regardless of the veracity of the charges against those opponents.
And, with voters in recrimination mode due to economic downturns, what some describe as a swing back towards autocracy in Eastern Europe is only likely to continue.
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