Forecasts for Eastern Europe in 2024: The crisis of EU influence and the electoral renewal of autocracies. Analysis of Dionis Cenusa



The ability of Eurosceptic forces to exploit the spirit of protest in society to gain political capital will test the EU's potential to influence the geopolitical situation in its eastern neighbourhood...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The non-linear geopolitical situation in Europe is under the continued influence of Russia's military aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, the prospects for restoring regional stability to the benefit of the EU remain negative for the duration of Israel's military intervention in the Gaza Strip, with a high probability that it will lead to a regional war, if civilian deaths among the Palestinians is not stopped (more than 25,000 have already died). Geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East is creating chain reactions for the EU's economic security, which is worsening the situation in the European agricultural sector, which may affect perceptions of food security among Europeans.

In 2022-2023, Russian military aggression has already managed to significantly distort Ukraine's grain delivery operations by destroying traditional logistic infrastructure and export routes. More recently, additional negative effects have been caused by the maritime crisis in the Red Sea, caused by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who, with the support of Iran, attack ships sailing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait towards tje Suez Channel and in the opposite direction. In addition to the costs derived from the import of hydrocarbons or industrial production (insurance, extension of transportation time, etc.), the European agri-food sector is also affected, especially that of the EU states in the Mediterranean: Greece, Cyprus and Italy (Politico, January 2024). As a result, the spirit of protest within the EU has fertile ground to multiply. This image includes farmers and transporters protesting in some EU states who block roads or border crossings (with Ukraine), as well as civic-political forces taking to the streets against the push of right-wing forces, such as the protests against AfD in Germany.

While the EU has to absorb the consequences of geopolitical crises and their socio-economic and political repercussions, Eastern Europe is entering a complex political-electoral phase. The autocracies of Russia and Belarus hold elections to renew their grip on power. As Ukraine must give up elections due to war conditions, it still has to face Russian aggression, Western geopolitical fatigue, and the waning authority of Volodymyr Zelensky. At the same time, Moldova and Georgia are going to hold elections crucial for the continuation of the bumpy democratic transition. In the context of elections to renew the legitimacy of Azerbaijan's autocratic regime, Armenia will need to continuously invest in the strategy of diversifying security sources, maintaining the balance between the EU's unprecedented geostrategic openness and vital access to the energy market and Russian resources. Both the political-electoral events within the EU, at the national or European level, as well as the electoral processes in the United States, will leave traces on the behavior of decision-makers in Eastern Europe.

The scenario within the EU

Economic adaptation to strategic decoupling with Russia, which involves the reorientation of transport and energy infrastructure, as well as trade flows, is a delicate issue in the EU. At the same time, Brussels is forced to look for solutions to new regional geopolitical crises, when European "economic engines" cool down. Thus, after a GDP reduction of 0.3% in 2023, according to moderately optimistic scenarios, the German economy could register growth of 0.7% in 2024, while the world economy shows healthier signs of growth, around 2.4% (Reuters, January 2024). Economic processes in Germany are already having a political impact, as farmers and other socioeconomic categories in this state, located at the intersection of the production and transportation of sensitive goods, become susceptible to anti-government protests and political appeals that emanate from Eurosceptic forces. Consequently, the German state exemplifies a conclusive case when regional geopolitical crises produce both material costs for the population (energy inflation, etc.) and political costs. This can be inferred from the rise of the far-right party – Alternative for Germany (Afd) – which is exploiting falling living standards to attract a disenchanted electorate. However, amid recent anti-AfD protests, public support for the party has fallen to 20%. Despite that, the AfD continues to occupy second place in the electoral options of Germans, behind the Christian Democrats, also in the opposition (CDU - 31%), but ahead of the ruling parties, which together accumulate only 32% (Reuters, January 2024). Anti-government protests in Slovakia against attempts to roll back anti-corruption policies fall into the same category as protests against Eurosceptic populists in Germany (AP, January 2024).

The anti-populist protests in Germany and Slovakia indicate that it is premature to make a general assumption about the outbreak of Eurosceptic forces in the European elections of June 2024. However, atmospheres of protest persist among farmers and/or transporters in France, Poland and Romania. Ignoring these trends may serve Eurosceptic electoral interests. The motivations behind the protests are diverse, they can be legitimate and they can have a combined effect. Thus, the effects of rapid market liberalization, as a sign of solidarity, for Ukrainian agri-food production (especially cereals) constitute an aggravating factor (BBC, January 2024). Another is of a structural nature, consisting of European policies, which imply costs or loss of advantages derived from connections with the "green transition". These protests are used by Eurosceptic populists to justify their political objectives. However, the victory of the liberal opposition, led by Donald Tusk, over the Law and Justice Party in Poland showed that exploiting protests initiated by farmers can also be inneficient. Even if Eurosceptic forces find it difficult to gain political power at the moment, they can use protests in the agricultural sector to induce in society a predisposition to anti-government (anti-establishment) messages. For example, in the case of Romania, where European, local, parliamentary and presidential elections overlap this year, the position of right-wing parties is taking on a more nuanced form. Polls show that the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) and SOS Romania could consolidate their political presence with 19% and 8%, respectively, in the European elections, being the third and fifth parties as voting options. At the same time, the leaders of these political parties, George Simion and Diana Șoșoacă, are in second place, with both 23%, in terms of public trust. In other words, the political effects of geopolitical crises at the EU's land or sea borders (Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, respectively) should not be underestimated, but rather anticipated and effectively prevented before crises materialize and cause harm to the EU.

Finally, geopolitical fatigue vis-à-vis Ukraine represents a real risk, the materialization of which is due to a number of factors, such as the perpetuation of the war, the reduction of financial resources available for the defense and recovery of Ukraine, and the emergence of new emergencies in Western states (military conflicts, migrations, internal political crises, etc.). Competing national and regional priorities in EU decision-making, as well as illiberal obstacles in Member States (IPN, January 2024), are already distracting attention from the Western effort to stop Russian military aggression in Ukraine. Individual decisions, such as Charles Michel's later abandoned intention to leave the presidency of the European Council to run for a seat in the European Parliament, have shown how easy it can be to divert political attention from the EU, creating conditions for unforeseen crises. These types of events may increase in number, whether from within or outside the EU. In this line of thinking, if Donald Trump wins the US elections, there will be really serious effects for the EU. In addition to possibly losing an ally to pressure Russia, Brussels could face an uncooperative United States willing to wage trade wars that affect economic security and misalign the security front. Therefore, the current and subsequent geopolitical situation during 2024 is difficult and may become even more complicated, and this means that the EU's beneficial influence in the eastern neighborhood will be tested.

The Eastern European scene

The entry of the Russian war against Ukraine into its third year, on the one hand, and the forced unilateral integration of Karabakh in 2023, on the other, will condition the parameters of events in Eastern Europe at the (micro)regional level. Parliamentary and/or presidential elections will be held in four of the seven Eastern European states, with possible (drastic) changes in the situation in some cases. Security will influence intra-regional national political processes. The trends in states with regimes considered authoritarian – Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan – are dominated by the reasoning of double survival, in relation to external pressure (sanctions or threat of sanctions) and domestic dissent. At the same time, where the democratic transition is taking place and despite the pressure of war (Ukraine) or security risks (Moldova and Armenia), attention will focus on the need to avoid a crisis of credibility in the eyes of the EU. Fierce resistance is also expected against overcoming the oligarchic status quo in Georgia. Elections under authoritarian regimes will have predictable results, and the electoral exercise will be imitated or strongly distorted to regenerate the legitimacy of current leaders in unfavorable regional or national circumstances.

Azerbaijan will hold early presidential elections on February 7, in which Ilham Aliyev has no rival capable of preventing him from being re-elected. In 2018 he received his fourth mandate, with the vote of 86% of the 74.2% of voters who showed up at the polling stations. The dissidence of the opposition, which in 2018 boycotted the elections, but also the recent repressions against critical journalists, described as "foreign spies", denote that the objective of the early elections seems to be the rapid capitalization of public sympathies for territorial reintegration of the country. Aliyev's re-election may be a political tactic to deter international pressure related to the (shadow) exodus of Karabakh's Armenian population (120,000 people), triggered by Azeri actions, which may still have reputational costs for the regime. Also in 2024, on February 25, parliamentary elections will be held in Belarus. The vote is compromised given the latest crackdown against the opposition, launched after the 2020 post-election protests. Currently, the opposition is detained in Belarus or in exile (Lithuania, Poland, etc.). At the same time, after the repeated registration of political parties in the country at the beginning of 2024, only four pro-regime political entities were admitted for the February elections, out of a total of 15 active political parties in 2023. To ensure the regime's lifelong immunity from justice, Alexandr Lukashenko signed a special decree in early 2024, which also prohibits the opposition in exile from running in the next presidential elections (Guardian, January 2024).

The next extension of the authoritarian regime's mandate will take place in Russia, where presidential elections will be held from March 15 to 17 (3 days). The probability that Vladimir Putin will not be re-elected, obtaining a fifth term, is nearing zero. He has already proposed himself as a candidate for the presidential elections. According to official sources, more than 2.5 million signatures were collected in support of Putin's candidacy, in 89 regions of the country. The Russian electoral body has invited up to 1,000 observers from more than 95 countries and 14 international organizations, not including Western ones, which have already indicated that they will not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral results. Basically, the regime needs to resurrect the authority of the president, undermined by Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion in June 2023 and the harmful ramifications of the war of aggression against Ukraine.

Electoral processes will have an impact on Eastern European states that are in democratic transition or stagnant due to informal governance. When Moldova repeatedly extended the state of emergency until the end of 2023, there was speculation that the ruling party might suspend the 2024 presidential election for security reasons. This type of consideration is the basis for the decision of Ukraine to suspend the presidential elections, which due to the war cannot hold the elections that were supposed to take place in March. As a result of the end of the state of emergency and the absence of an imminent Russian threat, especially of a military nature, the Moldovan authorities will organize presidential elections in the autumn. The incumbent president, Maia Sandu, is currently the only politician who does not hide her intention to run. Her main counter-candidates are political actors who have not renounced their pro-Russian sympathies (former president Igor Dodon) or who are suspected of still maintaining ties with Russia: the mayor of the capital, Ion Ceban, and the former governor of the gagauz autonomy, Irina Vlah. The Moldovan presidential elections will have a marked geopolitical character. This is also due to President Maia Sandu's request to organize a referendum on European integration. Hence, the ruling party (Action and Solidarity Party) modified the electoral legislation to legalize the holding of a geopolitical referendum on the day of the presidential elections. The mobilization of the anti-Maia Sandu vote, planned by the opposition, may affect the result of the referendum on European integration. At the same time, support for the Eurasian Union, up to 37%, may have a negative effect on the referendum, the objective of which is to confirm the pro-EU sympathies of the population, which ranges between 50 and 60%. While the PAS-Sandu government wants to use the referendum to ensure a victory in the first round, and if not, in the second, negative scenarios seem to be out of the government's sight.

Georgia's parliamentary elections in the fall will test the opposition's ability to mobilize effectively, but also the population's willingness to punish the government for not starting accession negotiations, scheduled in the case of Ukraine and Moldova as early as the spring. The elections in Georgia would have had a democratic impact at the micro-regional level, if there was not a strong belief that the ruling party (Georgian Dream) could win the elections. Political loyalty displayed towards the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose image is vehemently protected by the Georgian government's exponents, even at the risk of compromising relations with certain European actors, denotes a rather significant level of interpenetration of state institutions with exponents of informal government (oligarchic influence). At the same time, representatives of power direct accusations of undermining national security against Georgian non-governmental organizations (Civic IDEA), which critically evaluate China's economic presence in Georgia. In this sense, the renewal of the Georgian Dream mandate may further erode the EU's positions both in Georgia and probably in the rest of the region. However, the priority given to the oligarchic and Chinese factor in Georgia does not at all confuse the interests of the autocratic regime in Baku, and the degradation of Georgian democratic norms in the process of European integration may inhibit Armenia's attempts to adopt good practices of its northern neighbor.

In lieu of conclusions

On the one hand, the ability of Eurosceptic forces to exploit the spirit of protest in society to gain political capital will test the EU's potential to influence the geopolitical situation in its eastern neighborhood. At the same time, electoral cycles in Eastern Europe show a clear trend in favor of the consolidation and perpetuation of already existing autocracies. On the other hand, the elections planned in the Eastern European states, anchored in the EU accession process, risk generating (new) credibility crises in relation to the EU. This may be due to the willingness of governments to employ electoral tricks, such as geopolitical referendums, or to fuel the perception that oligarchic interests take priority in an election year.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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