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Opinion: Eastern Europe's political crisis could lead to major change

Eastern Europe is set for major political change with elections to be held in a slew of countries. Deutsche Welle's Russia expert Ingo Mannteufel urges western Europe to pay more attention to the region.

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Largely unnoticed by Germany and Europe, a deepening sense of crisis has gripped former Soviet countries. More than any other region of the world, Russia and its neighbors are hugely important for the peace and prosperity of the European continent. Still, disinterest and ignorance about these countries unfortunately remains widespread in western Europe.

The latest, often negative news from the region, is often interpreted along stereotypes about eastern Europe and things are simply left at that. The consequences that this kind of neglect can lead to was powerfully demonstrated by the Russian-Georgian war two years ago.

Deutsche Welle's Ingo Mannteufel

Deutsche Welle's Ingo Mannteufel

The event came as a total surprise to the European public though it was several months in the making. And once again the situation in eastern Europe is hardly being given any attention despite the fact that the political temperature is set to rise in the autumn following the region's hot summer.

Political turbulence in Russia

In Russia, social protests are growing. They're a result of the forest fires that were combated inefficiently. And now basic food prices are rising too. The political system created under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev has suffered a huge loss of public trust.

In addition, there are increasing signs of a conflict between Medvedev and his godfather Putin ahead of presidential elections in 2012. Further mutual political sparring between the two could create a muddy and instable political situation. Some observers have already begun comparing it to the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev when Gorbachev tried to tackle the crisis of Soviet Communism with radical reform policies, thereby triggering a domestic political power struggle.

Much like the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl of 1986, the forest fires this summer could prove to be a catalyst for simmering public dissatisfaction with daily living conditions. But the anger of many Russians is not targeted so much at Putin as it is toward the representatives of his bureaucracy.

An important indicator of the further public mood in the country will be seen on October 10 this year when a few regional and hundreds of local elections are held. If Putin's party fails to show expected results despite its vast administrative resources, it would be a bad omen for the presidential election in 2012 and a shock for the ruling elite.

Political tensions rise in post-Soviet states

But it's not just Russia that faces a heated election season in autumn. The situation in a few other post-Soviet states is even more tense. Kyrgyzstan holds parliamentary elections on October 10 that are hoped to stabilize the country after a bloody coup against President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that sparked ethnic clashes.

But Kyrgyzstan still faces the possibility of a break-up given that rulers from the Bakiyev era in the south remain unwilling to be governed by the country's new leadership in the north.

And there's similar political turmoil in countries that lie between Russia and the European Union. On Oct 31, Ukrainians will vote new local councils for the first time since the election of President Viktor Yanukovych. The political system is reported to have strengthened its autocratic tendencies since he took power. The outcome of the local elections could further inflame the political climate.

In Moldova, there are few signs of a quick solution to an ongoing deep political crisis. But the country will still be holding elections on November 21.

And in dictatorially-ruled Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko is set to organize his reelection on December 19. Lukashenko rules his country with an iron fist but his long reign is based on excellent relations to Russia. However, Russian media has been running something of an anti-Lukashenko campaign in recent weeks, leading to a significant deterioration in ties between Minsk and Moscow. That would make a further Russian-Belarusian "gas war" in winter likely and could also strongly impact the outcome of the Belarusian presidential election.

A new era

All signs point toward a worsening of political tensions in eastern Europe in the autumn and winter next year. What's more: after a total decline in the 1990s and a positive stabilization in the first decade of the 21st century, a new era is emerging in eastern Europe. It's becoming ever clearer that the political systems created in the past years in post-Soviet states have now reached the limit of their authoritarian development potential.

Though a future direction still remains unclear, there's a vague, almost apolitical but growing feeling among the population that things can't go on the way they have. Germany and Europe would be well-advised to closely follow this political and social process in eastern Europe and to actively support it.

Ingo Mannteufel is the head of Deutsche Welle's Russian service (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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