5 things to watch in Central and Eastern Europe in 2016

shutterstock 2082267641. Application of the DCFTA in Ukraine and Ukraine's reforms


The year 2016 is an important year for Ukraine as the provisional application of the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) began on January 1st. Yet, Ukraine can really benefit from the DCFTA only after it modernises its legal system and implements key reforms. With a still very high level of corruption, low energy efficiency and largely outdated economy, the DCFTA is not likely to change much by itself without these reforms.


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The other reason to follow Ukraine closely in 2016 is its internal policy and reforms. According to recent data, a large number of Ukrainians are unhappy with the current political and economic situation. Politicians in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) are no less frustrated, which was clearly demonstrated in early December when Ukraine’s parliament turned into “fight club”. Ukrainians still give credit to the government, but as the EuroMaidan demonstrated, they are willing to take matters into their own hands if the reality continues to be unbearable.


2. NATO Summit in Warsaw


The war in Ukraine has not stopped and the Minsk Agreements have not been fully implemented. Certainly less intense than the beginning of 2015, the conflict is still very volatile. This is why many Central and Eastern European states are counting on the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016 to bring a real improvement to the security situation in the region. Poland and the Baltic states aim for permanent present of NATO troops in the Alliance’s eastern flank.


The previous NATO Summit in 2014, in Wales, launched the debate on boosting security in Eastern Europe. If this line continues, this might be a success in itself. Yet, bearing in having the extremely turbulent situation in the Middle East, the focus of the NATO summit in Warsaw may move away from Ukraine to other hotter conflict zones as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will be also a test for Central and Eastern European NATO members and how they can contribute to resolving not only the war in Ukraine but also the situation in the Middle East.


3. Tensions in the Western Balkans


It is often discussed that a large number of ISIS’s recruits come from Western Europe. Less often discussed is the role the Western Balkans play in ISIS recruitment. At the end of 2015, Bosnian police “arrested 11 people suspected of inciting terrorism and recruiting jihadists”. The escalation in the Middle East has become an ideal scenario for various radical Islamist groups operating in the area, recruiting members from Europe. The Western Balkans, with its relative poverty, unstable political situation and large Muslim community may become an even more fertile recruiting ground for ISIS and other radical terrorist groups.


Huge tensions remain under the surface in the Balkans. There were few symptoms in 2015, yet 2016 may bring further developments. A wave of protest in Macedonia and the Kumanovo clashes, the refugee crisis in Europe, which can easily turn into a humanitarian crisis in the Balkans, and recent violent protests in Kosovo against agreements with Serbia are key developments to watch for Europe. Russia also has significant interests in the region and the Kremlin will attempt to keep the region unstable in order to prevent further NATO enlargement, especially after Montenegro has been granted an invitation to join the Alliance.


4. Parliamentary elections in Georgia


On December 23rd 2015, the Georgian prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, announced his resignation without providing his motives. Although the current ruling Georgian Dream Coalition is still leading in opinion polls, a lot may change before the next parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2016. The United National Movement holds a firm second place but the situation may be favourable for Saakahsvili’s party as an increasing number of Georgians claim that their country is heading in the wrong direction. Polls indicate that third political power on Georgian political scene is Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats, a party established by the former minister of defence known for his pro-western views.


Georgia will most likely remain on its pro-Western course (it is also implementing its Association Agreement with the EU) but a victory by the United National Movement would bring change. It could also mean the return of Mikheil Saakashvili to Georgia.


5. Belarus’s rapprochement with the West


At the end of October 2015, the EU suspended sanctions for Belarus until the end of February 2016. It was a concrete sign of the ongoing rapprochement process between the West and Belarus. The Belarusian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has strengthened his position in 2015 both internally and internationally. He hosted the third meeting of Normandy Group when the Minsk II Agreement was signed. In August, Lukashenka released political prisoners which helped convince EU policymakers to lift the sanctions. The October 2015 presidential election, although not in line with any international standards, confirmed his strong position in the country and demonstrated the weakness of the opposition.


If the EU decides not to bring sanctions back on Belarus, it could mean small steps of rapproachment with Minsk which could be the beginning of the end of total Kremlin domination in Belarus, especially if the state of Russian economy continues to deteriorate.