Category Archives: Europe

The Czech Republic – Babiš’ new cabinet and symptoms of illiberal democracy

On 12th July 2018 the lengthy government formation process that had been taking place since the 2017 parliamentary elections finally came to an end. The second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

The protracted government formation process was a consequence of several factors including:

  • the fragmented Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 elections,
  • the presence of an anti-establishment, left-wing party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and an anti-establishment right-wing party (the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement),
  • a police investigation and other controversies in relation to the dominant figure of the largest parliamentary party, ANO 2011, Andrej Babiš, who was at the same time the only real candidate for prime ministership,
  • the reluctance of most of the other parties to collaborate with ANO 2011,
  • the role of President Miloš Zeman, who consistently supported Babiš as the new prime minister and who allowed no room for an alternative cabinet excluding Andrej Babiš.

The right-wing and liberal parliamentary parties ruled out the possibility of joining ANO 2011 in a new coalition, although Babiš called on the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to establish a two-party majority coalition. At the same time, however, Babiš did not want to seek support from the KSČM and SPD, two strongly Eurosceptical parties, undermining the hitherto Czech consensus on its clear pro-Western orientation. Thus, at first, Babiš attempted to form a minority ANO 2011 cabinet that was appointed by Miloš Zeman in December 2017. Not surprisingly, this cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

In line with the constitution, Babiš’ cabinet remained in office as an acting cabinet until a new cabinet could be appointed. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the winner of the 2013 elections (and major loser of the 2017 elections), was now encouraged as well as tempted to join Babiš’ cabinet for fear of being marginalized in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the party lacked a charismatic leader in contrast to Babiš, as well as clear and credible policies on a number of issues. The party, which found itself in a major leadership and policy crisis, faced a major dilemma. On the one hand, joining the government would bring it at least short-term benefits. On the other hand, joining the cabinet appeared highly risky. This is because, first, Babiš is still under police investigation due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. In addition, the European Anti Fraud Office’s report (which was leaked to the press) confirmed that Babiš was directly involved in the fraud. Second, Babiš, the Minister of Finance in the 2014-2017 cabinet, skilfully communicated with the media to claim credit for government successes, while shifting blame on the social democrats for government failures

The ČSSD was badly divided on the issue of whether to join the cabinet with ANO 2011. The February party congress gave no definitive answer to this question, although party leaders were inclined to support the government option, and the party decided to hold an intra-party referendum. Even before the referendum result was announced, the ČSSD had embarked on negotiations with ANO 2011. President Zeman, who still has considerable influence over the ČSSD, encouraged the party to join Babiš’ cabinet. The referendum result gave the party a green light to carry on the negotiations with ANO 2011. However, the first round of talks ended in failure in April, as ANO 2011 proved unwilling to allow the ČSSD to take the seat of the Ministry of Interior, an important position controlling the police and indirectly affecting the investigation of Mr. Babiš and his alleged EU subsidy fraud. The ČSSD leaders, the party chairman Jan Hamáček and his deputy Jiří Zimola, visited President Zeman, who – according to some journalists – advised the ČSSD to insist on their requirements (including the position of the Minister of Interior).  Zeman was strongly interested in the success of the government formation with Mr. Babiš as Prime Minister, given the fact that he had consistently supported this option since the 2017 elections. The negotiations between the ANO 2011 and ČSSD resumed and both parties agreed on a minority coalition cabinet that was appointed by President Zeman in June 2018. In addition, Andrej Babiš negotiated an external support for the coalition provided by the KSČM.

The reputation of the newly appointed cabinet was tainted by the resignation of two ministers when the media found out that their university master’s theses were plagiarized. However, the most significant event was Zeman’s refusal to appoint a ČSSD nominee for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Poche. Zeman argued that Poche, currently an MEP, held a pro-immigration policy, which was unacceptable for Zeman, Babiš, and majority of the Czech population. Commentators speculated that this publicly announced reason was a mere pretext for the real cause of the refusal: President Zeman was resolved to demonstrate his power over the ČSSD and his influence over the cabinet as a whole. Babiš, having no interest in complicating the government formation whatsoever, did not insist on Poche and accepted Zeman’s position.

There has been a political as well as academic debate as to whether the Czech president has the right to refuse the Prime Minister’s nominee for a minister. There is a consensus that the president has no such right, but given the fact that Prime Minister did not push for Poche and did not wish to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court, there is no way to force Zeman to appoint Mr. Poche. Instead, both President Zeman and the Prime Minister Babiš expect another nominee from the ČSSD camp. Although this move was an act of political humiliation for the ČSSD, its leaders have so far been unable to suggest a solution and the ČSSD’s chairman Jan Hamáček temporarily took the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs alongside the position of the Minister of Interior. The ČSSD announced it would solve the problem only after the October municipal elections. As stated above, the second Babiš cabinet won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, so the Czech Republic finally has a fully-fledged cabinet after some 10 months.

In terms of President Zeman’s power over the government formation process, he undoubtedly played an important role. Whereas in the case of the first (unsuccessful) Babiš cabinet, Zeman’s role can be assessed as a notary, perhaps even regulator (given Zeman’s clear preferences and active support for Mr. Babiš), his role increased with the second Babiš cabinet and he can be classified as “co-designer”, because Zeman openly, consistently and strongly insisted that Babiš would be the new prime minister, blocking any alternative cabinets. In addition, he rejected the appointment of Mr. Poche. Also, the Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Toman (although formally a ČSSD member), was clearly Zeman’s man demonstrating the president’s influence over the cabinet.

Against the background of the government formation process, one should not overlook less noticeable, yet highly important, trends in the Czech politics. First, the Communists gained a direct influence over the government for the first time after 1989. (Mr. Babiš was also a Communist Party member as well as a registered co-worker of the Czechoslovak Secret Police before 1989). The KSČM remains outside the government, but provided its support for the cabinet in the July vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for a couple of policy requirements including passing a law on referendums, an increase in the minimal wage or the taxation of Church restitution. (The law on Church restitution was approved in 2012 in order to compensate for the nationalization of Church property after the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia). In sum, KSČM’s direct influence on the cabinet has a great symbolic importance putting to an end one of the major constants of the post-1989 politics.

Second, whereas in the post-1989 era a strong pro-Western consensus, including the EU as well as NATO membership, prevailed both in the Czech society and political elites as the only reasonable and legitimate foreign policy, this consensus is currently being undermined, especially by the KSČM, the SPD and also by Miloš Zeman, who is well-known for his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policy. Andrej Babiš, is, however, a pragmatic politician advocating a firm Czech membership in the EU, yet also pursuing a strict anti-immigration policy.

Third, clear illiberal tendencies (both in terms of rhetoric and actions) have appeared in the Czech Republic, thus resembling other countries in the region (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary). Notably, President Zeman can be blamed for this negative trend: Zeman is known for flattering the authoritarian regime in Russia and China, attacking the independent and quality media, attending the KSČM’s party congress, and sympathizing with xenophobic forces in the Czech Republic. To be sure, other actors responsible for the illiberal tendencies can be mentioned, two parliamentary parties, KSČM and SPD, and the Prime Minister Mr. Babi, who has tried to remove some checks and balances, e.g. by proposing the abolition of the upper parliamentary Chamber and who is the de facto owner of a huge business and media empire.

The Czech Republic is currently awaiting October municipal and Senate elections. The municipal elections in large cities, as well as the Senate elections, are considered to be a test of public support for the major parliamentary parties (which are almost non-existent in most of smaller municipalities) and in turn for (il) liberal democracy in the country.

Executive oversight in Russia

 

The Russian State Duma does not have a reputation for grilling executive officials. Especially since United Russia – the Putin-supporting “party of power” – has controlled a majority of seats in the 450-seat lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Duma has done little to act as a check on executive behaviour. In that way, it acts as we expect other parliaments do in non-democracies – a source of strength, rather than irritation, for executive actors.

Nevertheless, the State Duma has the formal capacity for some form of executive oversight. During “government hour” sessions, executive officials are invited to respond to questions from deputies. Figure 1 shows the frequency of these sessions, 2005-2017.

Figure 1: Frequency of “government hour” sessions by year, 2005-2017. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The mere fact that these nominal oversight sessions take place does not, of course, tell us if this is more than mere performance. A key question is whether deputies ask needling, critical questions.

Another important question is who is invited to be questioned by deputies. One way to classify Russian executive actors is by whether their respective bodies are controlled directly (formally, at least) by the president or the government. According to article 32 of Federal Constitutional Law number 2 from 1997 (with amendments), the president directly controls the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Defence, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Emergency Situations, as well as a number of federal agencies and services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB). All other executive bodies are formally controlled by the government.

This divide in direct control is found in other states, including Vietnam, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Myanmar. In the latter, for example, the Constitution states that the military controls a number of core bodies, such as the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

We can think of this executive divide in terms of delegation and principal-agent relationships. In most (if not all) regimes, there will be a leader – whether that be, for example, a monarch, president, general secretary, or a collective body, such as a junta. For shorthand, we can refer to them as “autocrats”. At the same time, the executive can contain other actors, to whom responsibility for certain portfolios are delegated. Thus, whereas the “autocrat” likely retains control over sensitive portfolios relating to security and state sovereignty, non-“autocrat” elements of the executive can be delegated portfolios relating to, say, economic policy.

This division is attractive to elites, not least because it allows for blame deflection during periods of economic hardship. The “autocrat” can use other executive actors as a buffer from societal criticism – something that has been on display recently in Iran, where the president, Hassan Rouhani, was recently grilled by legislators over the deteriorating economic situation. The Guardian Council is, therefore, partially shielded from popular opprobrium.

Executive oversight in the legislature also allows “autocrats” to keep tabs on delegated executive portfolios. By subjecting non-“autocrat” elements of the executive to legislative scrutiny, the hope is to reduce possible agency loss – that is, that agents end up pursuing their own interests, rather than those of their principals.

Going back to Russia, we can ask a basic question: Does executive oversight performed by parliamentarians differ when aimed at officials from president-controlled bodies (PCBs) compared to government-controlled bodies (GCBs)?

In a recent article on executive oversight in the Vietnamese National Assembly, Paul Schuler – a political scientist from the University of Arizona – demonstrates that legislators are able to discuss “hot topics” relating to portfolios delegated from the Communist Party of Vietnam to the government. By contrast, “hot topics” relating to the policy areas of those executive portfolios directly controlled by the Party are off limits. The Party, therefore, allows the legislature to engage in executive oversight, but only in areas that will not make the Party vulnerable to direct critique.

Does the same happen in Russia? To get at this, we can ask a simpler question: Are PCB officials subjected to fewer “government hour” sessions in the State Duma than their GCB colleagues? To answer this, Maxim Ananyev – a Lecturer in UCLA’s Political Science Department – Paul Schuler, and I collected data on “government hour” sessions, 2005-2017. Basic information relates to the date of query sessions, as well as the identity of executive officials, and whether they have posts in president- or government-controlled bodies.

The Russian case is particularly interesting, given Vladimir Putin’s stint as prime minister, 2008-2012. Constitutionally barred from holding a third consecutive term in the presidency, Putin made use of the formally semi-presidential nature of the Russian Constitution, moving to the premiership until resuming the presidency in 2012, with Medvedev moving to the prime ministership.

This switch in formal roles is interesting insofar as it means that Putin’s direct control over executive bodies varied over time. Now, some readers will, no doubt, say that formal control means nothing – especially in Russia and especially with regard to Putin. That hunch may well be well-grounded. At the same time, it is an empirical question amenable to study whether Putin’s move to the premiership affected executive oversight behaviour in the State Duma. Indeed, we can generate some expectations. If Putin remained the “autocrat”, 2005-2017, but was not president, 2008-2012, then it is plausible that he would want to use mechanisms to keep tabs on the performance of those bodies he was used to controlling directly – that is, president-controlled bodies – but which were now controlled (formally, at least) by President Medvedev. Executive oversight in the Duma could be one such mechanism. If that were the case, then we would expect to see increased PCB oversight, 2008-2012.

Figure 2 presents data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by year. The horizontal dashed line marks the percentage of all executive bodies that are controlled directly by the president. If PCBs were overseen at the same “rate” as GCBs (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole), then “government hour” appearance figures should fall around this line.

Figure 2: Percentage of all “government hour” appearances involving officials from president-controlled bodies by year, 2005-2017. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. The dashed vertical lines mark the approximate break points between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies. The dotted horizontal line marks the average percentage of all executive bodies that are PCBs for the period as a whole. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The pattern is striking. During Medvedev’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in PCB oversight. On Putin’s return to the presidency, there was a dramatic decrease in PCB oversight. This pattern is consistent with the idea that Putin used “government hour” sessions to keep tabs on president-controlled bodies during his time as prime minister. It is plausible that he was able to do this, given the stronger ties he had (compared to Medvedev) with legislative agenda-setting actors, such as the State Duma speakers during his premiership, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Naryshkin. When Putin was president himself, however, PCB oversight was largely lower than would be expected if PCB officials were scrutinised at the same rate as GCB officials (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole).

Presidential inaugurations in Russia take place on 7 May. That means that 2008 and 2012 need to be split into Putin and Medvedev periods. Figures 3 and 4 present data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by presidential periods within these two years.

Figures 3 and 4: Left figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2008 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Right figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2012 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The patterns are consistent with the picture provided by figure 2: PCB oversight was higher during Medvedev’s presidency than during Putin’s presidencies.

One clear alternative reason for why president-controlled bodies might be overseen by legislators with less vigour than government-controlled bodies is that PCBs handle sensitive subjects. The regime leadership might make clear that such topics are off bounds for parliamentary scrutiny. However, if this were the case, we should not observe changes in PCB oversight across the Putin and Medvedev presidential periods, as the sensitivity of executive bodies should remain relatively stable over time. But we, clearly, do not observe this.

There are a few anomalies with respect to the “autocrat” delegation explanation, however. Firstly, 2008 – why did PCB oversight remain low during Medvedev’s first year in the presidency? Secondly, 2013 – why did PCB oversight not fall even more dramatically on Putin’s return to the presidency? And, finally, 2017 – what explains the upshot in PCB oversight?

Along with answering these questions, much more analysis remains to be done. Most importantly, we need to explore whether meaningful oversight of the executive does, in fact, take place during “government hour” sessions. And we need to entertain alternative explanations. For example, might increased PCB oversight during Medvedev’s presidency reflect his preference for more transparency or checks on executive power?

Regardless of the real answer, this preliminary analysis joins the growing body of work challenging the idea that legislatures in authoritarian regimes are merely ‘rubber stamps’. Evidence from Russia suggests this can involve oversight of the executive in parliament, but needling questions are directed at bodies not directly controlled by Putin.

Ukraine – High Anti-Corruption Court and Prospects for Curbing Corruption

On June 26th, President Poroshenko signed a law establishing the High Anti-Corruption Court. The creation of the body was highly anticipated by both domestic and international observers. The Court is expected to be the last link in the chain of recently established bodies designed to fight top-level corruption in Ukraine and is one of the key conditions to unlock 1.9 billions in IMF aid.

As we previously mentioned on the pages of this blog, it has been a long and rocky road for the fight against corruption in Ukraine. Ukraine’s corruption levels reached an all-time high under the rule of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 and is currently under investigation. Since being elected in 2014, among other economic, political, and military problems facing the country, President Poroshenko also had to reform the justice system. In the past 4 years, Ukraine established three institutions tasked with fighting corruption in the country – National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the National Agency for Corruption Prevention. The role of the newly created High Anti-Corruption Court is to ensure that officials indicted by NABU face trial. Up to now, out of 220 indictments, only 21 officials have been convicted and no senior officials were imprisoned.

Since one of the central demands of the 2014 protests was to eradicate corruption in the country and bring corrupt officials to justice, the lack of convictions has started damaging the credibility of NABU as well as other institutions and governing bodies. According to the nationwide public opinion survey conducted in May 2018,

  • 83% of Ukrainians believe that the fight against corruption in the country has not been successful so far
  • Half of the population (50%) surveyed believe that it is a total failure
  • 48% of the population believe that currently no institution in Ukraine is actively fighting corruption
  • Only 11% believe that the National Anti-corruption Bureau was actively combating graft, but only 15% believe that its efforts are effective
  • Only 4% of those surveyed believe that the President is actively fighting corruption

The new law addressed the criticism previously raised by the IMF and the World Bank and allowed international experts to play a significant role in selection of judges. At the NATO summit in Brussels on July 13, the President confirmed his willingness to allow international experts to be involved asking NATO member countries to provide experts as soon as possible.

However, barely signed, the law was criticised again for allowing a loophole. According to the original law, all politicians and other suspects currently under investigation by NABU would not have to face trial in the newly established anti-corruption court. Instead, they could be considered in ordinary courts. This affected not only 135 cases currently under investigation but also all other cases submitted before the court was established. Given that it may take between 6 months and 2 years before the anti-corruption court is fully established and operational, this would have given significant leeway to a number of corruption cases.

On the urging of the IMF, the original law had to be amended on July 12th to address the criticism. The amendment expanded the jurisdiction of the High Court to include the cases opened before the court was established. Whether the amendments will be enough to unlock the aid from the IMF remains to be seen. More importantly, however, experts agree that the reduction of corruption may require much more than punitive measures alone.

Maryia Rohava and Fabian Burkhardt – “Modernizing” the constitution to preempt a succession crisis? Belarus between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia

This is a guest post by Maryia Rohava, University of Oslo, and Fabian Burkhardt, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen

During the annual state-of-the-nation Address to the Belarusian People and the National Assembly on 24 April 2018, President Aliaksander Lukashenka fiercely rejected the notion that a referendum to amend the country’s 1994 Constitution was imminent. Belarus’ long-time ruler accused the foreign-funded press of peddling constitutional amendments. Opposition politicians calling for a referendum just wanted to provoke a fight and eventually a Ukrainian Maidan. Acting “against the People” by holding a referendum “tomorrow” could lead to the worst-case scenario, “just like in Armenia”, Lukashenka argued. The day before, on 23 April, the Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had resigned in the wake of street protests later called the Velvet Revolution[i].

Lukashenka’s lengthy digression into the intricacies of constitutional politics in the course of his Presidential Address is remarkable. Insofar as it had been precisely Lukashenka – and not the opposition which has been forced into a permanent state of “ghettoization”[ii]– who has been talking about the need to amend the current constitution – or even pass a new one – for the past four years. What does explain Lukashenka’s flirtation with potential constitutional amendments which peaked in the first months of 2018 until mid-April, on the one hand, and the almost complete turnaround on 24 April, on the other?

After all, his current presidential powers are virtually unconstrained, and the term limit was abolished after the 2004 referendum on the constitutional amendments, which turned him in a de facto president for life. Moreover, aged 63, Lukashenka is still relatively young compared to other post-Soviet leaders for life: Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev, for example (just as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov when he died in 2016) aged 78, is 15 years older than the Belarusian leader. In other words, even if we accept that authoritarian leaders outside of monarchies with hereditary succession rules, or without a hegemonic party such as Mexico’s PRI or China’s communist party with institutionalized rules for rotation, need to take care of succession for the sake of their own safety, there is no obvious reason why the succession issue was that urgent as to justify the frequency of references with regard to the Constitution.

Therefore, one might assume that the Belarusian Constitution does have a particular function even though it does not limit executive power and has been violated on numerous occasions. It can be argued that just as in comparable authoritarian regimes,[iii] the Belarusian Constitution has information-related properties which contain a political vision, which defines the nature of the political community, and therefore shapes the identity of the community’s members by signaling and disciplining allies and opponents of the autocrat.[iv] Judging by the discourse on the Constitution in the past four years, there are several tenets at the core of this political vision: the supremacy of the presidency in all spheres touched upon in the Constitution; state sovereignty with regard to the outside world including neutrality in foreign policy, while maintaining constitutional order and stability in domestic politics; Belarus as a social state which guarantees social rights in a paternalistic way, but places the needs of the state and political community over those of the individual; and sovereignty of the people who need to be consulted (at least formally) by referenda if any substantial change was to be probed. However, given the external pressure of a volatile and fast-paced geopolitical environment, and the stalling, or even the end, of the Belarusian model of economic growth[v], Lukashenka and other state actors have recognized that adapting to ever-changing circumstances was necessary.

Calling for a change without changing anything

In the course of the past years, Lukashenka has built up public expectations that sooner or later, constitutional amendments were inevitable. On the 20thanniversary of the Constitution on 15 March 2014, for instance, Lukashenka declared that Belarus had fully “established itself as a sovereign state” by “realizing the aspirations of the Belarusian people of becoming the rightful masters of their home country”. At the same time, “sooner or later, a new constitution needs to be adopted,” – he argued insinuating that the current Constitution is a document of Belarus’ “transitional period”. During his speech addressed to the members of Parliament on 7 October 2016, the head of state went even a step further by calling for the formation of a “group of wise men and lawyers to analyze the Basic Law”. Although in 2017 and early 2018, Lukashenka frequently mentioned how rapidly the world was changing and that the time asked for adaptations[vi] and “something new,” he never really expanded on whenand what kindof changes were expedient.

Moreover, contradictions between the Constitution as theguarantor, core, and foundation of Belarusian statehood, on the one hand, and ever more frequent calls of the regime for amendments to this very pillar became increasingly evident. Discursively, Lukashenka attempted to dissolve this apparent contradiction by distinguishing between the “Constitution” and the “Basic Law” in reference to one and the same legal document. While the Constitution was this very pillar of stability and sovereignty, rhetorically, the Basic Law was not much different from ordinary laws: “We need to understand that law-making is an ongoing lively process. Like all laws and other regulations, it [the Basic Law] is a living organism which is bound to evolve and not to fall behind the pulsating life out there in the world”, he remarked during his annual meeting with the Constitutional Court’s judges on 15 March 2018.

How pliable the official rhetoric was became most obvious in statements of Lukashenka’s mouthpiece Lidziia Iarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission. In January, she conceded that the Constitution needed to be “modernized”, but this kind of “cosmetics” or “renovation” could only be tackled once the basic question of the overall “construction” was decided upon, of course, by the President. But on 28 April 2018, just after Lukashenka had excluded that amendments were to be launched any time soon, Iarmoshyna admitted that the Constitution contained “a lot of obsolete norms” but that stability was much more important than modernizing these norms as they do not harm and obstruct the Belarusian society.

Also, no working parliamentary group or even a constitutional commission was set up to debate constitutional amendments or reforms in a systematic manner. Lukashenka did mention constitutional issues when addressing the Parliament, the Constitutional Court or the Central Election Commission, but separately. Naturally, this line of action retained the President’s full organizational and informational control over the process by preventing potential collective action or coordination among other state bodies with regard to discussing changes. The Constitution, therefore, served as an ideal issue to debate and signal a desire for evolution while any attempt of revolutionary change could be dismissed and blamed on oppositional and hostile foreign actors.

Cementing the supremacy of the presidency?

After the constitutional overhaul in 1996 and the abolishment of term limits in 2004, presidential power has been de jureand de factounconstrained. The position of the President above all other state organs is bolstered by a “theory of legal laws”[vii] propagated within the presidential administration and accepted in the judicial community. Laws were constitutional if they follow both the will of President Lukashenka and “the People”. They were considered unconstitutional and subsequently ignored by scholars if they did not.

When swearing in Viktar Rabtsaŭ as new constitutional court judge on 2 February 2017, Lukashenko addressed a critique frequently put forward by Belarusian NGOs and international actors that Belarus needed a human rights ombudsperson. In his view, such a position would be entirely redundant, since the President should be the “main inspector” of compliance with human rights principles in the country. Following this logic, the Constitutional Court was ascribed a supportive, but not constraining or limiting function of the presidency.

The law-making process is controlled by the Presidential Administration, and virtually all bills are initiated by the executive. Presidential decrees (dekrety, as opposed to the more mundane ukazy) are frequently used as policy initiatives and policy programs. Among others, this practice has been criticized by the OHCHR Special rapporteur on human rights in the latest report: “The legal framework continues to be amended and governed by presidential decrees, which overrule constitutional law”. Two recent examplesare the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment.

First, in an effort to foster the Eurasian integration, Lukashenka used his presidential mandate to introduce the judicial reform of 2013-2014 (Decree No. 6 accompanied by ordinances [ukazy] No.529 and 530) via presidential decrees bypassing the legislature and public debates. The presidential decree No. 6 dated 29 November 2013 made explicit reference to Article 101 of the Constitution. Article 101 stipulates that the President can issue temporal decrees, which have legislative validity, but they require approval of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic. Such temporal presidential decrees should not include changes, additions and interpretations of the Constitution and changes and additions of the legislative program. However, Article 97 clearly assigns the constitutional right to propose legislative bills amending the judicial system, judicial procedures and the status of judges to the House of Representatives.

The judicial reform resulted in the incorporation of the Supreme Economic Court into the Supreme Court despite the fact that the autonomy of the Supreme Economic Court is granted by Article 34 of the Constitution, and references to the Supreme Economic Court still remain in the Constitution.[viii] In the review of the judicial reform, the Constitutional Court confirmed the validity of these acts referring to Article 109, Paragraph (3): “The judicial system in the Republic of Belarus shall be determined by the law.” Thus, the interpretation of the law and legislative acts was de facto expanded to temporary presidential decrees. The Constitutional Court has also recognized that the judicial reform would require constitutional amendments. Thus, it appears that it was this somewhat hurried judicial reform that has opened up the Belarusian leadership to the debate on the Constitution back in 2013-2014.

The second example was the Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social parasitism” from 2 April 2015 which introduced a tax for citizens who did not contribute to funding state expenditure, or did so less than 183 days per year. Therefore, the decree was targeted at unemployed and those employed in the informal economy to prop up state revenue. The reasoning to legitimize the decree was the notion of Belarus as a social state, i.e. contributing financially to social services was portrayed as obligatory. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee argued that the decree violated at least five articles of the Belarusian Constitution, most importantly Article 41, Paragraph (4) (de factointroducing forced or obligatory labor), but also articles 32, 56, and 101.

On the grounds that Decree No 3 violated Article 41 as well as the ILO Convention No. 29 “Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, 1930” and 105 “Abolition of Forced Labor”, the oppositional Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly) filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in July 2015. The Court, however, rejected to review the complaint on the merits as citizens and legal entities are formally not entitled to file a complaint. In the wake of street protests inMinsk and some regions in February and March 2017, the Constitutional Court did react to electronic citizen complaints. While the Court refused to start a constitutional review based on the complaints, it cited legislation and previous decisions of the Court and, therefore, indirectly confirmed the legality of the decree. It made reference to Article 56 of the Constitution and equaled state taxes, duties and other payments to an “unconditional demand by the state” that citizens must comply with following their duty to “contribute to funding public expenditure”. Hanna Kanapatskaia, one of the two independent MPs elected into the House of Representatives in 2016, tried to petition her chamber to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court, but her request got stuck for three months and was formally declined by the House in July 2017.

Decree No 3, therefore, once more highlighted the enormous powers of the presidency to make inroads into key tenets of the Constitution – in this case the notion of the social state. As the state bodies entitled to file complaints with the Constitutional Court are loyal to the president, citizens and other legal entities such as parties are de facto barred from checking the presidency, leaving the street as the only option to vent anger. Lukashenka did not repeal the decree, but complaints and protests did have some results. Among the 470,000 citizens obliged to pay the tax by mid-February 2017, only slightly more than 10% had complied. In March, Lukashenka decided to suspend and reconsider some terms of the decree until 2018. An amended Decree No. 1 was passed on 25 January 2018 which will come into force on 1 January 2019, which, however, also contradicts international and domestic norms on forced and compulsory labor according to an assessment of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Unions.

Overall, there is no reason to doubt that decrees will remain one of the most powerful tools for policy-making by the president. But the apparent lack of feedback mechanisms with the broader population can make its use a costly and, at times, even risky business.

Debating foreign models of constitutional amendments

There is evidence that Lukashenka and his entourage are actively monitoring constitutional amendments in the post-Soviet space aimed at bolstering the regimes of the incumbents, in particular Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. This might indirectly implicate that there are clandestine considerations about how to gradually adapt the current institutional setting and therefore to preempt a potential succession crisis.

In July 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev announced constitutional amendments that were later approved by the Constitutional Court and put to a national referendum on 29 September 2016. The amendments prolonged the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, introduced the post of First Vice President and Vice President, and strengthened the presidential mandate with the right to dissolve the Parliament. Azerbaijan’s model of constitutional changes included even less than a three-month turnaround of amending the Constitution (from announcing the proposal to organizing a national referendum), a package of constitutional amendments presented to the public that removed a number of obstacles with just one plebiscite and a maximized national campaign, opening additional polling stations in Azerbaijani embassies, to legitimize the referendum results.

About the same time, after the Belarusian parliamentary elections in September 2016, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a pro-government party, and its leader Haidukevich proposed changing the terms of office for members of Parliament from 4 to 5 years and extending the presidential tenure from 5 to 7 years by means of a nation-wide referendum which would coincide with local elections in early 2018. Although this initiative evaporated rather quickly, at the time analysts believed that the LDP’s proposal of a referendum had official backing. The prolongation of presidential term limits was discussed with regard to the 2020 electoral cycle when both parliamentary and presidential elections will coincide. Combining a referendum on the extension of presidential term limits with local elections in 2018 could have postponed the next presidential elections until 2025. Another option still in the cards would be an early presidential election in 2019 in combination with a referendum.

The 2017 constitutional reform in Kazakhstan caught Lukashenka’s particular interest. During an official meeting with Nazarbaev in March 2017, just a week after the constitutional amendments were signed into law, Lukashenka commented: “Very often, I observe, analyze and try to learn from the experience and activities (especially during last months) of your government, and above all the President. […] I think that you are making important steps for Kazakhstan to sustain stability and independence of your country. You are trying to reinforce your reforms, especially those with regard to the government and constitutional amendments, with concrete economic steps. This is a great example for others.”

Contrary to previous constitutional amendments aimed at expanding presidential powers, the 2017 reform redistributed 34 presidential powers between different branches of government, strengthening the role of the Parliament and enhancing the separations of powers principle. Moreover, procedurally the process was much more open and at least formally consultative than the Azerbaijani maneuver. Draft constitutional amendments in Kazakhstan were originally formulated by a special working group, comprised of the members of the government, Parliament, Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, academia and civil society, and were discussed publically prior to the approval of the final draft law by a joint session of Parliament. From the Belarusian perspective, this might indeed look like a viable “operation successor” as part of a Kazakhstani “sustainable system,” where Nazarbaev could at one point take over another position – e.g. as a chairman of the National Security Council – whilst a designated successor would secure his safety until the final power transition.

Lukashenka, himself has alluded on multiple occasions that presidential powers should be distributed among other state organs, most importantly the government to strengthen the “power vertical” for the days “when Lukashenka will be no more”. But this power redistribution, he emphasized, is not going to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, with Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in April 2018, the dangers of tinkering with the country’s institutional design clearly outweighed the perceived advantages. Given that Lukashenka had done away with the presidential term limit long ago, the “Armenian model” of switching from semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism with the President indirectly elected by the Parliament was the least relevant in any case. Besides the more obvious lesson that an allegedly popular president can be toppled by street protests rather quickly and unexpectedly when constitutional amendments are perceived as overt manipulations and feedback mechanisms, such as media and polls, are flawed, the Armenian case might have contributed to shelving once again reforms of the electoral code and the party system.

After all, it was the Armenian ruling Republican Party that had nominated Serzh Sargsyan and later lost power to a coalition of parliamentary factions around the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. From the perspective of Lukashenka, transforming the pro-regime platform Belaia Rus’ into a proper party of power now accompanied by a change of the electoral system from majoritarian first-past-the pole single member districts to a proportional system with party lists carries more disadvantages than simply maintaining the status quo. The Central Election Commission’s Iarmoshyna has made it clear on numerous occasions that amendments to the election law to a proportional or a mixed system would also require constitutional amendments such as the removal of citizens’ right to recall elected deputies (Article 72). Finally, Lukashenka remarked that firmly grounding the notion of the multi-party system in the Constitution would precede any steps of turning Belaia Rus’ into a party. A proper party system, however, would result in “endless debates”, and it was far from clear whether Belarus was ready for this sort of “fist fight”.

Conclusions

Over the last years, the Belarusian President, Aliaksander Lukashenka, has been building up public expectations that amending the Constitution was inevitable.

The reality is different. Despite numerous statements, the Constitution has remained unscathed since 2004. The discussed two examples of the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment are just the tip of the iceberg of the law-making done by presidential decrees. However, they showed that touching the Constitution is unnecessary as presidential power can be expandedby laws or decrees. Nevertheless, as the cases of Kazakhstan and Armenia revealed, dealing with the succession issue would involve a decrease and redistributionof presidential powers to other state organs, mainly to the legislature and the government. In the presidential discourse, however, the Constitution is firmly associated with stability, state sovereignty, security, and an evolutionary path of state-building. Opposition groups who have been campaigning for a constitutional referendum such as Gavary Praūdu (Tell the Truth) can thus easily be denigrated as subversive and anti-Belarusian.

In the absence of independent public opinion surveys, there is a vacuum of reliable comparative data that measures regime support. This is not only problematic for researchers working on Belarus[ix], it seems that the regime also struggles to measure people’s attitudes and support for the government and its policies. Given recent events in Armenia of yet another “color revolution” in the post-Soviet space, freezing the status quo and postponing the successor issue by talking about constitutional changes while changing nothing so far has proved to be a successful recipe, at least from the perspective of the Belarusian ruler.

Notes

[i]In December 2015, constitutional changes were designed to transfer significant powers from the Armenian president to the Prime Minister. The presidential term limit prevented Sargsyan from getting elected as President for the third time. By getting appointed by the ruling Republican Party as Prime Minister on 11 April Sargsyan hoped to remain in power, but in vain.

[ii]Bedford, S., & Vinatier, L. (2018). Resisting the Irresistible:‘Failed Opposition’ in Azerbaijan and Belarus Revisited. Government and Opposition, online first: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.33.

[iii]Ginsburg, T., & Simpser, A. (Eds.). (2013). Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Cambridge University Press.

[iv]Ungated version: Burkhardt, F. (2016). Belarus. In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe(pp. 463-493). Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

[v]Dabrowski, M. (2016). Belarus at a Crossroads(No. 2016/02). Bruegel Policy Contribution.

[vi]Frear, M. (2019). Belarus under Lukashenka. Adaptive Authoritarianism. Routledge.

[vii]Partlett, W. (2012). The Dangers of Popular Constitution-Making. Brooklyn Journal for

International Law 38(1), p. 228.

[viii]Kazakevich, A. (2008). Belarus. Nations in Transit Country Reports 2018. Freedom House.

[ix]Rohava, M. (2018). Identity in an Autocratic State: Or What Belarusians Talk about When They Talk about National Identity. East European Politics and Societies 32(3), pp. 639–668.

Marcelo Jenny – Austria’s President Van der Bellen speaks up

This is a guest post by Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Marcelo Jenny from the Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Innsbruck

Austria belongs to the semi-presidential regime type and the head of state has some strong constitutional powers, but after his election the current president Alexander Van der Bellen has conformed to the familiar role model of Austrian presidents. Of beeing seen as an impartial political authority in reserve by staying away from the day-to-day tug of war between the government and the parliamentary opposition parties. As a consequence the president may be absent from the political news sections for extended periods of time. When Van der Bellen made news with statements on issues of international and domestic policy several times in a row, some started to take notice.

Van der Bellen has been in office since January 2017, after a thrilling election year 2016 that ended with a final win over rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in a repeated run-off ballot. The Constitutional Court had annulled the first run-off vote due to voting irregularities. Coming from the most left party in parliament, the Greens, Van der Bellen managed to project himself as a centrist candidate against Hofer who came from the most right party in parliament. Last year’s legislative elections in autumn brought in a right-wing coalition government between the People’s Party led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hofer’s Freedom Party. Van der Bellen swore in his previous rival Hofer as the new Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

In their presidential campaigns both had been very critical of the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), stating that as president they would not sign the treaty. CETA was and still is very unpopular in Austria. Van der Bellen announced last week that he would not sign the free trade agreement after its ratification by the national parliament in June. He clarified that he would not sign now, but rather wait until the European Court of Justice issues a verdict on CETA’s compatibility with European Union law. He is on constitutional safe ground, but it is also a reminder of the president’s political views. The previous government coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) signed the treaty, against the opposition of Freedom Party and Greens. The current government parties ÖVP and FPÖ, plus the liberals party NEOS, followed through with parliamentary ratification. The SPÖ now in opposition has strongly come out against the treaty, the Freedom Party now unwillingly backs it.

A step deeper into the thicket of domestic politics was Van der Bellen’s recent statement of support for upholding a tradition of social partnership in social and economic policy law-making. The government had just pushed through a controversial law increasing working time flexibility. The bill by-passed the usual process of pre-parliamentary review by interest groups and experts. While interest groups representing business, traditonally politically close to the two parties currently in government were happy with the new law, the labour union federation and the chambers of labour, close to the Social Democratic opposition, came out strongly against it and organized a demonstration of about 100,000 people (which is extraordinary by Austrian standards). The president was later joined by some ÖVP Land governors who also expressed unease about the government’s rushed, controversy-inducing style of policy-making.

The most recent and strongest statement of disapproval with the government came with Van der Bellen’s criticism of FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky, a Member of the European Parliament, two days ago. Vilimsky demanded the resignation of EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accusing him of being an alcoholic, which led Bellen to call Vilimsky respectless and foul-mouthed. The president also critized the government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for remaining completely silent on the issue. Austria currently holds the EU presidency. Representatives from the Freedom Party’s representatives then doubled down on their criticism of Juncker and called on Van der Bellen to return to a position of political impartiality.

The episodes of Van der Bellen speaking up might have come together by coincidence and the media attention the president gets is perhaps an unintended consequence of Federal Chancellor Kurz’s media strategy of making himself rare. It remains to be seen whether Van der Bellen will be frequently drawn into political disputes in the future. Yet they remind us of the new political constellation Austria is in with a leftist president facing a right-wing coalition government.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Social turbulence for the Cypriot president

N. Anastasiades was reelected in the February 2018 presidential elections enjoying a strong majority over his opposition: 56% to 44%. Following a very intense electoral campaign where all major policy issues were harshly contested, the result was thought to have given the current president space for implementing his policies both in internal affairs and the Cyprus problem. However, this assessment proved short-sighted and failed to grasp the complexities of Cypriot politics.

Immediately upon his reelection and in a period of just five months the new government has been confronted with a number of problems that created an atmosphere of social turbulence. All these contested issues touch upon fundamental aspects of the government’s policy. Currently, these issues include the economy and the education system. Before these, it was the medical doctors of the public sector that collided with the government over the character of the health system on the island, whereas a couple months ago hundreds of environmental activists protested in various parts of the island against government decisions favouring big developments (skyscrapers) on the coasts of Cyprus, as well as in environmentally protected areas incorporated in the EU’s Natura 2000 network.

In the economy, Cyprus experienced once again the fear of a bail-in, similar to that of March 2013; this time the focal point was the Cyprus Cooperative Bank (CCB). CCB has a 110-year history in Cyprus and is currently a large, systemic bank (the third largest bank in Cyprus). The CCB focuses on retail banking, serving some 400,000 Cypriots with more than 30% of the total deposits. Given the problems faced by this bank the government decided, back in September 2013, to inject money and put it under its total share capital control. Since then, it has become very obvious that the right-wing government of N. Anastasiades favoured the privatization of the CCB but was unable to do so in its first tenure because of the reactions of the opposition and other social actors.

Eventually, and despite the opposition’s resistance, the government began the process for privatizing the CCB, while also making it clear that they preferred another local bank (Hellenic Bank) to take over. Some misguided (some say targeted) statements by government officials and rumours for a forthcoming bail-in unless the parliament authorized the privatization of the bank resulted in a bank run from the CCB. Withdrawals totalled €1.9 billion in the first three months of 2018.

The deal, as it was negotiated, would have led to the Hellenic Bank acquiring the “good part” of the CCB (deposits and assets) and for the government to take over the “bad part” (i.e., the non-performing loans). This deal has generally been viewed as very favourable for Hellenic Bank, but bad for the Cyprus tax-payer. As pointed out by the press (and also the opposition), the deal could prove to be very expensive for the central government and ultimately for the tax-payer. The government issued Development Bonds totalling €3.35 billion to bolster the ‘good part’ of the CCB, raising the public debt to GDP ratio from 97.5% to approximately 120%. In addition, the government has agreed to protect the assets of the Hellenic Bank by providing guarantees which could eventually be very costly if exercised. Furthermore, the government has agreed to make redundancy payments to the 1000-plus employees of the CCB who are expected to be laid off as a result of the deal.

Notwithstanding the positive vote that the (scant) majority of the parliament gave to the government’s bill on this issue, criticism has been very strong by most political parties (even those that supported the legislation). Most of the criticism has targeted the Minister of Finance whose resignation was demanded; the president and his overall economic policy was also targeted as one that favours big capital. A protest was also organized by a civil society group, the Movement Against Foreclosures, in the capital city of Nicosia and was backed by some of the opposition parties.

And while the fire from this issue was still burning another one lit up. This time it was the teachers associations of primary and secondary education that protested against government decisions. Thousands of teachers, parents and students gathered outside the education ministry in the sizzling heat to demand the resignation of the Education Minister. The pretext for the row focused on a cabinet decision to abolish exemptions from teaching hours for trade union activities and extra-curricular activities, and fewer hours for teachers with many years of service. However, the teachers were quick to introduce wider issues relating to the overall government policy towards the pubic character of the education system in Cyprus. Protestors chanted ‘give up’ and ‘hands off education’ in front of the ministry. According to most sources it was the most massive demonstration held in Nicosia in recent years gathering thousands of protestors. The unions have threatened to strike in September if the problems are not solved.

Demonstrations and opposition to government policies by various parties, unions and social groups reveal important underlying social tensions and show that the president has a difficult path to cross in his second and final term. His policies favouring a smaller state will probably be at the heart of discussions and it must be taken for granted that they will provoke strong opposition. With the negotiations for the Cyprus problem expected to resume in the fall, the government cannot operate in such a tumultuous environment. A more consensual approach will be probably sought in the forthcoming days and weeks.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in an intra-institutional tug of war

Nobody would have anticipated that a short, two-day long, scuffle between President Grybauskaite and prime minister Skvernelis that unfolded in early January would result in an intense intra-institutional tug of war a few months later, and that this intra-instutional infighting would widen to include the country’s parliament, Seimas, and Mr. Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Framers and Green Union Party, which holds a majority of seats in the Seimas. 

Conflicts between prime minister and the president came into the open in April. Skvernelis and Grybauskaite not only continued their escalation regarding potential reevaluation of Lithuania’s relations with Russia that began in early January (more on that below), but their first major confrontation involved a disagreement regarding Minister of Agriculture Markauskas’s political fate. According to the Agency Investigating Financial Crimes (FNTT), Markauskas had made illegal financial gains, which also included payments from the EU funds, while utilizing his neighbor’s arable land, allegedly without the latter’s consent. Based on FNTT’s information, presidential advisors called Markauskas into the presidential office and “ordered [the minister] to resign.” Since the agriculture minister refused, Grybauskaite decided to increase pressure on prime minister by using the media and by making their disagreement public. In her press communiqué she alluded to the prime minister’s continued reluctance to fire the compromised minister indicating that Skvernelis was “dependent [on receiving guidance from his political party higher-ups] and unable to make autonomous decisions.” Following the same communication pattern as the president, the prime minister gave a terse response to Grybauskaite also using local media outlets. “I’m the head of the government. I understand my responsibilities and duties regarding my cabinet members and would not evade them, but at the same time I will not succumb to the pressure by the president or anybody else. It will be my decision, and I will also bare the brunt of it,” declared the prime minister. Skvernelis reminded the president that it was his constitutional prerogative to accept resignation of his cabinet ministers and that he would not be pressured by anybody, not even the president, as to the decisions he would make or when they would happen. Not only did the prime minister show resentment toward Grybauskaite’s public pressure to fire the agriculture minister, but also he was equally irritated that the president sought to usurp the prime minister’s decision-making duties.  

The next political battle between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis ensued in late April when the president rejected the prime minister’s candidate, Mr. Danelius, to the post of the justice minister. Several senior parliament members and attorneys did not find president’s explanation of Mr. Danelius “clashes of interests” sufficiently credible and justifiable to reject his nomination. The conflict between the president and prime minister intensified as political analysts speculated that the presidential rejection signaled Grybauskaite’s “payback” to Skvernelis for his refusal to force the compromised minister of agriculture into an immediate resignation (even if the minister eventually resigned). 

Almost in a tit-for-tat manner, the prime minister further accelerated his conflict with the president when he decided to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several Lithuanian ambassadors for discussions about Lithuanian-Russian relations as well as Lithuania’s bilateral relations with the other EU Eastern Partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova). Although the prime minister’s office claimed that it had no intention to introduce any foreign policy revisions, the president perceived Skvernelis’ moves as another intrusion into her “sphere of influence” and promptly expressed criticism and disapproval. After the meeting with the foreign minister and ambassadors, the prime minister announced through the local media that his and Grybauskaite’s positions fully align, and that the purpose of the meeting was for him to hear directly from the ambassadors on how they evaluate situation in the countries where they reside. Allegedly, at least with regards to Lithuanian-Russian relations the prime minister decided to de-escalate existing tensions with the president. 

It appeared that Grybauskaite was winning the ongoing intra-institutional battles with prime minister as her favored outcomes were realized: the Minister of Agriculture ended up resigning (although not as quickly as the president preferred); she also made the prime minister suggest another candidate for the post of the justice minister; and “new” foreign policy initiatives regarding Lithuanian-Russian relations after Skvernelis’ consultations with ambassadors resulted in no changes. But then a political bombshell exploded. 

On April 28th and throughout early May, Lietuvos rytas, one of Lithuania’s major newspapers, published a series of articles about Grybauskaite’s electronic correspondence from an obscure email account tulpes@lrpk.lt with Mr. Masiulis, the former leader of the Liberal Movement (LS) political party, who since 2016 had been implicated in a major political corruption investigation. Published correspondence dated from 2014-2016 period and discussed a variety of politically sensitive issues such as potential candidates to the Prosecutor General’s office; the 2016 parliamentary elections and who the president would like to be chosen as prime minister; the role of LNK TV channel and particularly journalist Tomas Dapkus who voiced strong criticism about Grybauskaite’s preferred candidates for the Prosecutor General’s office; warnings about Skvernelis’ political ambitions and the president’s description of him as a “dangerous populist.” Interestingly, the timing of leaked correspondence between Grybauskaite and Masiulis coincided with the conclusion of the investigation of his political corruption case and the filing of a lawsuit by the Prosecutor General’s office against Masiulis and the Liberal Movement party he headed until 2016. 

As soon as the email correspondence became public, conflict between Grybauskaite and the ruling Framers and Green Union Party (LVZS) in parliament, particularly its leader, Mr. Karbauskis and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister, spiraled. Immediately LVZS MPs called for investigations into Grybauskaite’s activities, electronic correspondence, and the legality of her actions. Several parliamentary members and political commentators began hinting at the possibility of president’s impeachment, claiming that Grybauskaite’s emails not only directly tied her to Masiulis’ shady political dealings, but also exposed her to potential influences from MG Baltic, one of Lithuania’s largest industrial and medial conglomerates that sought political favors in return for provided financial support. Additionally, the president’s email messages, according to Skvernelis’ suppositions, reflected her alleged “pressure on the media.” This was derived from one of president’s emails written to Masiulis in which she asked him to “send her message” to the head of MG Baltic Darius Mockus, asking Mockus to “restrain his hound” [here, reference is made to journalist Dapkus who, in president’s view, “was speaking nonsense” about her proposed candidate to the post of the Prosecutor General and, as it became known, had direct contacts with MG Baltic top management that owns LNK station where Dapkus works). Additionally, Karbauskis claimed that president’s emails, if proven to be authentic, were not only scandalous, but also reflected unacceptable and potentially illegal political actions by the president.

Within a couple of days Grybauskaite gave a public interview in which she presented her interpretation of events, specifically answering questions pertaining to her correspondence with Masiulis. Although she did not deny using the tulpes@lrpk.lt email address and acknowledged that she had sent emails and text messages to Masiulis from this address, she claimed that she could not confirm the authenticity of these emails. Grybauskaite claimed that her correspondence with Masiulis was neither saved nor found on any of her office’s servers.  She also expressed a belief that the primary reason behind the publication of her electronic correspondence with the former LS leader was to politicize the current lawsuit against Masiulis, and she expressed concern that their correspondence may be used as evidence by the defense.  However, the president expressed her satisfaction that the fight against corruption had made a major breakthrough as three significant political corruption lawsuits were recently filed with the courts by law enforcement agencies, and that the public would get a better understanding as to how much influence large companies and powerful interest groups had amassed in the past decade over the country’s political system. 

Her political opponents, especially Karbauskis, dismissed the president’s “calculated” explanations about the emails’ “disappearance, “ suggesting he was inclined to ask parliament’s IT to check parliament servers in order to “discover” Grybauskaite’s emails that were sent to Masiulis, who was a MP until 2016. Karbauskis also stated that Grybauskaite’s sudden and active presence in the public eye and the media indicated the use of diversionary tactics as the president was allegedly trying to divert public attention from her scandal and towards Karbauskis’ Agroverslas company and potentially unconstitutional links between his business interests and his current lawmaking activities. Indeed, Grybauskaite during her interview alluded that investigations launched in parliament and led by Karbauskis’ party members could be perceived as “selective,” suggesting that she saw no political will shown by LVZS to achieve greater transparency in investigating how businesses interests (including Karbauskis’ own agricultural conglomerate) influence politics. After several terse public exchanges between the presidential office and the parliament that continued in May and June—for instance, Karbauskis announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until the new president gets elected next year—the parliament adjourned for summer recess with neither Karbauskis nor Skvernelis showing any apparent intensions to pursue president’s impeachment.  

Although Grybauskaite vehemently denied any involvement in any corruption cases, she felt it was necessary to launch a media campaign to present her side of the story. Despite her efforts to defend herself, political damage that the latest political scandal will have on her, her reputation, and, ultimately, her legacy is inevitable albeit the extent of it is too early to tell. Some prominent politicians voiced the opinion that Grybauskaite should resign as she had clearly compromised herself and could no longer serve as the moral leader of the country. Others expressed the opinion that because of her involvement in the latest political scandal Grybauskaite had killed off her chances to successfully run and be selected for a high-ranking post in the top EU governing structures. Moreover, headlines about impeachment produced a negative effect:  as expected, her public approval ratings experienced a significant fall within days of political scandal’s eruption and appear to be falling nearly two months later. More disconcerting for Grybauskaite, however, is what will happen after the parliament’s summer recess. Karbauskis has already hinted that he is not only determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, including Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair,” but he is expecting the president to respond to his ultimatum regarding the authenticity of her emails. The presidential office stated that Karbauskis’ intention to investigate Grybauskaite’s emails amounts to an open political vendetta and violates the Constitution. 

As regular and numerous media headlines about ongoing political tug of war between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis and, more recently, between Grybauskaite and Karbauskis suggest, her last year in office may be an ongoing fight for her reputation, fending off one political scandal after another as the “reigning in” of the president will likely continue. The winner of these intra-institutional wars is unclear at the moment. However, it is safe to assume that this is probably not how Grybauskaite anticipated she would spend her last year in office.

France – Global Macron

The phrase ‘global Macron’ describes a politician who has fully integrated the global dimension of politics into the construction of his domestic political leadership. A global presence is one of the classic roles of French Presidents, the role model being defined almost seven decades ago by General de Gaulle. The image of the French President as a supra-partisan Republican monarch depends in part on fulfilling the noble functions of the State: representing the unity of the nation abroad and symbolizing national unity during times of war and peace. French Presidents have traditionally claimed a ‘reserved domain’ in foreign policy and defense – and very clearly Macron in no exception. Key foreign and defence policy decisions and initiatives taken are taken at the Elysée, either by Macron or in regular meetings with the chiefs of Staff. Macron assumes the normal function of a French President (the prominent role in European affairs and in defense and security policy, as well as the personalization of relations with foreign leaders such as Donald Trump). The phrase Global Macron also refers to a very personalized foreign policy leadership, involving a downscaling of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Le Drian, who had occupied a much more prominent role as Defense minister under Hollande’s presidency.

From the outset, Macron measured himself up to the great and the good in world politics. Within two months of his election, he had welcomed Russian leader Vladimir Putin with great pomp and ceremony to the Versailles Palace and US President Trump to the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. During his first year, Macron led formal state visits to China, Algeria, India and the US, inter alia, with the state visits combining diplomacy with trade and cultural promotion. Substantively, also, under Macron, the French President was seen once again to be performing an active role in terms of foreign policy. Amongst the many examples, let us mention the attempts to reaffirm the centrality of an eventual French role as mediator in the Middle East and to mediate the Lebanon/Saudi Arabia crisis in late 2017.

But there are vital differences in relation to his predecessors. First, the generational effect has spilled over from domestic to foreign policy. From the very beginning of his mandate, Macron has been more than a traditional French foreign policy President; he is representative of a Macron brand, admired elsewhere, a model of youthful, reformist and intentional political leadership. Macron symbolizes generational renewal on the international scene as well, the French president being the most prominent of a group of leaders, including Justin Trudeau (amongst others). If political leadership is in part a form of communication, Macron is a past master, an adept of personal stage management, including a much more prominent use of Brigitte Macron and ‘private’ visits such as to the Taj Mahal in India in 2018 (de Royer, 2018). He displays a mastery of tools of modern political communication that surpasses his predecessors: the carefully controlled Twitter account and the You Tube channel, for example. There is an element of celebrity politics; the close collaboration with popular magazines such as Paris March or Vanity Fair is in stark contrast with the distant relationships maintained with more critical media outlets (the quality press, the 24 hour news programmes in particular).

Macron has also challenged elements of the traditional repertoire. French Presidents usually deliberately assume a position of national unity abroad; such was the case for President Hollande, for example, in Mali or Syria. The logic of national consensus usually encourages political leaders to rise above domestic conflict. Not so Macron, who has used distance from home to publicly reiterate the theme of the difficulty of reforming French society, to announce (to the rest of the world) his determination to continue to reform. Herein lies another aspect of the Janus-faced nature of the Macron presidency. It involves a permanent two-way dialogue; playing up domestic reforms in order to strengthen national prestige abroad; using the foreign arena to reinforce the reform message at home, in a permanent movement and transition between levels. Foreign leaders and audiences are invited to be fellow-conspirators in the plot to reform and change French society. Global Macron represents a permanent interaction between personality, position and environment.

There are limits to this enterprise. In practical terms, the frequent absences from France (46 days abroad during the first six months of 2018) produced growing criticism at home. For a system that relies so heavily on personal direction, Macron’s physical absence creates a vacuum (witness the spat between the Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and his associate Gérard Darmintin in relation to welfare spending, or premier Edouard Philippe’s inability to formulate clear policy responses in the physical absence of the President). In terms of substance, too, the ‘en même temps’ doctrine is less easy to export to the global – or even European – stage. The French President seeks to articulate a somewhat contradictory international message, one that is less easy to justify in terms of the domestic register of en même temps. It is caught between the need to promote France as a mover of international free trade and liberalization – the ‘France is Back’ of the 2018 Davos summit – and the domestic agenda of a France that protects against globalization. What passes for creative compromise at home represents a blurring of the message internationally. The positive framing of such a position is that France ‘speaks with everyone’, and is respected as an interlocutor. Under Macron, France has indeed attempted to be more present in the Middle East, in Africa and in Asia. But the balanced stance probably overplays French capacity: visits to Iran and Russia by Foreign Affairs Minister Le Drian, for example, made no difference to the activities of Iran and Russia in Syria. And Macron had little influence over the Turkish leader Recip Erdogen, or the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou. The en même temps doctrine also appeared to be inconsistently applied faced with authoritarian political leaders, depending on French interests. There was a clear inequality of treatment between Egypt’s General Sissi – a harsh authoritarian leader who had purchased French Rafale planes – and the Turkish leader Erdogen.

And then there is the specific case of US President Trump, where Macron arguably overplayed his hand and discovered the perils of investing too much faith in a ‘special’ personal relationship. All started so well. President Trump’s state visit to France in July 2017 was heavy in state symbolism, the US President declaring himself to be impressed by the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. French participation in the US-led air strikes in Syria, alongside the UK, confirmed France’s status as a key US ally. The pomp and glory of Macron’s visit to the US in in May 2018 contrasted with the frosty reception received by Chancellor Merkel later on in the same week. And yet this was all to little effect, as Trump successively withdrew the US from Paris climate agreement, and then from the Iran nuclear agreement, before finally imposing trade tariffs on Steel and Aluminium and sparking fears of a global trade war. Macron’s en meme temps was not designed to confront such realist power plays.

Latvia – How should the President be elected?

In Latvia, the President is elected by Parliament in a secret ballot. Members of Parliament have no obligation to reveal which candidate they support. Article 36 of the Constitution of Latvia states: “The President of the Republic of Latvia shall be elected by secret ballot by a majority of not less than 51 members of the Parliament”.

Over the past few years, there have been discussions initiated both by State presidents, the media, and society about the election process for the State president. Should the president continue to be elected by a secret ballot or an open ballot in parliament, or should the president be directly elected?

Currently, the vote on the President is the only secret vote in the Parliament. All other votes – on laws, the election of officials, such as the Speaker of the Parliament, the Prime Minister, the judges of the Supreme Court and the judges of the Constitutional Court, the State Auditor, the President of the Bank of Latvia, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission and other officials – are open.

The current President of Latvia, Raimonds Vejonis, was elected on June 3, 2015, in a secret ballot with 55 votes “FOR” and 42 votes “AGAINST”. At that time Vejonis stated that he was ready to support the direct election of the President.

In June 2017 President Vejonis suggested that President should be elected by a popular vote and invited the Parliament to amend the Constitution accordingly. He urged MPs to ensure that the 2019 Presidential election would be held by popular vote.

The idea for a direct Presidential election has been discussed for some time. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority of the 100 elected parliamentarians.

At the same time, 11,483 people have signed the public initiative portal Manabalss.lv (my voice) to change the way the State president is elected. The proposal is to reword Article 36 of the Constitution in the following way: “The President of the Republic of Latvia shall be elected by open vote with no less than 51 majority of the Parliament members”. The idea is that the Presidential elections in Latvia would be more open and transparent, that voters could find out how their elected members voted and who is responsible for the result.

MPs of the Unity, National Alliance and Harmony parties, support the initiative, while MPs from the Greens and Farmers Union and Latvia From the Heart are against.

From February 2015 until April 2017 there was a working group in Parliament looking at the possible extension of the mandate of the President and the evaluation of the election procedure. Composed of a single representative from each party in Parliament, the main conclusion of this working group is that the current procedure for the election of the President should be changed. The President of Latvia should be elected by the people of Latvia in direct, general, equal and secret elections.

On June 12, most of the members of Parliaments’ Legal Commission (5 votes “FOR”, 3 votes “AGAINST”) supported the amendments to the Constitution proposed by the opposition party, the Association of the Regions of Latvia, which stipulates an open ballot for the election of the President by parliament. The representatives from the Unity and the National Alliance “For All Latvia” – “Fatherland and Freedom” / LNNK, supported the amendments, while most of the members of the Green and Farmers’ Union did not vote.

On June 20, President Vejonis said, in effect, that an open ballot was not open enough. The President pointed out that, even before an open vote, political parties agree on how they will vote, and it is not possible for each MP to express an individual opinion, because of party loyalty.

The debate is ongoing and this will be followed up in future posts.