By ALISON MUTLER, Associated Press
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian cities are gripped by the worst street violence in over a decade. Slovaks seem poised to re-elect a confrontational and divisive populist. Hungary alarms the European Union with laws that erode democratic rights.
In former Soviet bloc nations now part of the EU, frustration is mounting due to economic stagnation and worrisome governance, encouraging street protests and unpredictability that could jeopardize growth and stability in an already troubled part of the continent.
Many of the problems are common far beyond the region: indebted states hiking taxes and slashing state spending to stay solvent. But the added burdens come to a region that was already grappling with much deeper poverty and corruption than in the West before the global financial crisis hit.
In recent days, the situation has played out most dramatically in Romania, where pent-up fury with the government and an eroding standard of living exploded into days of street protests that at times turned violent. In Bucharest over the weekend, 59 people were injured in fighting that saw riot police turn tear gas on protesters who attacked them with stones and firebombs.
"What happened last weekend is only the beginning," commentator Gabriel Bejan wrote in Tuesday's Romania Libera daily paper. "We are in an important electoral year and such confrontations will be frequent. What will they lead to when nobody seems willing to take a step back?"
Much of the frustration goes back to the way Romania transitioned to democracy after its 1989 coup against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — with many former communists keeping control of power and resources. The results, today, are seen in entrenched cronyism, a huge gap between rich and poor and a lack of government transparency that feeds a widespread sense of injustice.
"The Mafioso government stole everything we had!" protesters declared on banners at several of the rallies that have taken place in more than a dozen Romanian cities since Thursday and appear set to go on.
Hungarians have also been taking to the streets with increased frequency in recent months over a new constitution and a blizzard of new laws that concentrate power for the right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Freedom House, a U.S. group that carries out a yearly global survey of political freedom and civil liberties, has observed "hints of re-emergent illiberalism" across central Europe, said Christopher Walker, the group's vice president for strategy and analysis.
This year's report, to be published Thursday, will highlight what it sees as a deteriorating climate for civil liberties in Hungary due to threats to the independence of the press and the judiciary.
"Hungary has shown a bent towards illiberalism which is really inconsistent with the European idea," Walker said.
The EU agrees. On Tuesday the EU Commission launched legal challenges against Budapest over its new constitution and other laws which took effect Jan. 1, saying they undermine the independence of the national central bank and the judiciary and do not respect data privacy principles.
Orban's tightening hold on many institutions comes thanks to an overwhelming 2010 victory for his party on the heels of near economic collapse by the previous, Socialist-led government.
But the mounting EU pressure appeared to have some effect: EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Wednesday that he received a letter from Orban promising to modify the legislation that raised EU concerns.
In Slovakia, meanwhile, opinion polls predict a probable return to power in March elections for Robert Fico, a former left-wing prime minister who has also worried Western diplomats with a sympathetic approach toward authoritarian states. Fico took Russia's side during its 2008 war with Georgia — bucking a trend across the former Soviet bloc to express concern over Moscow's use of power. He has also celebrated Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.
In striking contrast to trouble in much of the region, there is one relative oasis: Poland, the largest of the 10 ex-communist states that joined the EU in recent years. Its economy has seen unusual dynamism given the difficult times, thanks in some part to massive infrastructure projects in recent years as Poland prepares to co-host this summer's European football championships with Ukraine.
But economists fear that its economy, too, could lose momentum after the Euro 2012 and with far-ranging austerity measures set to start taking effect this year in an effort to keep state debt from spiraling out of control.
But for now, anger is clearly greater in Hungary and Romania, and in both places the unfolding developments are shaped greatly by the legacy of communist rule.
In Hungary, Orban has justified his upending of the country's laws by arguing that the former communists and their way of thinking were never purged entirely from democratic Hungary.
Romania sees many of its problems exacerbated by the continued rule of some former communists, including President Traian Basescu, 60, who under Ceausescu was a ship captain for the state shipping company Navrom in Antwerp. That was a position of privilege which allowed him to earn coveted hard currency.
Feeding frustration is a sense that there is too little transparency over the doings, past and present, of Romania's leaders.
More than two decades after the overthrow of Ceausescu, authorities have opened only a handful of the files of the former dreaded Securitate secret police, which had 760,000 informers in a nation of 22 million. Former agents are believed to be active in politics, business and the media — though the public has never been given the full picture.
Also, only a handful of senior officials were ever tried for the mass shootings of unarmed civilians in the 1989 revolution, perpetuating a sense that that story, too, is being covered up.
A political analyst who has studied the revolutions of Eastern Europe, Christopher Chivvers with the RAND Corporation, sees many of today's injustices as being rooted in the overly rapid move toward a market economy in the 1990s.
When state-run industries were privatized then, it was generally only the former communist apparatchiks who knew how to maneuver the system to take hold of them and run them.
"Those who had the know-how — the former regime officials — were able to snatch up large amounts of former state property in ways that ultimately entrenched their position in society and in the state," said Chivvers, who is also a professor in European studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Many Romanians express deep frustration over this.
"We still have unanswered questions regarding shady privatization deals made in the 90s," said Cristina, a Romanian woman who asked that her last name not be published because she works for the government and fears retribution.
Vanessa Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland. Associated Press writer Karel Janicek contributed from Prague.