France paralysed by a wave of strike action, the boulevards of Paris resembling a debris-strewn battle. The Hungarian currency sinks to its lowest level ever against the euro, as the unemployment rises. Greek farmers block the road into Bulgaria in protest at low prices for their produce.
It’s a snapshot of a single day – yesterday – in a Europe sinking into the bleakest of times. But while the outlook may be dark in the big wealthy democracies of western Europe, it is in the young, poor, vulnerable states of central and eastern Europe that the trauma of crash, slump and meltdown looks graver.
Exactly 20 years ago, in serial revolutionary rejoicing, they ditched communism to put their faith in a capitalism now in crisis and by which they feel betrayed. The result has been the biggest protests across the former communist bloc since the days of people power.
Europe’s time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air.
Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old middle-class boy going to a party in a rough neighbourhood on a December Saturday, was the first fatality of Europe’s season of strife. Shot dead by a policeman, the boy’s killing lit a bonfire of unrest in the city unmatched since the 1970s.
There are many wellsprings of the serial protests rolling across Europe. In Athens, it was students and young people who suddenly mobilised to turn parts of the city into no-go areas. They were sick of the lack of jobs and prospects, the failings of the education system and seized with pessimism over their future.
This week it was the farmers’ turn, rolling their tractors out to block the motorways, main road and border crossings across the Balkans to try to obtain better procurement prices for their produce.
The old Baltic trading city had seen nothing like it since the happy days of kicking out the Russians and overthrowing communism two decades ago. More than 10,000 people converged on the 13th-century cathedral to show the Latvian government what they thought of its efforts at containing the economic crisis. The peaceful protest morphed into a late-night rampage as a minority headed for the parliament, battled with riot police and trashed parts of the old city. The following day there were similar scenes in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital next door.
After Iceland, Latvia looks like the most vulnerable country to be hammered by the financial and economic crisis. The EU and IMF have already mounted a 7.5bn (6.6bn) rescue plan but the outlook is the worst in Europe.
The biggest bank in the Baltic, Swedbank of Sweden, yesterday predicted a slump this year in Latvia of a whopping 10%, more than double the previous projections. It added that the economy of Estonia would shrink by 7% and of Lithuania by 4.5%.
The Latvian central bank’s governor went on national television this week to pronounce the economy “clinically dead. We have only three or four minutes to resuscitate it”.
Burned-out cars, masked youths, smashed shop windows, and more than a million striking workers. The scenes from France are familiar, but not so familiar to President Nicolas Sarkozy, confronting the first big wave of industrial unrest of his time in the Elys’e Palace.
Sarkozy has spent most of his time in office trying to fix the world’s problems, with less attention devoted to the home front. From Gaza to Georgia, Russia to Washington, Sarkozy has been a man in a hurry to mediate in trouble spots and grab the credit for peacemaking.
France, meanwhile, is moving into recession and unemployment is going up. The latest jobless figures were to have been released yesterday, but were held back, apparently for fear of inflaming the protests.
A balance of payments crisis last autumn, heavy indebtedness and a disastrous budget made Hungary the first European candidate for an international rescue. The $26bn (18bn) IMF-led bail-out shows scant sign of working. Industrial output is at its lowest for 16 years, the national currency – the forint – sank to a record low against the euro yesterday and the government also announced another round of spending cuts yesterday.
So far the streets have been relatively quiet. The Hungarian misery highlights a key difference between eastern and western Europe. While the UK, Germany, France and others plough hundreds of billions into public spending, tax cuts, bank bailouts and guarantees to industry, the east Europeans (plus Iceland and Ireland) are broke, ordering budget cuts, tax rises, and pleading for international help to shore up their economies.
The austerity and the soaring costs of repaying bank loans and mortgages taken out in hard foreign currencies (euro, yen and dollar) are fuelling the misery.
The east European upheavals of 1989 hit Ukraine late, maturing into the Orange Revolution on the streets of Kiev only five years ago. The fresh start promised by President Viktor Yushchenko has, though, dissolved into messy, corrupt, and brutal political infighting, with the economy, growing strongly a few years ago, going into freefall.
Three weeks of gas wars with Russia this month ended in defeat and will cost Ukraine dearly. The national currency, at less than half the value of six months ago, is akin to the fate of Iceland’s wrecked krona. Ukrainians have been buying dollars by the billion. In November the IMF waded in with the first payments in a $16bn rescue package.
The vicious power struggles between Yushchenko and the prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, are consuming the ruling elite’s energy, paralysing government and leaving the economy dysfunctional. Russia is doing its best to keep things that way.
Proud of its status as one of the world’s most developed, most productive and most equal societies, Iceland is in the throes of what is, by its staid standards, a revolution.
Riot police in Reykjavik, the coolest of capitals. Building bonfires in front of the world’s oldest parliament. The yoghurt flying at the free market men who have run the country for decades and brought it to its knees.
An openly gay prime minister takes over today as head of a caretaker government. The neocon right has been ditched. The hard left Greens are, at least for the moment, the most popular party in the small Arctic state with a population the size of Bradford.
The IMF’s bailout teams have moved in with $11bn. The national currency, the krona, appears to be finished. Iceland is a test case of how one of the most successful societies on the globe suddenly failed.