Publicat în 7 ianuarie 2015, 19:35 / 389 elite & idei

Antonia Colibasanu: Central Europe Seeks a New Way Forward

Antonia Colibasanu: Central Europe Seeks a New Way Forward

by Antonia Colibasanu

Twenty-five years ago, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe could begin to hope. They could hope for lives free of the fear of Communism and the threat of war. They could look west and see a European Union that was consolidating and inviting their countries to sign on to its drive for enlargement. When the NATO-Russia Council was formed in 2002, it even seemed like Russia might be ready to partner with the West.

Hopes started to fade in 2004. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine seemed to bring the Russian bear out of hibernation. Moscow saw the movement as being engineered by the West and spent the next decade working to avert the risk of a pro-Western Ukraine.

By 2014, hope has given way to fear for these states – fear that Russian aggression could once again reach out to them. The rest of Europe, it seems, has other problems and priorities. The French and Spanish are focused on internal budget debates and the stability of the eurozone, while the countries of Southern Europe are left to address the social fallout of low employment. But the populations of Central and Eastern Europe are  increasingly aware of something history has taught them to call the „Russian danger.” This question is one of degree: In the greater fight against revanchist Russia, how much support do the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have? And what do these states need to do to enhance their security moving forward?

A friend in Brussels

The Ukrainian crisis has done much to show the constraints NATO and the European Union face. The institutions have been at the core of Central and Eastern European countries’ foreign policies since the early 1990s, as these countries became members and took the first steps toward integration. But there is no foreign policy alignment at the supranational level – EU leaders are still prioritizing national interests that often differ and sometimes diverge, even as Brussels publishes bland common statements condemning Russian aggression. So how reliable a partner is Brussels? The breakout of the Ukraine crisis itself indicated a failure of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative, but on the other hand it is because of local support for the diplomatic efforts of the European Union that the pro-Russian government in Kiev was overthrown, and a pro-EU government is in power now. The European Union has taken diplomatic measures against Moscow in the form of economic sanctions, and it has supported Moldova and Georgia’s efforts to maintain a pro-EU stance. Thus we see the European Union’s power of influence remains ponderous, even if its policies are limited to the minimum common denominators that its member states share.

NATO has problems of its own: With no European army, and with Western European defense budgets at an ebb, the transatlantic alliance depends on the United States for 80 percent of its operational capacity, while it continues to abide by the consensus rule to approve any action. Divergent priorities among European NATO members – notably Germany and France – proved stark as alliance member states pursued their own strategic interests within the NATO framework during recent crises. (The bellwether example being the intervention in Libya in 2011.) However, NATO in its own way has made notable attempts to support its Eastern European members. U.S. forces are on permanent rotation in the region, and NATO troops participate in military joint exercises with member states’ armies here.

In pursuit of an alliance architecture

Wariness of Russia already spurred Central Europe to consider new strategic alliances before the outset of the Ukraine crisis. These took the form of regional initiatives such as the Visegrad Group, or the emphasis on bilateral relations between Poland and Romania. All of these efforts aimed to deepen cooperation and enhance defense capabilities. To this point, they remain more a matter of intent than a reality – the Visegrad Group exists only on paper – and have borne little tangible result.

The security needs of each country in this borderland region involve a constant struggle to balance the influence of, and countries’ dependence on, Russia and the West. Recent demonstrations in the region show the extent of concern over the growth of Russian influence. During recent protests in Hungary that were ostensibly about domestic policies, demonstrators shouted their opposition to Budapest’s friendly relationship toward Moscow. In the Czech Republic, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution was marked by demonstrations against what the public perceived to be the president’s pro-Russian stance. During the brief demonstrations after the announcement of the surprising electoral result in Romania, crowds in the country’s largest cities exulted at the victory of President Klaus Iohannis. They waved American and British flags, and they put their antipathy for Moscow and their affinity for the United States in full view.

The process of forming and maintaining a governing coalition following the parliamentary elections in Moldova will test the sustainability of that country’s Western orientation. While Moldova is party to the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, launched in 2009, Chisinau’s ties to Moscow are deeply rooted in its history as a former Soviet republic. On the other hand, ties to the European Union have yet to yield substantial benefits. Yet, while the ballot outlined a divided and highly vulnerable society, it also showed a willingness to align with the West. It seems that a visa liberalization regime proffered by the European Union, and Brussels’ continued rhetorical encouragement of Moldova’s efforts, have yielded positive results. Romania has also actively supported linking Europe to Moldova, a country that seems to still be searching for its soul.

Poland has boosted the European Union’s profile in Moldova through high-level visits to Chisinau this year. Poland is one of the chief backers of the Eastern Partnership, and Warsaw has always portrayed itself as a regional leader and a bulwark on the borderline between Russia and the West. Warsaw views its partnership with Bucharest as ever more crucial – it sees the Black Sea, post-Crimea invasion, as a theater of operations just as important as the Baltic Sea.

One key area where Poland and Romania share similar views is in the energy sector: Both believe the European Union needs a common policy on energy, with the goal to diminish dependence on Russian gas. EU Council President Donald Tusk, formerly Poland’s prime minister, has made it a mission for his mandate to build an EU energy union, replacing the current status quo of a union formed of inefficient „energy islands.” However, experience tells us that coordinating among the 28 European states is a hard task, especially since some member states, such as Hungary and Bulgaria, are going to need plenty of persuasion to diminish their reliance on relatively cheap Russian gas supplies, even after the demise of the South Stream project. Meanwhile, others worry that a more unified system would expose their national energy champions to external competition. National protectionism is still powerful force in the European Union.

Europe has tried to diversify its energy sources. Liquefied natural gas terminals are being built in the Baltic region, Poland included, and the European Union scored a tactical victory against Russia on South Stream. But so long as it lacks an aligned foreign policy, Central and Eastern Europeans will continue to see Europe as a soft, reactionary power. In the post-post Cold War period, image matters only until realpolitik intervenes – as we’ve seen in Ukraine.

Russia is far from weak, but its power has been undercut by economic problems. The Russian economy was already slowing before the crisis over Ukraine erupted. Tensions have only made the situation worse. Russian economic growth is flat, the ruble will continue to slide, oil prices are now falling, foreign investment has been cut by 50 percent, and capital flight will reach $100 billion by the end of the year. The Ukrainian crisis, the confrontation with the West, and sanctions have severely stressed Russian leadership. Russia doesn’t resemble the Soviet Union prior to 1980, when leadership was supported by an ideology that was either believed or feared. Putin is not Stalin, and even if he is a powerful Russian leader, he is not omnipotent – he has to take into account the wishes of his supporters. This is why he will need to keep lines of communications with the Europeans open.

The European Union is weakened and divided, facing what Commission President Jean-Claude Junker has called „an existential crisis.” European disagreements affect NATO consensus. The United States is revisiting its role in the region without disengaging from other crises in the world. All of this creates a necessity to craft regional alliances to engage with the United States and draw it further into European affairs. As Russia has built its belt of frozen conflicts from Eastern Ukraine to the Caucasus, the Central and Eastern Europeans need to counter with a regional belt of shared economic and military concerns – a belt bound by Western values.


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