The lands lying between the Baltic and the Black Sea have had many names: the “bloodlands” of the second world war, the “captive nations” of the cold war, the “ex-communist” countries of the post-Soviet era and, for many, the “new members” of the European Union.
Before the 2003 Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, America’s defence secretary, praised “new Europe” as pro-American, unlike “old Europe” (ie, France and Germany). The French president, Jacques Chirac, then chided the easterners as having “missed a great opportunity to keep quiet”.
The nomenclature must now change again, because of Ukraine. In its response to Vladimir Putin’s revanchism, Mr Rumsfeld’s new Europe is remarkably similar to the old one: divided roughly between north and south. Poland and the Baltic three are hawkish, believing that Russia has irrevocably changed the post-war order; Bulgaria and Hungary are among those opposed to tough sanctions who hope that business with Russia will somehow return to normal.
This spectrum might be a welcome sign of normality, if only the stakes were not so high. The divisions of eastern Europe aggravate those of the EU as a whole. Nobody tells easterners to shut up any more; even France is wooing them. But if the countries closest to Russia, with direct experience of Soviet occupation, cannot agree on sanctions, why should others endanger their still-fragile economies?
On the tenth anniversary of the expansion of the EU to take in eight eastern countries in 2004, events in Ukraine vindicate the hope that it would bring security and underpin democracy. Economically, eastern Europe has been a remarkable success, combining western capital with cheap skilled labour to become an integral part of Germany’s export machine. Measured in terms of purchasing power, Prague and Bratislava are now richer than their old imperial capital, Vienna. A report this year by Polish and Slovakian think-tanks (whose “reflection group” included an Economist journalist) summed up: “central Europe has never in its history been more free, secure and prosperous”. It added that the region should now speak more assertively across the full range of European issues.
A fine idea — except that even the “Visegrad group” of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary is split over Ukraine. Take this week’s pronouncement by the recently re-elected Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. He demanded that Ukraine grant its Hungarian minority dual citizenship, community rights and the “right to self-administration”. Seen from Kiev, Russia’s destabilisation of the east is now compounded by Hungary’s stirring of ethnic tensions in the west. For Poland’s Donald Tusk, such comments were “disturbing”.
One reason for the divide is dependence on trade with Russia, particularly in energy. Bulgaria, often seen as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in the EU, is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas. It has enthusiastically signed up to the South Stream pipeline to bring Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Bulgaria is trying to get around EU competition rules in the third energy package, which requires operators to open pipelines to rivals. Austria, too, is a keen supporter. Despite a Russian lawsuit at the World Trade Organisation, the commission says it will not yield to pressure to grant South Stream an opt-out.
The EU is now debating options for “stage three” sanctions on Russia, shifting from individuals to the broader economy. Given strong resistance in Europe, America is pushing the idea of using a “scalpel”: new sanctions could leave existing gas contracts untouched, but prevent new investment in, say, energy exploration. Or countries could ban exports of arms-related high technology. Critics retort that Russia might respond with a butcher’s knife.
Yet dependence does not fully explain the differing views. Some, like Lithuania, are highly reliant on Russia, yet are vocal about Mr Putin’s aggression. History plays a role. For the Baltics, with large Russian minorities, the choice is not between sanctions and doing nothing, but between sanctions and the risk of disappearance. Poland, too, has been obliterated by big neighbours. It is odd, given the memory of Soviet tanks crushing the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague spring of 1968, that Hungary and the Czech Republic are not among the hardliners. Their stance might be influenced by a pernicious mix of weak institutions, corruption, dubious Russian money and aggressive Kremlin propaganda.
Not as weak as they think
Even so, European countries are much stronger than they imagine. Mr Putin may be a cynically clever tactician, but he has neither an attractive ideology with which to challenge liberal democracies nor the resources to wage a protracted economic war.
Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, argues that many of Europe’s most powerful tools are already in place, if only they were used properly. The full implementation of the third energy package, and investment in gas and electricity interconnectors, would do much to create a resilient internal energy market and blunt Russia’s gas weapon. Mr Tusk has proposed an “energy union”, including collective EU bargaining with Russia on gas prices, as already happens when buying uranium. Moreover, Europeans could enforce existing anti-corruption legislation more scrupulously when it comes to dodgy Russian tycoons.
To make such measures count does not require new sanctions. And to show seriousness of intent, after this month’s European election the EU could also fill a big position in Brussels with a robust and competent east European (perhaps Mr Sikorski himself). That would do much to remove the shadow of the iron curtain, as well as to send a clear message to Mr Putin.
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