Eastern Exposure

Europe's cherished dream of ever-closer union is dead. That's not just because the European Union's draft constitution fails to mention that now dirty word, "federalism." Nor does it have much to do with Iraq, and the division of Europe into feuding pro-American "New Europe" and a more skeptical core of "Old Europe." It doesn't even have that much to do, long term, with the latest flap du jour in Brussels over voting rights. No, as some experts tell it, the real divide of the future centers on Russia.

From the vantage point of most European capitals, Russia is on the upsurge, gaining in economic prosperity and trending closer to the West. Europe is happy to have a reliable supplier of oil and gas. Berlin and Paris, especially, were pleased to find in Moscow an ally against what they perceive to be the Bush administration's run-amok nondiplomacy in the world.

Contrast this with the view from countries in the east. The Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave on the Baltic squeezed between Poland and Lithuania, is an economic disaster zone, a regional hub of organized crime--and a major Russian military base. Next door are failed states like Belarus and Moldova, which Russia considers part of its "near abroad"--and where economic and social conditions appear likely to get worse before they get better. And President Vladimir Putin? To East Europeans, he's an ex-KGB authoritarian whose new coalition in the Duma includes both the aggressively nationalist new Homeland party and the rising Liberal Democratic Party of the notoriously xenophobic Vladimir Zhirinovsky. All speak of extending Russian influence.

These fundamentally divergent takes on Russia are a wedge dividing the New Europe from the Old, East from West. In fact, says Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former foreign minister of Estonia and now a member of Parliament, Europe's famous schism over Iraq has been overstated. "We are much closer to the other members of the EU in our relations with the United States than people think. The real problem splitting Old and New Europe is the West's dangerous, naive and appeasement-minded attitude toward Russia."

Eastern Europeans have a long history with Russia. Moscow only reluctantly accepted the independence of the East European and Baltic states that will join the EU in May, which were occupied by the Red --Army after World War II through the collapse of communism in 1989. Even today it wages a diplomatic war with Latvia, home to a large Russian minority for whom Moscow claims to speak. West Europeans might think the easterners paranoid. Easterners say they are just being realistic.

It's not a military attack that worries them. "Direct armed engagement is not likely in at least the next decade," says former Polish Defense minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, now a senior fellow at Warsaw's Center for International Relations. A bigger concern is Russia's attitude toward the unstable and collapsing states on its borders. Take Russian-occupied Trans-Dnistria, the separatist section of Moldova. There, missiles allegedly equipped with radioactive "dirty" warheads have gone missing, according to The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the part of the country still independent recently elected a neocommunist government with strong ties to Moscow.

Neighboring Belarus, a pauperized, arms-peddling totalitarian dictatorship just across the Polish border, is almost totally dependent on Russian deliveries of oil and gas. If the country falls apart--as most experts believe it inevitably will--it's not at all certain what will happen, and whether Russia will play a constructive role. Nationalist politicians such as Homeland party leaders Dmitri Rogozin and Sergey Glasiev, who call for the restitution of the Soviet Empire, have become increasingly mainstream in Russian public opinion. Moscow's efforts to pull Belarus and Ukraine into a new Russian federation are equally unsettling, as is its backing of separatist provinces in Georgia.

In the EU's dealings with an increasingly authoritarian Russia, worried Eastern Europe has often been a fly-over zone. "The EU is too shy to raise any serious issue with Russia," says Onyszkiewicz. Last year a planned EU agreement with Russia over visa-free travel to Kaliningrad through Lithuania was scuttled at the last minute--only after intense lobbying by Lithuania and other accession countries, which fear a surge in smuggling, organized crime and immigration. Negotiations for a general free-travel agreement continue between Brussels and Moscow despite new members' objections. When France and Germany allied with Putin over Iraq without consulting their future EU partners in the east, Poles and others heard echoes of past alliances at their expense.

The present EU presidency under Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has confirmed their worst fears of pro-Russian appeasement. At the EU-Russia summit in Rome in November, not only did EU heads of government dismiss the European Commission's recommendation that Russia be reprimanded over what human-rights organizations say is genocide in Chechnya. When reporters asked Putin about Chechnya anyway, Berlusconi put his arm on Putin's shoulder and intervened. "Let me be your lawyer on this one," a grinning Berlusconi told Putin before brushing off the journalists' questions as "Western lies and fairy tales."

Take away the security issues, and New Europe is actually much closer to Old Europe than to America. On Kyoto, the convention to ban land mines, the International Criminal Court, East and West see mostly eye to eye. (In July, a furious Bush administration suspended military assistance to several Eastern European countries for refusing to sign bilateral agreements exempting the United States from the ICC's jurisdiction.) Transatlantic and antiterror issues will likely lose significance once the new members enter the EU. "All our best minds are on foreign policy now," says Ilves. "But once we're in the Union, we'll all be busy calculating fishing quotas and understanding competition policy." Yet Russia remains the red-hot issue that no farming subsidy can smother. "The Eastern Europeans will not get into another battle with France and Germany on U.S. policy," Ilves predicts. "But if we see the EU pursuing policies with Russia that threaten us, we're going to speak up."

Trouble is, today's inward-looking EU has no strategy on how to stabilize Russia or its shaky future neighbors to the East. "Where is the clear, consistent, unified EU agenda for the long-term development of Ukraine, let alone Moldova?" asks Heather Grabbe, research director of the Centre for European Reform in London. Eastern Europeans will not shy away from conflict in order to force the EU to use its soft power to help these countries--or to develop what Grabbe calls a "tough love" strategy toward Russia.

The next few months will bring a test of how tough the old members are willing to get. Moscow has announced it will not apply the existing free-trade agreement with the EU toward the new members, come May. That'll put East Europeans doing business with Russia at a sharp disadvantage, which many see as a poorly concealed punishment for joining the Union--and they will be shrill in demanding a joint EU response. Anyone who thinks the new, expanded European Union will just be a bigger version of the cozy old one, in other words, is wrong. And increasingly, Russia will be one of the reasons.

Eastern Exposure | News