The Ukraine crisis presents a new challenge to the relationship between the U.S. and us, the new countries of the EU. It is the most serious test since the end of the Cold War.
In mid-September I held a lecture at the Entrepreneurs Club in Prague. The topic was Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. The prevailing spirit of the debate was criticism— of the recently imposed EU sanctions, of U.S. and NATO’s meddling into Ukrainian affairs, of United States drawing us into another “senseless war” and of a conviction that Ukraine’s own problems do not really concern us Czechs. After a while I had had enough.
I found myself saying: “I would like to remind to all of you, that we are a member state of NATO, not the Warsaw Pact. Russia is not our ally, the
U.S. is. I, personally, will do whatever it takes to keep it this way.” If you thought the audience would applaud my comments, you would be wrong. Cold, hostile silence ensued in a hall full of powerful people, people who have control over parts of the Czech economy. This was not a one-off experience and the Czech elites are not alone in thinking along these lines.
The Ukraine crisis and its so far economic-only fall out, present a new challenge to the relationship between the U.S. and us, the new countries of the EU. It is the most serious test since the end of the Cold War. A test of how seriously we take values of the free and democratic world.
The seemingly solid foundation of European political structure in the countries of “New Europe” is being seriously challenged by new authoritarian regimes led by Putin’s Russia, no expenses and efforts being spared. They do fall on a fertile ground of underdeveloped democracies, corrupted political elites, and corrupting economic elites. There is also a great deal of nostalgia among large sections of the society for the times of communist dictatorship; and now also among the young opponents appear of the current version of liberal democracy, which, in their view, is at least as faulty as the previous totalitarian regime.
All these groups depict the U.S. as a worse alternative to Russia or China. The EU is portrayed as“the jail of nations,”“a colossus of bureaucracy.” Brussels and Washington are seen as comparable to Brezhnev’s regime dictating to us, small states, what to do and when to do it.
But so far the appearances have been maintained and the new states of Europe are viewed as a firm part of the alliance of democratic countries led by the U.S., on par with their Western European counterparts.
But underneath the surface there are erosion processes at work, which can, like groundwater, destabilize the basis of “post-November” order, as it is called here in our part of the European continent, and lead to the creation of a pseudo- democracy, Russian style.
Two Letters and One Restart
It has only been eleven years since “New Europe,” in a critical moment of military action in Iraq, sent a clear and unambiguous signal of support to Washington. Moreover, it came at the time when these states were not yet member states of the EU and their stance was in sharp opposition to that of France and Germany, two of the most powerful countries in Europe.
The “Letter of the Eight” was not a solitary affair of the candidate countries; next to the signatures of Václav Havel, Mikuláš Dzurinda, Péter Medgyessy and Leszek Miller, representing the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, were also the signatures of the prime ministers of Spain, the UK, Denmark and Portugal.
Nevertheless, it was a grand gesture. The elites of the Central European countries at that time declared unequivocally that they share the values of the United States. It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the ideas that were expressed in the letter as today they are even more important: “The true bond between the U.S. and Europe is created by these shared values: democracy, individual freedom, human rights and the rule of law. These values crossed the Atlantic along with the people who made the voyage from Europe to help build the United States. Today these values are more at stake than ever before. September 11 attacks have shown the extent of terrorists’ determination to destroy these values. This crime was an attack against all of us. Governments and nations of the United States and Europe fought for these principles with all their determination and thus have shown the power of their persuasion. Transatlantic bonds are the guarantee of our freedom.”
This declaration, made at the time of Germany and France together with Russia siding with Iraq against the United States, was a clear and powerful message. This message was, however, founded on the premise that the arguments of George W. Bush and his administration in favor of the war against the Baghdad regime were sound.
The arguments, at least concerning the issue of weapons of mass destruction, unfortunately turned out to be unfounded. The WMD were of course not the only reason for the invasion. Saddam Hussein systematically violated the UN resolutions; however, it was the WMD issue that led the debate.
The fact that it turned out to be untrue delivered a mighty blow to all sympathizers with the U.S. in Central Europe. Anti-Bush anti-Americanism became a staple feature in the arsenal of rhetoric of not only the Communists and their faithful heirs, but also of the New Left, whose sympathizers were still only children when Communism fell.
The power of these groups became apparent in 2007 when the Czech government led by then Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek was negotiating with the U.S. a possible location for the ABM shield radar system in the Czech Republic. A sudden and unusual coalition of anarchists, pacifists, and communists arose. Vehemently supported by Russia it managed to set the tone of the public debate. Anti-Americans received further support from then president Václav Klaus who drew a parallel between the possible radar site with the military occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After his coming into office, Klaus, who had also criticized the U.S. intervention in Iraq, helped to establish an anti-American, anti-EU nationalist platform. In Slovakia it was Robert Fico who ran on the sentiments of anti-American leftists and became prime minister after he had managed to unite all these elements into his new party Smer.
Poland, on the other hand, which was to host the main part of the ABM shield, endured significantly less heated debate. In the end, the plan was called off by the new administration of Barack Obama. This step, along with a reset in the U.S.-Russian relations declared by Barack Obama in 2009 and with the announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, blunted for some time the edge of anti-American circles in the central Europe.
Read today, this letter seems to have acquired the quality of a prophecy, especially the passage which warns, in connection with the “reset” between Washington and Moscow, against the dangerous essence of Putin’s regime. “Our hopes that our relations with Moscow would, after we have become the EU and NATO members, improve and our sovereignty and independence would be respected, were not fulfilled.” The letter was met with fierce opposition from Obama’s first administration. “Russia is back on the world stage as a revisionist power with 19th century agenda and 21st century methods and tactics,” continued Havel and others five years ago.
Another passage is even more prophetic; it warns of the possibility of Russia’s manipulating the “New Europe.”“Russia uses overt and covert means of economic pressure, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments, corrupting and manipulating media to protect its interests and to cast doubt on the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”
The U.S. as a Thorn in the Side of Authoritarian Circles
Roughly around the same time a new danger for relations with the U.S. has emerged—with the rise of authoritarian tendencies in the region, Hungary first springing to mind. Victor Orbán, trying to build a strong nation state, is beginning to see the U.S. as an opponent, since Washington does not hesitate to criticize Orbán’s steps in curbing the freedom of the press, the democratic division of power, and the rights of minorities, among others.
While Orbán does not find an understanding for his policies in Washington, Moscow (which is still in fact being run by Putin) welcomes the Hungarian sovereign with open arms. This does not concern only Orbán and Hungary. In all the countries of Central Europe there are powerful economic syndicates with corrupting powers that have no interests in the rule of law. These groups have little vested interest in the U.S. influence in the region.
The power of pro-Russian politicians is also growing. In 2012 leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico was sworn into office. Even as he seems to have toned down his anti-American rhetoric after Obama’s ascent he still cannot be seen as an ally of the U.S. in Central Europe. A year later, the Kremlin is pleased with the result of presidential elections in the Czech Republic where Zeman was recently declared the winner. He is unpredictable towards Washington and is surrounded by a peculiar troupe of pro-Russian politicians and entrepreneurs.
Ukraine is Just the Beginning
The Ukraine crisis, which was started by Russia as an economic conflict with Kiev in the summer of 2013, has been gradually changing into a conflict between Russia on the one hand and the U.S. along with the EU on the other. It is a conflict in which the soul of Central Europe is at stake.
While the U.S. has withdrawn from the region, economically and also politically—militarily it has never really been there—Russia has been consciously filling the vacuum for the last ten years.
Thus it was far better prepared, with its networks of agencies, lobbying bodies, economic power and, last but not least, its propaganda and disinformation campaigns, than the EU and even the U.S., when the Ukraine crisis started.
It has come to light that the West was unprepared for the first military aggression to be waged in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The Kremlin has also started an unprecedented propaganda campaign, not only to influence domestic public opinion, but also to score points in Ukraine and in Central Europe. Its allies have popped up not only among communists, pacifists, Orbán and Zeman but also, somewhat surprisingly, among the extreme anti-EU right, which has since expressed its support for the occupation and annexation of Crimea.
As a result of the cunning Russian strategy the EU sanctions have been weaker than American sanctions and there has been a strong resistance against renewed American presence in Central Europe. Slovak Prime Minister Fico, for example, has threatened with a referendum and his resignation in case plans for a permanent U.S. or NATO base on Slovak soil go forward. “We shall not be dragged into a global conflict,” he recently declared. Almost the same rhetoric can be heard from Victor Orbán. Russia’s arguments have been furthered also by Miloš Zeman parroting the Kremlin’s propaganda about the U.S. support for the “fascist coup” in Kiev. At the same time these politicians are enjoying considerable public support; opinion polls do not show any downward trend caused by their pro-Russian and anti-American attitudes.
Twenty-five years after the victory over the Cold War, the U.S. is facing a much bigger challenge than “just” keeping Ukraine on its course towards Europe and the West. The states of “New Europe” are also at stake. After all the mistakes of the last decade, American loss of interest in our region, and the growth of authoritarian Russia, it is high time all domestic pro- Western circles consolidate themselves and U.S. interests return to our part of Europe.
The comeback will be much more difficult than it was during the nineties. Many ideals from 1989 with regards to U.S. relations have been relativized. Authoritarian regimes and their supporters have become much more sophisticated and harder to predict than a quarter of a century ago.
If the U.S. and its influence do not come back to our part of the world in the foreseeable future, Moscow will take up its place. And through “New Europe” it will try to bring down not only transatlantic partnerships with the U.S. but also with the EU and NATO as well. The Kremlin will then occupy this space by its own means. History teaches us it would be a long and sinister affair. Dark ages would return to Central Europe, and beyond.
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