Eastern European countries will pay dearly for Russia’s isolation because they have long-standing ties with Russia. But even relatively friendly states do not trust Russian expansionism.
The looming war in Ukraine is sparking fears across Eastern Europe. Most countries in the region are NATO members and see no immediate threat of invasion. But Russian and Soviet expansionism has shaped their policies for decades, if not centuries.
Today, many Eastern Europeans are at odds with the Kremlin over energy supplies or Russian-sponsored corruption schemes. Others have forged friendlier relationships fueled by trade, the Russian-speaking minority, or politicians who get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Ukraine crisis is also creating problems in such countries. Korrespondent.net tells the details.
The Baltic states, which were Soviet territory until 1991, are more interested in containment and tough sanctions against Russia, writes The economist.
“Interdependence means that you can harm someone who depends on you,” says Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, whose maternal relatives were deported to Siberia under Stalin. Your government asked Germany not to approve the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. It also tries to send arms to Ukraine, but Germany blocks the transfer of German-made equipment. On January 27, the Latvian defense minister called the German stance “immoral and hypocritical”.
When Putin wrote an article last summer claiming that Ukrainians are historically not a separate nation, it sparked alarm in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for making similar arguments against them in the mid-2000s.
Defense planners in these countries view Russia as an existential threat. “If Putin invades Ukraine, we’ll be next,” a senior official from one of the Baltic states was quoted as saying.
The municipal administration of the Estonian city of Narva is just a stone’s throw from the border with Russia. From his window, the Mayor of Katri Raik can watch cars and trucks passing through the border crossing.
More than 80 percent of Narva’s residents are ethnic Russians, a legacy of the centuries when Narva was first part of the Russian Empire and then the USSR. Ethnic Russians, who make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population, have become more integrated since Estonia gained independence 30 years ago. However, most of them still send their children to Russian-language schools and prefer Russian TV and online media. Words like “they have in Estonia…” can already be heard in the city council.
Former interior minister Katri Raik was elected mayor in December. One of their campaign promises was to close this gap. A new secondary school with Estonian as the language of instruction is due to open in September. The regional economy, once dependent on the heavy industry of the Soviet era, is now oriented west.
But Russia’s military build-up on the border with Ukraine reminds Narva of where it is. As usual, opinions were divided. Some ethnic Estonians call Russia the aggressor, while ethnic Russians tend to think the threat of war is exaggerated or blame NATO.
“We each know what the other is thinking, so we don’t talk about it,” explains Rajk.
Romania and Bulgaria
In Romania and Bulgaria everything is more complicated. Both countries are NATO members but suffer from corruption, some linked to Russia. Local governments have not always been enthusiastic about American policies that link anti-corruption efforts to regional security.
While Romanian politicians have been calling for a stronger NATO presence for years, Bulgarians tend to shy away from new missions so as not to provoke pro-Russian voters.
However, both countries were furious when on January 21 Russia demanded the withdrawal of NATO’s allied troops from their territory. They welcomed the American offer to use even more troops instead.
In Central Europe, attitudes towards Russia are most ambivalent. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist prime minister, is friends with Putin and plans to visit him in Moscow on February 1. He emulates Putin’s model of government, effectively seizing control of his country’s media and judiciary, and billing himself as the defender of Christian Europe (even against the godless EU).
Orban bought Russian nuclear power plants and made deals to supply Russian gas bypassing Ukraine. His government is urging an easing of EU sanctions against Russia.
Czech President Milos Zeman is also a friend of Putin and is seeking to allow Russian companies to participate in tenders for the construction of nuclear power plants. In December he postponed the formation of a government led by Petr Fiala because he chose a pro-European and anti-corruption foreign minister. But the Czech opinion changed after it was announced last year that in 2014 Russian agents blew up a local ammunition depot.
Poland’s leadership also bears some resemblance to Putin’s government. It is conservative, religious, nationalist and anti-EU, which is trying to prevent Polish judges from being turned into political pawns.
However, it is the most aggressive anti-Russian government in Europe. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling party, lost his brother, then president, in 2010 in a plane crash he believes was orchestrated by Russia.
More importantly, the Russian Empire ruled most of Poland throughout the 19th century and attempted to Russify its people. During World War II, Stalin partitioned Poland along with Hitler and executed most of its elite. Many Poles see Russia as a country that tried to destroy them as a nation.
Losses are inevitable
The countries of Eastern Europe will pay for the isolation of Russia. Your greatest weakness is energy.
Moldova was forced into a costly deal with Gazprom in October, and rising electricity bills troubled the Estonian government in January.
But Russia is only among the top 5 export markets for the Baltic countries. In no country does direct investment from Russia exceed one tenth of investment from the EU, although there are countries where it plays a significant role.
In Narva, Estonia, for example, about 30 percent of industrial companies are owned by Russians, said Vadim Orlov, director of Narva Industrial Park. Russian businessmen need factories in a country where the law rules and where robbers with political connections cannot take them. Why should Estonia support tough sanctions that could make life difficult for Russia’s own business?
One possible reason is that Russia also likes to impose sanctions and often abuses them. The Prime Minister of Estonia recalls 2007, when Russia stopped supplying energy resources in response to the demolition of the monument to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn.
Moldovan MP Dumitru Alaiba also recalls 2014, when Moscow imposed an embargo on his country after it signed an association agreement with the EU.
“We have already learned that relations with Russia are risky,” says Kallas. If Eastern Europe’s relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, it will be Putin’s own fault.
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