Eastern Exposure

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, December 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Eastern Exposure


Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


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. …

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