Newspaper article International New York Times

What Central Europe Thinks of Russia

Newspaper article International New York Times

What Central Europe Thinks of Russia

Article excerpt

Poles and Bulgarians agree that Moscow's model isn't a viable alternative to ties with the E.U.

It was only a decade ago that Central Europe, in the American imagination, was Donald Rumsfeld's "New Europe," a collection of freedom-loving, heroic small nations -- and America's most loyal allies. Washington ushered them into NATO as a bulwark against Middle Eastern instability and Russian expansionism. Today, however, that perception has changed. Many fear that a number of these plucky, strategically vital states have become Moscow's Trojan horses in the Western alliances.

The willingness of the Czech president, Milos Zeman, to attend the military parade in Moscow this spring marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany -- an event boycotted by Western heads of state -- was widely read as a symbolic break with Central Europe's Western orientation. (After intense pressure, Mr. Zeman withdrew from attending the parade but not from the trip itself.)

Meanwhile, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has signaled that his government would block the proposed establishment of a European energy union, a core part of Brussels' strategy to reduce Russia's influence in the region.

Furthermore, there is growing evidence that several Central European governments are using the current crisis in the West's relations with Russia as an opportunity to get better economic deals from Moscow, criticizing anti-Russian sanctions for better gas prices and investments.

So, has Moscow succeeded in splitting Central Europe into pro- Russian and anti-Russian camps? And can the European Union's current consensus on Russia -- and the Union itself -- survive the next few years under such strain?

To answer these questions, political pundits must jettison the cliches that have shaped Western views on Central Europe these last few decades. The behavior of Central European governments and societies are shaped by their experiences of the post-Communist transition and their rediscovered sense of national interest, and not by the memories of the Communist period.

Geography and economic interests beat historical memories. Central Europeans are economically more closely tied to Russia than the rest of the Union; because of that, they pay far higher costs for the sanctions regime. It is also not a secret that Russian money has infiltrated parts of the business and political elites in the post-Communist countries. But what the Central European "street" really thinks about the current crisis is a question rarely asked, though one that it is absolutely vital to answer.

Take public opinion in two Central European countries with historically contrasting views on Russia: Poland and Bulgaria.

Poland is a medium-sized European country that rightly believes that it has dramatically benefited from the collapse of Communism and that its voice matters in the European Union. Poles have been traditionally mistrustful of Russia's ambitions. They judge the regime of President Vladimir V. Putin as ugly and brutal. A survey conducted last month by the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw found that Poles view the crisis in Ukraine as a direct threat to their security. …

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