Ukraine crisis exposes sharp divisions in CEE over Russia

By bne IntelliNews August 18, 2014

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


Moscow ruled from the Baltics to the Balkans, but the region's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and now to its fairly overt support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine is sharply dividing Central and Eastern Europe.

The division is in part based on trading ties with Russia; those countries with large and lucrative Russian deals are warier of angering Moscow. But it also down to very different perceptions of the historical experience of being part of the Soviet empire.

The hawks are led by Poland, which under the leadership of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has been one of the strongest voices in the EU for sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine. Poland is also lobbying hard for Nato to shift its footprint, permanently deploying troops to Poland and other frontline states.

Sikorski has called for the Atlantic alliance to send two heavy brigades – about 10,000 troops – to be stationed in his country. “We do and we want prepositioning of equipment. We want a standing defence plans. We want bigger response forces. And unfortunately, the Russian actions in Ukraine don't make us feel more secure, but less secure,” he told CNN recently.

Tusk tried to reset relations with Russia not long after winning power in 2007, but Poland is now returning to its more normal role of being one of Europe's most reliably Russophobic countries.

The hawk camp

Warsaw heads a camp that also includes the three Baltic states and Romania. All of them have promised to increase their defence spending. Poland was already one of the highest spenders in the region, with a commitment to spend 1.95% of GDP on the military. It has agreed to raise spending to 2%, Nato's target, but a goal reached by very few alliance members.

Lithuania, which until recently spend on 0.8% of its GDP on defence, is now pledging to also increase that to 1% by next year, and then to work towards 2%.

Romania is particularly concerned about Russia's actions in Ukraine, worrying about a spillover to neighbouring Moldova, largely populated with ethnic Romanians. Russian troops are stationed in the eastern breakaway region of Transnistria.

All of those countries have also been strong advocates of imposing sanctions against Russia, despite their close economic ties with their eastern neighbour. “Russia is unpredictable and aggressive,” said Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, while his Lithuanian counterpart Dalia Grybauskaite compares “great Russia chauvinism” to the Nazi threat of the 1930s.

All of the countries are also scrambling to lower their dependency on Russia, which is the main energy supplier to the region. Poland is completing a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Baltic, due to come online net year, while Lithuania is building a floating LNG terminal allowing it to import gas from international markets.

More dovish

By contrast, the core of Central Europe is much more ambivalent both about the Russian threat and the need for a firm response, as well as much more skittish about increasing Nato's presence in the region.

Slovakian PM Robert Fico said he could not imagine Nato trrops being stationed in his country, saying Slovakia had been scarred by the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia and by the 1968 Soviet invasion to crush an attempt at liberalising communist rule.

Bohuslav Sobotka, his Czech counterpart, has been similarly reluctant, both about Nato moving its forces into Central Europe and any involvement in the fighting in Ukraine. “I do not think that Nato should send its units to Ukraine. Nato should only launch a military reaction if a Nato member state were attacked, or based on a decision by the United Nations Security Council,” he told the CTK news agency.

Hungary's Viktor Orban, despite his domestic anti-communist credentials, has also been wary of annoying Moscow. His major contribution to the debate over what to do about Ukraine was to play the ethnic Hungarian card, calling earlier this year for “autonomy” for Hungarians living in western Ukraine.

Russia is Hungary's most important non-EU trade partner, and the relationship has become tighter in recent years. Imports, mainly oil and gas, have jumped from €5.7bn in 2010 to €7.0bn last year, while exports have risen from €1.9bn to €2.4bn over the same period. Russia's Rosatom also signed a €10bn deal to expand the Paks nuclear power plant.

The Czech Republic has also seen the economic relationship with Russia become significantly more important, part of a post-crisis push to diversify away from the EU. Exports jumped from €2.4bn in 2010 to €4.2bn in 2012. In one example, Skoda, the Czech-based subsidiary of Volkswagen, has two car plants in Russia, one of its most important markets.

Both Hungary and the Czech Republic and Slovakia suffered through Soviet invasions during the Cold War, but all three countries are much less suspicious of Russia than their northern neighbours.

The Czechs and Slovaks are currently both ruled by centre-left parties, more interested in domestic policies than in foreign issues. Hungary's Orban was an anti-communist activist in his youth, but in recent years has played on Hungarian nationalism, concerned with the fate of millions of ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries. His prickly relationship with Brussels and his nationalism also make him a comfortable partner for Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Poland's trading relationship with Russia is also important – total trade in 2009 was €12.8bn while in 2013 it was €27bn. But Poland's vision of itself as a regional leader has pushed it to oppose Russia. As well, Polish politics are now dominated with parties with historical roots in the Solidarity labour union, which led the opposition to communist rule in the 1980s. That leaves little domestic space for a pro-Moscow political line.

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