When I had started in secondary (or high) school, I recall the many conversations I had with my mother. Some were about the war in Vietnam; others were about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising; or about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
One conversation I often had with my mother was about Russia, about the fate of the Jews there and about the lack of human rights and freedom—values my mother never took for granted. When, as I prepared to leave school, she asked what I wanted to do. “I want to work in Eastern Europe,” I replied. “You’ll be sent to the Gulag,” she said. So after my studies and a few jobs in London, I went off to what was then Eastern Europe.
I refer to this past because the Eastern Europe that I knew then is today, with all the ups and downs of what’s going on in Hungary and Poland, free and reunited with Europe. How fortunate they are; even though, unfortunately, memories seem short and the past is now so often hijacked to suit the narrative of those in power in Warsaw and Budapest.
As I pondered this new collection of essays* edited by Daniel S. Hamilton and Stefan Meister, I realized how another and more complex Eastern Europe has replaced “New Europe.”
This other Eastern Europe is sandwiched between the Euro-Atlantic organizations of the EU and NATO on the one side and Russia on the other. For me, they are the vulnerable “Lands Between.” They are vulnerable because in this part of Europe there is a yawning security vacuum. A yawning lack of perspective.
Russia, as almost all these authors explain, is exploiting that vacuum and exerting its influence so that these countries won’t integrate with the EU or the West. As a result, the region is far from stable as the pulls from Europe and the muscle of Russia creates interest groups in the region that are ready to take advantage of both—often to the detriment of human rights, the rule of law, and the interests of citizens.
These eleven essays on Europe’s East—the majority of which are written by authors from the region, stretching from Ukraine and Belarus to Moldova, Georgia, and the South Caucasus—have a few things in common, despite the fascinating and important cultural and historical differences between these countries.
There is the endemic corruption so characteristic of the post-Soviet space. There is the ubiquity of the oligarchs. There is the immense pressure on nongovernmental organizations, on human rights activists, and on brave individuals who simply want to have the rule of law but are instead thrown into prison. On that point, the chapter on Azerbaijan could have been more hard-hitting on the miserable state of human rights in the country. Indeed, the issue of human rights and values could have played more prominently throughout the contributions.
There is, as some authors point out, the lip service to reforms, with Moldova a prime example. In nearby Ukraine, the ever-present tensions between President Petro Poroshenko (and his oligarch friends) and civil society over how to deal with corruption, and how to really separate the executive and the legislative so as to institutionalize the rule of law, are debilitating and sometimes depressing. It seems an eternal struggle that only makes Ukraine’s outside supporters frustrated, if not sometime disillusioned.
Other chapters on Ukraine point to how real efforts are being made to make the transformation a success. As Igor Burakovsky, a marvelous economist who gave me endless amounts of his time during the early 2000s, states: “Economic reform in Ukraine must succeed. For Ukraine, it will mean that the country is mature enough to finally emerge from the post-Soviet space.” No wonder that Moscow doesn’t want Kyiv to succeed—even though a stable and prosperous Ukraine could benefit Russia. No wonder, too, that Russia will sit it out in Donbas. It’s a distraction for Kyiv and a bargaining tool, an instrument the West shouldn’t give.
Yet if this security vacuum across Eastern Europe is to be filled, the EU and NATO have to take a hard look at their perspective and perception of the region. The Lands Between are subject to intimidation, bullying, and invasion by Russia. It happened to Georgia in 2008 and to Ukraine in 2014. Somehow, neither the EU nor NATO have grasped the need to deal with this security vacuum by filling it with a membership perspective, or at least a major creative rethink about the scope of Euro-Atlanticism.
The authors of Hamilton and Meister’s collection largely agree that the EU should become more engaged; that the EU should adopt a more differentiated approach toward Europe’s East. The EU is sort of doing that but it is half-baked. It is the member states that together have to decide what kind of long-term political and economic relationship they want with these countries. In this respect, the input by the Baltic States and Central Europe has been very disappointing. If anything, they should have banded together to rally for their Eastern neighbors.
And as ever, much depends on the big EU countries, particularly Germany.
The EU often opts for the status quo—look at Moldova, where the elites spout pro-European rhetoric while filling their pockets with ill-begotten gains. The EU shies away from creating a robust civil society policy, which is puzzling given its commitment to soft power. It also maintains the status quo by allowing Ukrainian and Moldovan oligarchs to squirrel away their (stolen) money in Europe or the United States. This exposes Europe’s hypocrisy and double standards. It perpetuates a culture of corruption and impunity. All these have an impact on security, or rather the lack of it. Hamilton and Meister raise these issues and are correct when they write that “security is the heart of any sustainable reform process in eastern European countries.”
As I think about old Eastern Europe, the comparisons are striking. Soviet-imposed security was about preventing change. Today, it is the the lack of security that prevents the countries of the Lands Between from completing their post-Soviet transformation. The EU and NATO have yet to grasp the role they can play in completing this transformation.
*Eastern Voices: Europe’s East Faces an Unsettled West, edited by Daniel S. Hamilton and Stefan Meister, was published by The Center for Transatlantic Relations in 2017, in cooperation with the German Council on Foreign Relations.