Europe’s New Divide

Europe’s New Divide

Europe’s New Divide

February 16, 2011
The European Union ushers in the new year amid the ruins of its foreign policy with regard to Eastern Europe. In Belarus, President Lukashenko has begun his fourth term of office, accompanied by a wave of arrests of the opposition, the closing of independent newspapers, and the closing of the OSCE office in Minsk. In Moscow, Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky was subjected to a show trial and sentenced to 14 years in jail. And in Ukraine, President Yanukovych is turning the wheels of justice to consolidate his grip on power and to eliminate the opposition. These events did not come about by chance. Rather, they are part of an orchestrated movement that is threatening to once again divide Europe into two camps, namely, a democratic camp and an authoritarian camp. Ethno-nationalistic tensions in Russia, the Southern Caucasus, and Central Asia provide fodder for authoritarian leaders and big-stick politics. The hope that the collapse of the Soviet Union would result in the creation of one vast democratic zone spanning from Lisbon to Vladivostok has proven to be illusory. And, although the Eastern European countries make an effort to look democratic, authoritarian power structures, red tape, and corruption run rampant behind the scenes. This is true even of countries that initially pioneered democracy, such as Georgia and Ukraine.

The overall political agenda in Eastern Europe is largely determined by Moscow. Vladimir Putin, the new iron man of Russia, began his first term of office with the promise of preventing the collapse of the country and of rebuilding national pride. According to his value system, maintaining Russia’s stability and status as a superpower rank much higher than democracy. In the meantime, many people in the West are all too quick to let themselves be drawn into the spell of Moscow’s glamour.

The country’s many failings—“legal nihilism” (as coined by President Medvedev), the centralization of power in the hands of a few, rampant corruption, government control of mass media, the usurpation of parliament to serve only the party in power, electoral manipulation, the systematic redistribution of wealth for the benefit of government groups, the assassination of human rights activists and journalists—are readily downplayed or explained away as the inevitable growing pains of a young democracy. However, these events are far from isolated issues. Putin’s “guided democracy” is in no way a step toward actual democracy, on the contrary. Russia is today a country under authoritarian rule, in which the lines between political and economic forces and between federal security agencies and criminal activity are heavily blurred.

As a result, the strength that Russia purports to have is ultimately not true strength. The Russian economy is largely carried by surplus from the country’s wealth of natural resources. When measured against more significant parameters, such as productivity, innovation, and education, the country continues to fall behind. President Medvedev’s reproach of his own country for being a “primitive raw materials economy” was accompanied by an appeal for stronger rule of law and a stronger civil society. Although he deserves credit for understanding that his country is doomed to ruin without drastic modernization, his outspokenness has not resulted in any improvements to date. This is perhaps because his politics essentially rely on and condone the strong alliance between state security bodies and the state bureaucracy that profiteers from the current state of affairs. As long as the billions in oil and gas money continue to flow, these bodies can hardly be expected to embrace reforms that would threaten their privileged positions.

The tenacious attempt to once again gather the former Soviet republics under the wing of Russian influence has economic motives, namely, the consolidation of the oil and gas monopolies and the profits they yield. This includes control over the energy markets in neighboring states and the pipeline networks in transit countries. Russia tries to quell the emergence of independent suppliers (Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan) as well as the construction of competing distribution networks to Western Europe, as demonstrated by the country’s fierce opposition of the Nabucco pipeline project.

The EU has been a helpless bystander in the course of these developments. With regard to the Georgia–Russia crisis, the EU has had to come to terms with the territorial breakaway of Georgia, even though the establishment of Russian bases in the secession zones violates the cease-fire agreement that Sarkozy was so proud of. With regard to Ukraine, the EU has no strategy that could have a relevant influence on the country’s interior development or exterior orientation. In the case of Belarus, the political dialogue with the regime has run aground. Finally, the envisaged “EU-Russia Modernization Partnership” lacks the necessary constitutional and democratic foundation. Under pressure to secure their national energy needs, individual EU countries are easily coerced into bilateral bargains with Russia—at the expense of pursuing a unified European policy. Thus, Moscow’s somewhat condescending tone when referring to the EU as a political actor is more than just the overbearingness of a would-be superpower.

If the EU wants to be a strategic actor in Eastern Europe, it will have to offer credible accession perspectives to all countries wishing to be a part of democratic Europe. In dealing with Russia, it will have to develop a political and economic concept that closely resembles that of an EU membership. At the same time, the EU will have to make it clear that a “strategic partnership” is out of the question without democratic reform. After all, without a stable legal framework, political freedom, and independent entrepreneurship, any economic modernization efforts would eventually fail anyway. The theory that closer economic ties with Russia would automatically lead to more democracy—a very popular assumption in European foreign affairs circles—has proven to be wrong. Our most valuable partners in Eastern Europe are the democratic forces in politics and society, and it is those allies that we must support as best we can. This support includes eliminating travel restrictions to Europe for citizens from neighboring countries, as the travel visa requirements currently in place exacerbate the division of Europe. At the same time, the EU should deny admission to anyone who has participated in human rights violations and criminal activities. Under no circumstance should we stand passively by and watch as Europe again divides into a democratic and an authoritarian camp. Gorbachev’s legacy is still a worthwhile goal: the establishment of a common European house with democratic house rules.

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books. 


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