Ukraine crisis alters balance of power in eastern Europe

Former members of eastern bloc alarmed at historical parallels

Riot police stand guard in front of a regional government building yesterday as pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Photograph: Reuters

Riot police stand guard in front of a regional government building yesterday as pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Photograph: Reuters

Thu, Mar 6, 2014, 01:00

EU leaders will hold an emergency meeting today in Brussels to seek a united response to Russia’s Crimean advance that prevents visible cracks widening between western and central Europe.

While Germany, France and other founding EU states demand restraint towards Russia, ex-eastern bloc members see alarming historical parallels in Moscow’s decision to respond to deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Janukovich’s call for “assistance”.

The Baltic countries recall their 1940 “requests” – with Red Army troops gathering on their borders – to be incorporated into the Soviet Union. For Czechs and Slovaks it recalls the 1968 “request” from opponents of reforming Czech leader Alexander Dubcek for Soviet troops to put down the Prague Spring.

And there is also Poland’s request for Allied assistance in the second World War, a request the Red Army granted only after the Nazis had retreated from Warsaw, levelling the capital as they left.

Poland, long Ukraine’s champion in Europe, has lead central European calls for a decisive response to the crisis. Warsaw was the first to recognise Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and, behind the shared 500km border redrawn after the war, lie former Polish lands.


Territorial integrity
For only the fourth time in Nato’s history the bloc held “article four” consultations this week after Poland cited Russian tactics in Crimea as a threat to its security and territorial integrity.

“We know that when predators eat, they only get hungrier,” said Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski. In Brussels today, Polish leader Donald Tusk has to convince western EU leaders a robust response is required for strategic concerns and not simply to purge old historical traumas.

“This is existential for Poland,” said Mr Tusk on Sunday. “We cannot be left alone to face the threat behind our eastern border.”

Across the border, Czech president Milos Zeman has already drawn comparisons between the Crimean crisis and Prague’s 1968 massacre. For ex-foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Mr Putin’s urge to protect Russian speakers in Crimea has echoes of Hitler “citing the need to protect local Germans” to justify the 1938 absorption of the Sudetenland.


‘Military aggression’
Meanwhile Prague’s human rights minister Jiri Dienstbier has warned that “a country that uses military aggression in its foreign policy is a security risk for the Czech Republic”.

In Poland, such is the tension that defence minister Tomasz Siemonak was forced to deny rumours that the Polish army was being mobilised.

Central bank governor Marek Belka has warned that prolonged uncertainty could harm Poland’s economic stability. “This crisis shows that it’s worth making an additional investment in the European Union,” he said, “perhaps . . . looking at the issue of our membership in the euro zone.” The eventual EU response could have further domestic repercussions in Poland, where the crisis has seen political leaders in a rare show of unity. After an emergency meeting on Sunday Mr Tusk called on Europe to proceed “rationally but firmly” without leaving Ukraine alone in its hour of need.

His demand has both strategic and domestic political components. If Poles view any eventual EU response as weak, the Polish prime minister knows it could undermine his ruling Civic Platform (PO) and widen the poll lead already enjoyed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party.

For many Poles, and not just traditional PiS voters, the Crimean crisis has confirmed the Russian conspiracy theories Mr Kaczynski has tirelessly put forward over the years. A decade after joining the EU on a sunny day in Dublin, shadows of history and of the Ukrainian present, are creeping over how Poland and its central European neighbours view the EU.

“It’s too early to say if this marks a new order in Europe,” said Jan Techau of the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels. “But we could be in the middle of the birth pains.”

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