Cheers and fears greet Trump from Baltic to Black Sea

New president’s stance on Russia and US role abroad are key questions for region

Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski: “You can’t criticise anyone for wanting to improve relations with Russia.” Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA

Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski: “You can’t criticise anyone for wanting to improve relations with Russia.” Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA

 

As Central European leaders from the Baltic to the Black Sea congratulate Donald Trump on his accession to the White House, some can hardly wait for him to start work, while others simply hope that their worst fears will not be realised.

In a region where the United States has been crucial to questions of security and development since the collapse of communism, the key issue dividing supporters and sceptics of the Trump presidency is a familiar one – US relations with Russia.

Outside war-ravaged Ukraine, the strongest shivers are felt in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, small Baltic states that won freedom from Soviet occupation only in 1991 and for which Nato’s promise of collective defence is particularly precious.

The Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine unnerved the Baltic states, which are familiar with much of the “hybrid” armoury that Russia uses to destabilise target countries – cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and agitation among the local ethnic Russian community.

Nato ‘obsolete’

In the event of a more conventional attack by Russia, the Baltic states would rely on Nato – the 68-year-old alliance that Trump has called “obsolete”.

It remains to be seen how Trump will act in office – perhaps the tycoon’s complaints about European defence spending are intended to boost US arms sales – but he would face stiff opposition to any weakening of Nato.

The alliance has made a historic pledge to station multinational battalions in the Baltic states and Poland this year; led by the US, Canada, Germany and the UK, and a separate brigade of some 3,500 US troops has already arrived in Poland.

Poland’s leaders warmly welcomed the US troops, but warned Trump not to cut any deals with Russia at their expense – a fear felt widely across a region that the west effectively handed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference.

“You can’t criticise anyone for wanting to improve relations with Russia,” Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski said last week. “We’re Russia’s neighbours and we would also want this. This is our message to the Americans: we like this, but not at our cost.”

While Poland’s leaders may fear a reduction in the US security role, they would be happy for Trump’s White House to leave Europe’s governments to their own devices.

Like fellow populists running Hungary and Slovakia, Poland’s top officials would welcome an end to uncomfortable questions from Washington about perceived threats to their country’s rule of law and democracy.

Hungary’s anti-immigration prime minister, Viktor Orban, was the first European leader to publicly back Trump, when he said last July that the billionaire’s tough “migration and foreign policy . . . is good for Europe and vital for Hungary.”

‘Big bang’ for West

Orban described Trump’s victory as a “big bang” for the western world, which spelled the end of “liberal non-democracy” and political correctness.

“We can call problems by their name and find solutions not derived from an ideology but based on pragmatic, creative thinking rooted in common sense,” he said.

Orban and his allies do not seem to fear Russian aggression, and they criticise western sanctions on Moscow that Trump says he may lift, and bristle at US criticism of Hungary on issues ranging from anti-Semitism to media freedom.

Like Czech president Milos Zeman, Slovak premier Robert Fico and Jaroslaw Kaczynski – Poland’s ruling party chief and de-facto leader – Orban trusts that Trump and his team will not waste their time on such “politically correct” matters.

In former Yugoslavia too, some leaders fear US abandonment while others look forward to living with a less engaged Washington.

Kosovo calls itself the most pro-US country in the world, because it secured independence from Serbia after US-led Nato bombing drove out Belgrade’s forces and ended a bloody 1998-9 conflict.

The majority ethnically Albanian state worries that Trump will simply have no interest in the relatively poor and remote Balkans, allowing Serbia and its chief ally Russia to seize the regional initiative.

“By exercising your will, you’ve created a lot of trouble,” Serbia’s nationalist president Tomislav Nikolic told the US envoy to Belgrade Kyle Scott this week, “and I hope that this behaviour will stop with the new administration.” 

One country that perhaps need not fear being forgotten is Slovenia, homeland of the new US first lady, Melania Trump.

“We will be alert to seize any opportunity to develop the friendship between our countries with her help,” Slovenia’s ambassador to Washington, Bozo Cerar, was quoted as saying this week.

“We will be patient but eager.”

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