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A Rorschach Test in the East

The Ukrainian crisis tells us something about Central Europe’s relationship with Russia.

by Martin Ehl 4 March 2014

The reaction to a crisis reveals character. This simple lesson from life is also applicable to international politics at a time when Central Europe must react to something it has not experienced in 25 years: the threat of war in a neighboring country.


In Poland, the Ukrainian crisis has caused a miracle: representatives of all relevant political powers – including the leader of the conservatives, Jaroslaw Kaczynski – have decided to act together. They have suggested a plan of economic sanctions and possible NATO help for Ukraine.


The otherwise rancorous, squabbling political scene thus gave a clear signal both at home and abroad that, at this moment, one of the most fundamental interests of Poland is at stake: the stability of its eastern neighbor, for which Warsaw has acted as something of a patron in relations to the European Union and NATO.


Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk probably hasn’t put down his phone in the past few days, having become the primary defender within the EU of Ukrainian independence. “People on the Maiden must feel that they have friends,” he said over the weekend in between phone calls to the French president and German chancellor.


Meanwhile, in another phone conversation, U.S. President Barack Obama reminded his Polish counterpart, Bronislaw Komorowski, of a proposal that has been on the table for a year and a half: that Poland build its own anti-missile defense more quickly.


The Polish armed forces are quietly preparing for a possible escalation of the conflict, although officially they are not raising their level of combat readiness, so that Warsaw cannot be accused of ratcheting up the tension. This will undoubtedly become more difficult now that Russia has announced exercises for its Baltic Fleet.


Of the four Visegrad countries, the Czech reaction was the second strongest after Poland, with Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek summoning the Russian ambassador in Prague and, like Czech President Milos Zeman, comparing the Russian incursion into Ukraine with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.


The Czech Republic is, in its own way, also a border country, as at least 120,000 Ukrainians live there, making them the country’s largest minority and the largest group of Ukrainians in any EU country. But Czech politicians like to pretend, in their relation to the eastern border of the EU and NATO, that they are protected from any direct threat by the surrounding member states. 


The Hungarian reaction is so far typical for Viktor Orban’s government, which not long ago concluded an unexpected agreement with Moscow for the construction of new units for a nuclear power plant. According to an official statement, Budapest most fears for the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia, Ukraine, where about 156,000 ethnic Hungarians live predominantly along the border. However, in 2008 when the Russian army attacked Georgia, Orban – then as a leader of the opposition – issued a very strong condemnation.


And because there is only a month until the Hungarian parliamentary elections, the left has seized on the topic of the country’s relationship with Russia. One of its leaders, former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, called on Orban not to tie Hungary’s energy future to Russia with the power plant project.


“The situation in Ukraine has a shocking similarity with the situation in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Georgia in 2008,” Gyurcsany wrote.


Slovakia is also moving carefully. Its prime minister, Robert Fico, is in the middle of the presidential campaign. He judiciously urged that force not be used to solve the problems of Ukraine and admitted he does not know much about the situation in general. “We have energy reserves for the next five months,” Fico said, trying to play down concerns about possible shortages. However, Slovakia in the past couple of years has become involved in Ukraine particularly by means of the assistance provided by nongovernmental organizations.


The various reactions to the Ukrainian crisis show what kind of relationship individual countries have built with Russia over time and how they are willing and able in this unfolding situation to use this relationship to help partners in the EU and NATO to find a solution. From the point of view of Brussels, as “headquarters” of both institutions, such allies must be a sad sight. 

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. 


Translated by Anna Kotlabova.

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