GEOMETR.IT stratfor.com 19.01.2016
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
― George Orwell, Animal Farm
The European Union is fragmenting, and Russia is becoming more active in its former Soviet sphere of influence. In such upheaval, it is no surprise that a string of countries running from the Baltic Sea down the Carpathians to the Black Sea is slowly developing a common interest in countering Moscow while chafing under Western European interference. This is especially true of Poland, which sees itself as the natural leader of Central and Eastern Europe. But uniting these countries, whose agendas often conflict with one another and with Poland’s, will not be easy.
Yet differences between Poland and its peers abound. Poland and Hungary have different views when it comes to Russia that would stifle any nascent alliance. Law and Justice wants to take a hard stance against Moscow by extending the current EU sanctions and deploying NATO troops in Eastern Europe. Hungary, on the contrary, wants a more balanced approach that would include de-escalating tensions with Russia and lifting sanctions to normalize ties and protect Russian investment and energy supplies to Hungary.
- Slovakia, like Hungary, also supports a more accommodating policy regarding Russia, because, though Ukraine’s crisis has disturbed its energy security, its natural gas and the fuel for its Russia-built nuclear power plants still come from Russia. In addition, Slovakia has more misgivings about NATO’s presence in the region than does Poland.
- Fico has said that he will preserve Slovakia’s strong ties with the military alliance but that he is against the permanent stationing of foreign troops on Slovakian soil. The Slovak government was critical of a recent move by Poland to raid a NATO counterintelligence center in Warsaw run jointly by Poland and Slovakia. Finally, Slovakia will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2016, which will probably force Bratislava to mediate between the bloc’s conflicting interests.
- Lithuania, in turn, shares Poland’s views on Russia but does not support its Euroskeptic positions. A small nation surrounded by powerful countries, Lithuania is fully committed to EU integration. Unlike Poland, Lithuania is also a member of the eurozone.
- Germany could pressure Lithuania not to support Poland’s resistance to enforcing EU policies. Moreover, Poland’s nationalist government could clash with Lithuania on the protection of the rights of Polish minorities in the country. Still, because Poland will probably come into conflict with EU institutions several times this year, especially if the European Commission moves to punish Warsaw for its recent media reforms, Lithuania could become an honest broker to ease tension between Warsaw and Brussels.
- In the meantime, Romania’s unsettled political system will continue to prevent a strong central government from emerging, let alone one that can emulate Poland’s, at least for another year. Romania has a semi-presidential system that distributes power between the president and the parliament. The Romanian president supports EU integration, but the caretaker government led by a former European commissioner is not strong enough to make bold moves. A victory by the conservatives in the general elections this December could make Romania more Euroskeptic, but such changes would only become apparent in 2017.
Poland’s new government will not dramatically change the country’s foreign policy or the geopolitics of Central and Eastern Europe. Many of the government’s priorities are in line with those of its predecessors. However, Law and Justice’s vocal policies will reaffirm the disenchantment with Continental integration already pervasive in the region. Warsaw’s ideological affinity with some of its peers could enable more regional cooperation to resist attempts by Brussels (and Berlin) to shape the direction of the bloc. Law and Justice will also push for a harder stance against Russia and a larger presence of NATO in the region.
But Central and Eastern Europe is still too heterogeneous to form a cohesive bloc. While Poland can partner with Hungary, Romania, Lithuania and Slovakia on a host of issues, their goals will also conflict on many others; the common interests that bind Warsaw with one potential ally distance it from another.
Beyond the European Union, Turkey could eventually become part of a loose alliance of countries encircling Russia. Polish assertiveness on Europe’s eastern front could easily complement Turkey’s influence on the Black Sea, especially as Ankara’s relationship with Moscow has worsened in recent months. Romania, the largest EU member with strategic interests in the Black Sea, would also be a key player in such a structure.
After all, Bucharest is concerned about Russia’s military presence in Crimea and Moldova. Of course, this union is still undeveloped and may never materialize into a formal alliance. To be effective, it would also require more active support from the United States. But interests in Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly aligned, however slowly, and Poland will no doubt be a part of it.