It was only a decade ago that Central Europe, in the American imagination, was Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe,” a collection of freedom-loving, heroic small nations — and America’s most loyal allies. Washington ushered them into NATO as a bulwark against Middle Eastern instability and Russian expansionism. Today, however, that perception has changed. Many fear that a number of these plucky, strategically vital states have become Moscow’s Trojan horses in the Western alliances.
The willingness of the Czech president, Milos Zeman, to attend the military parade in Moscow this spring marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany — an event boycotted by Western heads of state — was widely read as a symbolic break with Central Europe’s Western orientation. (After intense pressure, Mr. Zeman withdrew from attending the parade but not from the trip itself.)
Meanwhile, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has signaled that his government would block the proposed establishment of a European energy union, a core part of Brussels’ strategy to reduce Russia’s influence in the region.
Furthermore, there is growing evidence that several Central European governments are using the current crisis in the West’s relations with Russia as an opportunity to get better economic deals from Moscow, criticizing anti-Russian sanctions for better gas prices and investments.
So, has Moscow succeeded in splitting Central Europe into pro-Russian and anti-Russian camps? And can the European Union’s current consensus on Russia — and the Union itself — survive the next few years under such strain?
To answer these questions, political pundits must jettison the clichés that have shaped Western views on Central Europe these last few decades. The behavior of Central European governments and societies are shaped by their experiences of the post-Communist transition and their rediscovered sense of national interest, and not by the memories of the Communist period.
Geography and economic interests beat historical memories. Central Europeans are economically more closely tied to Russia than the rest of the Union; because of that, they pay far higher costs for the sanctions regime. It is also not a secret that Russian money has infiltrated parts of the business and political elites in the post-Communist countries. But what the Central European “street” really thinks about the current crisis is a question rarely asked, though one that it is absolutely vital to answer.
Take public opinion in two Central European countries with historically contrasting views on Russia: Poland and Bulgaria.
Poland is a medium-sized European country that rightly believes that it has dramatically benefited from the collapse of Communism and that its voice matters in the European Union. Poles have been traditionally mistrustful of Russia’s ambitions. They judge the regime of President Vladimir V. Putin as ugly and brutal. A survey conducted last month by the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw found that Poles view the crisis in Ukraine as a direct threat to their security.
Bulgaria is likewise a member of NATO and the Union, but its post-Cold War experience has been far more problematic than Poland’s: It can be judged as anything but a success.
And given the country’s relative proximity to the Middle East, it’s no surprise that a majority of Bulgarians have a greater fear of Turkish hegemony and so-called radical Islam than of Russian aggression.
According to a poll by Alpha Research taken around the same time as the Institute for Public Affairs survey, a majority of Bulgarians do not perceive the war in Ukraine as a major threat, and the annexation of Crimea has hardly altered their generally positive view of Moscow. In fact, Bulgarians tend to blame America rather than Russia for the crisis in Ukraine.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Despite Polish concerns over Russia, the majority of Poles oppose weapons deliveries to Ukraine, and an even larger majority are reluctant to let Ukrainians travel freely in the European Union. Confronted with the stark choice between Russia and the West, the vast majority of Bulgarians opt for the West, and more than 70 percent find the Brussels-centered foreign policy of their government to be “balanced and reasonable.”
What explains this disconnect? Why are pro-Russian Bulgarians ready to follow Brussels and anti-Russian Poles not ready to follow Washington?
The answer may be less counterintuitive than we imagine. Poles have understandable doubts about the security guarantees proffered by NATO and the European Union that are rooted in their troubled history with Western security guarantees and their obvious fear of facing the Russian threat alone. They were also burned by their support for America’s war in Iraq.
And while Bulgarians sympathize with Russians, it is precisely because of their familiarity with Moscow’s ways that they do not consider the Putin regime as a model to be followed.
Bulgarians share much of the conventional Russian resentment of the West. They have no enthusiasm for the politics of sanctions; they suffered indirectly from the Western sanctions imposed on their neighbor, Yugoslavia, two decades ago, and they rightly suspect that Russia’s confrontation with the West will not only hurt their economy but also will polarize domestic politics.
But they also know that small nations on the periphery of the old Continent will be the biggest losers if Russia succeeds in its efforts to break up the European Union. Russia may be resurgent, but Mr. Putin’s regime is corrupt and repressive.
We shouldn’t probably extrapolate too much from looking at just two Central European societies. And yet both Poles and Bulgarians share a similar core sensibility: that the West may not be fully trustworthy, but Moscow offers no viable alternative.
So though the crisis in Ukraine would hardly bring Europe and America closer together, Moscow’s attempt to split the European Union is likely to fail.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.