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Logically, the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea should make every European fortunate enough to live in the European Union (EU) extraordinarily grateful. The kind of geopolitical jockeying, territorial land-grabs, and greater-state fantasies that ruled the day since Charlemagne have no place in EU Europe. If the centennial commemorations of World War I’s first shots were not enough to remind one of this, then Vladimir Putin’s brazen decoupling of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine is a taste of what the rest of Europe might look like without the EU.
But logic is not prevailing—Putin is. His strike against Ukraine leveled a blow against democratic culture—which is the only force potent enough to dislodge him from power (save his own mortality). His authoritarian style and uncompromising nationalism are finding new allies at home and in Europe. Parties on the far right and far left who damn the EU are, in the same breath, apologizing for and even praising Putin’s actions. These illiberal parties are set to make historic gains in the EU parliament elections on May 25, perhaps even benefitting from the Ukraine crisis. If parties on the far right fare as well as they did in recent votes in France and Hungary, Putin will have achieved everything he set out to do in Ukraine and more.
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In Russia itself, Putin’s greatest fear is an uprising like the one in Maidan Square, in Kiev, on his own home turf. It was just a few years ago, in 2011 and 2012, that massive, enduring protests in Moscow against Russia’s rigged elections—the biggest demonstrations since the 1990s—rocked the country. In addition to arrests and repression, the state organized pro-government counter-demonstrations, tellingly called “anti-orange protests,” a reference to Ukraine’s democratic Orange Revolution in 2004. A wave of arrests and a clampdown on civil society and the independent media followed, extreme actions to make certain that there would be no Orange Revolution—or any other color uprising—in Russia.
The annexation of Crimea has fired a warning shot across Russia's near abroad—Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
The protests and the clampdown, including the arrest of Pussy Riot, ushered in a new era, now in full bloom. Russia has once and for all abandoned any pretense that it wants to become part or even partner of a liberal-minded, Western Europe. Instead Putin and his recent allies in Russia, like the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalist intellectuals, have instead opted for an authoritarian “Eurasian” Russia that defines itself over against the West and Western values. It hails “Russian exceptionalism” as a path between East and West, part and parcel of which is a worldview based on collectivist, traditionalist, emotive, and militaristic values. According to this logic, Russia has a historical right to an empire that reaches beyond its current borders. Today in Russia, argues the Russia correspondent of Germany’s left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung, this Eurasian ideology is visible just about everywhere you look—from the political parties to think tanks and talk shows, even embedded in school and university curricula. “There’s simply no other public discourse [in Russia today] than this one,” argues one Die Tageszeitung journalist.
Putin’s Crimea escapade has to be understood in this context. One of the goals of annexation Crimea was to douse the sparks of any new, broad-based opposition movement in Russia itself. Not only has the media in Russia played up the annexation as a patriotic triumph, boosting Putin’s popularity to new heights in the polls, but it has justified measures to reign in the last independent media and opposition. There will be no Maidan Square in Moscow.
Nor will there likely be protest in what Putin calls Russia’s “near abroad”—namely Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This is Russia’s sphere of interest, and keeping it unstable is part of Putin’s plan. Russia obviously possesses the means and power to undermine these countries in a number of ways. In the past, Russia has played the energy card against Ukraine and Belarus. In 2008, Russian troops marched into Georgia. Now, the annexation of Crimea has fired a warning shot across the entire near abroad.
For the democratic opposition in these countries, the implications of the Ukraine crisis are enormous. In Belarus, for example, the task of displacing a strong-arm, Russia-allied leader like President Alexander Lukashenko was daunting to begin with. But now it is clear that the opposition is up against the full force of Russia. This gives Lukashenko renewed confidence to crack down on dissent, should the occasion arise, in ostensible defense of the country. Do Belarusians want Russian troops in Minsk? Or a civil war like the one now threatening Ukraine? Or fascists to take power? If not, then stick with the Lukashenko regime. This is how the logic runs.
In Moldova, there’s already a breakaway statelet: the pro-Russian Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a swath of territory wedged between Moldova proper and Ukraine. Russia could annex it even more easily than it did Crimea, since Russian troops are already there. Georgia’s frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are potential pawns, too.
All of these countries have existed in limbo for years now, between NATO and the EU, on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Perhaps, before the Crimea crisis, there was a possibility that the EU and Russia could have agreed on shared security structures and trade zones for these countries. But both the West and Russia lacked the political imagination to do this. George W. Bush even wanted to grant Georgia and Ukraine NATO membership straightway in 2008. While Angela Merkel was right to hold him back, Germany didn’t followup with ideas for concrete proposals for joint security structures.
Understandably, the central Europeans—the Baltics, the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia), Romania, and Bulgaria—would rather belong to NATO than be in the no man’s land of Eastern Europe. But the crisis is impacting their political cultures. In Poland, for example, the current center-right government (which had been lagging in opinion polls) is now on top again, having capitalized on what it claims is the real threat of Russia to Poland’s territorial integrity. Poland is thinking again about a missile defense system and other additions to its arsenal. Prime Minister Donald Tusk even went so far as to say in one of his speeches that he did not know whether "children will go to school this autumn."
Putin’s allies in the EU also seem to be on the upswing, if the recent elections in France and Hungary are any barometer. Indeed, the national populists and hard-core xenophobes of EU Europe, who march under the banners of ethnic nationalism, tend to see the world much like Putin does. They feel that nations require due latitude to pursue their historical destiny—under the firm hand of a resolute leader, of course. And they share none of modern liberalism’s political correctness about minority rights, social diversity, or supranational governance.
The French right’s leader, Marine Le Pen, says she “is in awe” of Putin, and visited him this month in Moscow, where she accused the West of starting a “new cold war” against Russia. Hungary’s recently re-elected prime minister, Victor Orban, is also a fan. Indeed, Orban’s and Putin’s governing styles have a lot in common, as does their low opinion of the EU. At the height of the Crimea crisis, Orban signed a deal with Russia for a loan to buy nuclear technology for Hungary “Once a ferocious critic of the Soviet Union and of post-communist Russia,” wrote Phillip Stephens in the Financial Times, “Mr. Orban now shares Mr. Putin’s cultural conservatism and disdain for western ‘decadence.’ Both leaders subscribe to a collectivist state capitalism that sets the state above private enterprise. As in Russia, foreigners who invest in Hungary cannot expect the protection of the rule of law.”
Across the EU, far right parties like Le Pen’sNational Front, Hungary’s anti-Semitic Jobbik party, the far-right Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang are flying high in the polls. Some observers think the EU-skeptics could gain a third of the vote in the May elections for the European Parliament, the heart of EU democracy. “In the European Union,” writes Mitchell A. Orenstein in Foreign Affairs, Putin “hopes that his backing of fringe parties will destabilize his foes and install in Brussels politicians who will be focused on dismantling the EU rather than enlarging it.” Indeed, Putin’s new strategy reaches far beyond Russia’s borders. It is predictable how such parties would vote, for example, on offering EU association treaties to the likes of Georgia and Moldova.
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Many Europeans take the “peace program” of the EU, its original raison d’être, for granted. The EU looks weak next to Putin, who knows what he wants and just takes it. In the face of globalization, the inclination of many European countries is to divest themselves of decision-making power and put their trust in a nationalist leader who will put things straight. But this won’t work—in Russia or the EU.
In the run up to the May vote across Europe, Europe’s democrats have to make this point as clearly as possible, underscoring how critical the EU’s norms are—like social justice, sustainability, diplomacy over force of arms, diversity, the rule of law, consumer protection, freedom of movement—particularly in the face of someone like Putin who rejects them. Europeans would do well to remember that being part of the EU means that countries are no longer moved around like pawns in a geopolitical chess game. If European voters rebuff the EU with votes for extremists, they’ll be giving impetus to a world like the one Putin envisions—like that Europe had a century ago, in 1914.
Image: Republic of Korea
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer who has written about Germany and Central Europe since 1989. His work appears in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other media. He has held prize fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin, European Journalism College, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of four books, most recently Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
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