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21 May 2007

Not so quiet on the eastern front

In the frontier lands of the EU, tension is growing as a resurgent Russia is using its restive minor

By Roger Boyes

It was a long, dusty summer. Three years ago, I embarked on a car journey down the eastern border of the European Union, the Wild East. I was travelling with Piotr, a garrulous Polish reporter, and our mission was to understand how EU enlargement was transforming the relationship with Russia. Frontier lands have always been a neuralgic zone; right on the border is where you have to fight for and define your national identity.

We rattled our way from Estonia and Lithuania – from where we crossed illegally into Russia to relieve ourselves in an under-patrolled forest – through the toytown dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, through Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, into the straggling Balkans. At each pit stop the locals had a view – usually sombre – of Russia. True, the Bulgarians and Serbians remained sentimentally attached to the Russians. And for one Latvian intellectual, pouring out tea from a Thermos in the scruffy garden of his dacha, serving as an interpreter in the Red Army had been the most exciting time of his life. For most, however, the Russians meant nothing but trouble.

Each time we picked up a hitch-hiker, Piotr would hammer on about Poland’s holy mis- sion to the borderlands, the so-called Kresy Wschodnie. We lost a lot of hitch-hikers that way. When we came to write the inevitable book, we were tugged between Piotr’s Polono-centric understanding of the EU – that it should project western values eastwards and roll back Russian influence – and my pigeon-chested liberalism – feebly arguing that all would be well if it opened up, let trade flourish and handed out visas like bus tickets; the borderlanders would prosper and decide they, too, were westerners. Russia would eventually accept the inevitable: that it cannot hope to keep its influence in societies such as Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia.

Now I am not so sure. A great belt of insecurity sweeps from the north-eastern EU frontier to the south. Russia is at the gates, grimacing and up to no good. The Russian minority in the Baltic republics is a serious problem that could become even more volatile if there is a cack-handed transfer of power in the Kremlin when Vladimir Putin steps down next year. A recent row between Estonia and Russia focused on a bronze monument to the Soviet army, nicknamed “the Unknown Rapist” by Estonians. Only days before a Second World War anniversary, Estonia’s government decided to move the statue in Tallinn to the outskirts of the capital – a way of signalling its hurt at the decades of Soviet occupation. The effect was to anger the Kremlin, stir some nasty Russian-inspired rioting and raise a threat of a fuel blockade. Whatever one thinks of Estonia’s political judgement, Moscow’s hostile response against a sovereign EU state should have drawn a tougher response from fellow members.

To the south, both Ukraine and Romania have been waging a battle for power at the top, with two popular presidents – Viktor Yushchenko and Traian Bãsescu – growing frustrated with scheming prime ministers and foot-dragging parliaments. Ukraine seems to have reached a compromise in the past few days that allows for early elections, but the mood is still tense. Romania may not be able to end its stalemate until October at the earliest. Both presidents believe that lax rules on party financing are creating a mediocre political class, easily manipulated by oligarchs with strong business links to Russia.

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Neither society can modernise successfully without a concentration of authority, democratically legitimised. This follows a pattern across the region of Moscow involving itself, discreetly or otherwise, in domestic politics. Will Russia – as some intelligence analysts believe – create and sponsor a pro-Moscow opposition candidate to topple Lukashenko in Belarus when he becomes simply too absurd? Will Russia permit an independent Kosovo and a humiliated Serbia?

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Russia is a bigger challenge than the EU cares to recognise. And so I have come around to accepting Piotr’s line: the EU should intervene more directly in the affairs of its border states, because, when pitted against Moscow, it is better to have even a half-baked policy than none at all. If you have no programme, no EU-defined goal for the neighbourhood, you lose any interest in what is happening; Moldovans and Ukrainians become little more than immigration statistics and whole societies are allowed to drift.

Constitutional meltdown

We cannot afford to be mere spectators: two of the countries in trouble, Estonia and Romania, are EU members. Oil and gas from Russia to the EU cross the borderland states, most of which are heavily indebted to Moscow. It is not good enough to lie supine whenever Putin threatens a new cold war. We are allowing Russia to dictate the EU agenda on too many issues.

There are two clusters of problems with the potential to turn into crises. The first is this: the EU, following its enlargement in 2004, has a large and unhappy Russian minority of more than 1.2 million people, most of them wedged into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Despite concessions made to speed accession, the Baltic states are treating their indigent Russians as second-class citizens. Most find it difficult to get a job; all have to take language exams to qualify as citizens. Those who fail are classified as “resident aliens”.

Soon Russia will face parliamentary and presidential elections and the question of protecting minorities abroad is certain to become an issue. It was naive of the west to believe that the era of disgruntled, politically explosive minorities had somehow passed, a relic of decaying empires such as the Habsburg, or the dark central European manoeuvring of the 1930s. The Russian minority in the EU is descended from the army and security service presence there; it has powerful allies in Moscow. The Russian army, humiliated by its withdrawal from empire and by underfunding – but bolstered by the political re-emergence of the old KGB apparatus – is beginning to make its presence felt again.

All of Putin’s recent cold war rhetoric, his simulated anger at the US anti-missile defence systems planned for eastern Europe and his threat to withdraw from conventional force agreements with the west suggest that the army is being offered Valium. Any pressure on former Russian service families living in the Baltic republics (famously “liberated” by the Red Army) is destined to stir anger in the officers’ mess. That makes the northern EU borderlands vulnerable terrain. There is only one possible response: to make sure that the Balts are indeed respecting EU standards of tolerance for minorities, and to defend the Balts loudly and credibly if Moscow tries to meddle with their politics.

The second potential flashpoint must be ob vious to even the most provincial of western politicians: that dependency on Russian energy is extremely high in the EU borderlands. These economies are growing fast – overheating, even – and guzzling up oil and gas from the east. Popular expectations are also rising; there is a surge of impatience across the region and acute frustration with the political class. That is a heady mix: galloping growth that is creating a potentially dangerous gulf between the urban rich and the rural poor, disconnected from the world in a way unknown since the end of the 19th century. Add to that the swagger of Gazprom, an increasingly corrupt political elite, and a professional middle class forced to migrate to realise its dreams, and you have all the makings of a con stitutional meltdown.

Some of the EU’s new neighbours are truly failed states. Piotr and I visited a Moldovan village where every third male had sold a kidney to an unscrupulous woman working for a Turkish clinic; the girls, meanwhile, had been peddled to northern Italian brothels. Others, such as Belarus, are sad outposts run in the interests of crazed tinpot despots and their clans. And there are large, historically proud societies – Romania within the EU, Ukraine outside – that are sen sibly modernising but which find themselves politically paralysed.

We cannot, of course, develop a one-size-fits-all policy for such a motley assortment of neighbours. But if we ignore these countries, their problems will become ours, making a nonsense of our most cherished projects. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, really believes that the answer is a strategic partnership with Russia, a contract that commits Moscow to uninterrupted energy supplies and decent behaviour long after Putin has exchanged his gumshoes for slippers. But she should know better – after all, she grew up in the German Democratic Republic – than to believe in the inhibiting value of a treaty. The Kremlin sees the borderlands as its natural sphere of influence, its security cushion. If it has to turn off the gas tap to enforce discipline, it surely will.

Romania’s woes

I am writing the last part of this article at the campaign headquarters of Traian Bãsescu, the suspended Romanian president. In a few days he faces a referendum that will decide whether his countrymen impeach him. Apart from Spain, which has a large Romanian minority, no one in the EU has taken a blind bit of notice. The borderlands, we seem to think, are historically programmed for turbulence. Why should we bother? What has it got to do with us? Such dismissiveness is not being shown in Moscow. The only television crews I have seen in Bucharest on this trip are from Russia. The Kremlin sniffs chaos and weakness in its neighbours as surely as a truffling pig; as usual, it is profiting from our lack of concentration, our sheer indifference to foreign cultures. Aides never seen before greet me like a long-lost friend, apparently mistaking me for an emissary from Tony Blair – the last of the messenger boys.

“We don’t see many English faces round here nowadays,” said one official, adding: “Perhaps that will change soon?”

“Perhaps,” I muttered. Outside, although we were on Vasile Lascar Street in the middle of the city, I was sure that I heard a cock crow.

Roger Boyes is Berlin correspondent of the Times