Examining How CEE and Russia Relate in Turbulent Times

Tensions between Russia and the West, including the European Union, have not eased since the Eastern powerhouse invaded Crimea in February. The EU has banked on economic and diplomatic sanctions to reign Putin in and stabilize Ukraine. To delve deeper into the topic, CEU's Center for EU Enlargement held its first conference of the new academic year “Engagement or Containment: EU-Russia Relations in Turbulent Times and the Role of Central Europe” on Sept. 25.

CEU President and Rector John Shattuck pointed out that about half of CEU students come from Central and Eastern Europe – the countries of the former Soviet Union – and that the University also has many Russian and Ukrainian students.

“I would say the stakes are quite high and, very importantly, the stakes for the EU are very high,” Shattuck said of relations with Russia. “One could even say there’s an existential view: Can the EU still exist without dealing with Russia? This is the first real contest of EU borders since Yugoslavia. The stakes for Russia and Putin are also very high; this is a test of whether Russia will be nationalist and irredentist or whether it will emerge as a new global power that can restrain itself and be effective in promoting this kind of power and managing its own internal conflicts.

Reinhard Krumm, director, Department for Central and Eastern Europe, Friedrich Ebert Foundation Berlin speaks at CEU. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

“A year ago, Putin said 'Russia is not a project, it's a destiny.' We should always take this into consideration,” said Reinhard Krumm, director of the Department for Central and Eastern Europe, Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, where they did a scenario project to consider future interaction between Russia and the EU. “One of the main problems we have is a completely different perception of Russian and the EU and policy is built on perception. For the crisis today, we have to see that the EU and Russia perceive the last 25 years completely differently. The first part is the 90s which, for Russia, was a defeat in the Cold War - unsuccessful reforms, unsuccessful collaboration with the West, etc. The EU perception is completely different – an end of the division of Europe, joy over the collapse of communism, a slow but successful transformation of former Soviet countries, annoyance at Russian behavior, and shock at the violence in Chechnya.” Russia also views EU/NATO enlargement as aggressive Western behavior and as encroachment, Krumm noted, whereas the EU sees it as “a way toward long-lasting peace for Europe.”

Krumm noted that the issues with Russia must be dealt with in the short, the mid, and the long term. First, the conflict in eastern Ukraine must be de-escalated; in the middle phase, perceptions of opposing sides must be improved and trust-building measures taken with the involvement of civil society; in the long term, Krumm said, “We have to find security structure where Russia is either part of it or friendly and respectful of the structure.”

Wolfgang Behrendt, desk officer for the European External Action Service, Russia Division in Brussels emphasized the importance of the Russian-EU trade relationship but echoed Krumm's sentiments regarding the future. “Nobody has a recipe for the solution,” Behrendt said. “There is a short-term goal: cease-fire, stabilization, etc., then back to the strategic partner question. We have to rebuild trust, otherwise you can’t restore this partnership. We must launch a dialog with Russia.”

The panels that followed the keynote addresses focused first on the EU as seen from Russia, then how Central Europe sees Russia and, finally, how interconnected gas and energy networks play into the complex relationships.

Professor Alexander Sergunin of St. Petersburg State University speaks at CEU. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

During the first panel, Professor Alexander Sergunin from St. Petersburg State University gave an overview of how Russian elites see the situation. He noted that the vast majority are critical of Russian policies and of the EU and have been, even before the Ukrainian crisis. “They think both sides can be blamed for the current crises – there have been a chain of mistakes on both sides,” he said. And while countries in CEE aren't the most powerful actors in the EU, he noted, Russian elites are quite positive about their role in resolving the current crisis.

It is important to also gauge general public opinion in Russia. Professor Viacheslav Morozov from the Center for EU-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu said that is easier said than done. “In today’s Russia, public opinion at large is shaped by propaganda,” he noted. “It’s a fact that while the elites might hold more moderate views privately and even when they write official reports, but at the same time, the message that gets translated in the media – especially state-run media – is decidedly pro-government. It's very black and white...the public has been almost completely united around Kremlin policies.” Russian elites have made an effort to speak out against Kremlin policies as seen in a recent demonstration in Moscow that was 50,000 strong. “It is a very good result for the opposition; it is a meaningful result,” he emphasized.

Professor Viacheslav Morozov from the Center for EU - Russia Studies at the University of Tartu speaks at CEU. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Morozov underscored just how preoccupied Russian people are with the situation in Ukraine. But where the EU comes into play for the general public is more ambiguous. There are a lot of conspiracy theories regarding intervention in Ukraine, mainly placing the U.S. and the CIA at the center of it. Russians don't see that Ukrainians could have the ability to defy Russian on their own, he said. But Morozov wonders, in the depths of a recession, just how long the general public will stay on the side of the Kremlin and how Russia will survive outside the current system that is so intertwined with the West.

Andras Racz, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs talked specifically about CEE countries, noting that “the first-ever strategic Russian document that dealt with CEE only came out in 1997...and in 2013, in the new Russian foreign policy concept, CEE is not even mentioned. We are not as important for Russia as they are for us.”

CENS Director Peter Balazs attends his center's conference on EU-Russia relations. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Central Europe, and the Visegrad 4, of which Hungary is a member, has been greatly divided on the issue because Central European foreign policies have national differences, he noted. “My point is that individual Russian policies depend on the level of dependence on Russia; the more dependent you are on Russia, the more pro-Russia your policies are.”

Balazs Jarabik, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, noted that membership in the EU and NATO seems to put CEE at odds with Russia. Jarabik made the important point that, not only are CEE countries divided by their policies and the number of Ukrainian citizens within their respective borders, but that growing income equality is changing the picture for many. He said the CEE has seen the eroding of institutions without the buildup of anything new. “We were hoping EU integration would replace communist structure. Visegrad still looks better than Ukraine but, for example, most of Hungary's millionaires come from state contracting; this promotes insecurity. What we see in Ukraine is a reflection of how we see our own region.”

Tomas Strazay, senior research fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association wondered why it was not possible to realize a real relationship between the Visegrad 4 and Russia before this current crisis. In his native Slovakia, the political elite is not united, he said. “The prime minister introduced the notion of Slovakia as a victim of a geopolitical game. It’s a symbolic return to old rhetoric.”

Andris Spruds, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs said the Baltic countries perceive the current situation as Russian aggression, not as a Ukrainian crisis. “It's about re-imperialization of post-Soviet space,” he noted. “It’s about victimization, about insecurity – these feelings of insecurity stem from Russia's violation of their agreements and using internal conflicts to change the borders.” While former Polish President Lech Walesa called for Poland to be armed with nuclear power to protect itself from Russia, Spruds sees this as a bit of an exaggeration but does concede that “we do need to somehow balance the threat...it’s not high season for trust-building but the windows of engagement should be kept open.”

Agata Loskot-Strachota, senior research fellow at the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, took a closer look on CEE-Russia gas relations. Decreasing gas supply from Russia towards Poland, Slovakia and Austria, and decreasing transit are increasing uncertainty especially ahead of the winter season. Decreasing supplies and reverse gas flows have direct implications for CEE which only confirms the need for alternative gas supplies and the critical need to further integrate CEE into the EU’s current gas policy due to possible pressure from Russia in the very near future.

Deak Andras, senior fellow at Institute of World Economics (HAS), discussed the trend of interdependency in EU-Russia energy relations in the past 20-25 years and underscored that natural gas is only one sector of this relationship, amounting to about 20 percent. “Actually we do not have asymmetry in terms of revenues, it’s falling back,” he said. The reality of EU-Russia relations is that Russia is still the cheapest source of gas, except for the past couple of years, and the EU should take into account its interdependency when trying to build up a long-term diversification. Deak added that Hungary and Bulgaria, the countries where household energy prices are the lowest in the region, have two ways to go: one is governmental subsidies to this field, the other is asking for lower prices from Russia.

Participants at a CENS conference on EU-Russia relations greet one another. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Associate Fellow of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs Severin Fischer talked about the past and future of the EU’s energy policy admitting both successes and failures. From his point of view, this phase cannot be called an energy crisis but rather a difficult situation. All focus should be on Ukraine where there has been no gas flow from Russia since June 16. If the situation continues this way, and the population starts to search for alternative sources of heat, the expert expects an electricity crisis. Calling attention to another, often overlooked source of threat, Fischer noted that there is not enough talk about oil, which can hold a real security challenge, as it cannot be as easily substituted as gas.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The full program is available here: https://cens.ceu.hu/events/2014-09-25/%E2%80%9Cengagement-or-containment-eu-russia-relations-in-turbulent-times-and-the-role-of-