'New Europe' urges West to rethink Russian ties
Seizing on the conflict in Georgia, East European countries are pushing for strong measures against an aggressive Moscow they say they know all too well.
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Five presidents from East Europe traveled to Georgia last week to show solidarity and to challenge Russia. East European states are reexamining their policy of allowing dual passports that can be used by Russia as a reason for entering their country, as was done in South Ossetia. Ukraine wants to limit the Russian Navy's use of its ports. EU members from the East vow to block new Russian efforts for a liberal trade deal. Polish President Lech Kaczynski criticized Germany and France for mollifying Russia in order to protect commercial interests. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves argues vociferously that Georgia should still be admitted to NATO.Skip to next paragraph
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E. Europeans saw Georgia coming
The question of NATO membership remains sensitive in East Europe. Many Poles say they understand the aspirations of Georgians to join, and feel sympathy that those aspirations have been dashed. The question for small states in Russia's backyard is not a neutral one – for a small country being eyed by a powerful Russia seeking to expand its influence.
"The Eastern Europeans totally saw this [Russian resurgence] coming," says former US ambassador to Romania, James Rosapepe. "In Romania the attitude was, we have to get into NATO before Russian power returns."
German officials and many European NATO officials argue that it is simply unrealistic to provoke Russia by allowing its immediate neighbors into the alliance. They say Russia's actions in Georgia vindicates this point. Berlin takes a very careful and consistent position on the importance of understanding Moscow, one Western diplomat points out.
Yet Polish officials are quick to point out that Germany was the most powerful and insistent voice throughout the 1990s for getting Poland into NATO – as a way to create a buffer zone between Germany and Russia. Now that Poland is in NATO, Germany has changed its tune, they say, showing indifference to Poland's own interests in a similar buffer zone. They argue it is in Germany's commercial interest to advocate balanced restraint and sensitivity to Moscow.
Poland's view: 'While America slept'
In the immediate years after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to release Eastern Europe from the Soviet bloc, US efforts to expand NATO were robust. Yet as Russian power appeared to be waning, and as the US became involved in a war on terror and in Iraq, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus received less and less attention and material support from the US and Western Europe – even as it became clearer in the East that Russia under Putin was gaining strength with every rise in the cost of a barrel of oil.
So popular in Poland was the US after the cold war that Poles joked that their country was the 51st state. Yet the enthusiasm has waned somewhat during the Iraq war; Poles sent troops but has removed them. Here there's a widespread view that Iraq was a mistake for the Americans.
"Poles look at the events transpiring in Georgia from the perspective of 'while America slept,'" says James Hooper, a former senior US diplomat based in Warsaw. "They understand that Russia's mainspring expansionist impulse can be deflected only by a steady US policy in managing European security affairs, and thus pin everything on American power, purpose and resolve."