European Expansion or Putin Expansion?

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

One merit of the Berlin Wall was that it made obvious where Europe ended.

But now the question of Europe’s borders has become a staple of debate in the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to aim missiles at Ukraine highlights what is at stake in that debate’s outcome.

The Wall’s collapse in 1989 forced European Commission officials to dust off atlases to find places about which they knew little and cared less. Leon Brittan, then a commissioner and supporter of enlargement, recalls that some officials and countries even hoped that the pre-1989 line could be held.

They felt that enlargement even to the Scandinavian and Alpine countries was going too far. Only in 1993 did the EU officially recognize that membership for all the former Soviet bloc countries could be a long-term goal.

Today, the debate about Europe’s frontiers is not confined to officials or think tanks. In mid-2005, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the EU’s draft constitutional treaty, partly motivated by fear that enlargement was going too fast and too far. “We don’t want the Romanians deciding on how we should order our lives, a Dutch professor complained.

Many former Soviet Republics with EU aspirations have become victims of this loss of nerve, as have the Western Balkan countries. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, slipped in under the wire in 2004. But they were small and contiguous to the EU.

Ukraine is big, and Georgia is far away in the Caucasus. Then there is Belarus, whose ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, clings to authoritarian rule.

Ukraine, a country of 47 million people, has seen itself as a prospective EU candidate since 2004, when the Orange Revolution forced the country’s rulers to respect election rules. Since then, another two free and fair national elections have been held.

In contrast to Russia, Ukrainian politicians like President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko have shown that they are keen to break with the communist past. Moreover, Ukraine’s business leaders, aware of the fate of Russia’s oligarchs under Putin, see EU membership as a way of legitimizing their wealth and fending off Russian rivals. Ukraine’s business barons want not only to develop their empires within the safety of a legitimate free-market framework, but also to invest in the EU.

But, while Ukraine’s political elites have mastered the art of getting democratically elected, effective governance eludes them. Russian influence remains strong, especially in eastern Ukraine, and the state apparatus is weak. Ukraine needs the discipline of the accession process – and thus the promise of EU membership – if reforms are to be implemented effectively.

Belarus is different. Most of its 10 million people are still so scared of the free market that they are ready to ignore democratic opposition to Lukashenko. That will hold true as long as cheap energy from Russia acts as a de facto economic subsidy. But that time is ending, with energy prices rising and the Belarusian economy facing shocks that could provoke unrest and pose a threat to Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, sensing the danger, has been making overtures to the EU to counter what he sees as a growing rift with the Kremlin. And Belarus’s government has been exploring the possibility of securing oil supplies through Ukraine should Russia cut off supplies. But Lukashenko has given no sign that he is willing to democratize his regime, let alone release political prisoners.

If the EU decides to leave in abeyance the possibility that Ukraine and Belarus might one day join, both will enter a political limbo that could threaten security on the EU’s eastern flank.

The EU’s failure to encourage Ukraine’s European aspirations risks creating disillusion with the West. That would strengthen Russia’s position in Ukraine, where the Kremlin constantly encourages a return to Slavic roots and warns against flirting with a West that doesn’t want it.

Should Lukashenko’s regime falter, the democratic opposition could be strengthened by the promise of EU support. Otherwise, it is just as likely that Russia would step in and use its proxies to install Putin-style authoritarianism.

Since the USSR’s collapse, a new generation has come of age throughout the region. Young people in the EU’s new members feel themselves to be citizens of a prosperous and secure continent. In Poland last autumn, younger voters helped to replace a government whose incipient authoritarianism and xenophobic attitudes threatened to isolate their country. Further east, their contemporaries have also grown up in a post-Soviet world. In Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, it was mostly young people who rejected a return to the past. But as hopes of integration with the West wane, so a feeling of exclusion is growing. The danger is that this will fuel support among the young in Belarus and Ukraine for the authoritarian attitudes now ascendant in Putin’s Russia.

At stake in the debate about EU enlargement into the post-Soviet east is whether Western values will take root in those countries or whether they will drift into a gray zone from which they will sooner or later challenge the values and democratic ways of “Europe.

The Dutch professor who fears that Romanians may start to order his life might reflect that Romania itself is changing as a result of EU membership.

Refusing to countenance a fresh eastward enlargement means that, at some point, those countries that are outside the EU will start to threaten the values that he holds dear.

Krzysztof Bobinski runs Unia & Polska, a pro-European NGO based in Warsaw. He was for many years the Warsaw correspondent of The Financial Times. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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