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Russia -- ex-East-Bloc Realignment

by DoDo Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 03:41:04 AM EST

The conventional wisdom in both the West and Russia is that former East Bloc members of the EU are hostile to Russia and to attempts at building a (in whatever sense) pragmatic relationship with Putin's country.

However, I sense a new general trend, one of this group of countries splitting in two: confrontation dominates with those bordering directly on Russia, but in the others, even while Atlanticism still rules, fear has abated, and Russia was rediscovered as potential source of investments and potential market.

I'll write a bit more on this, and on a bit of connected domestic politics in Hungary.

Money talks

Beyond growing bilateral trade, there is the attraction of new gas pipelines (drawing the governments of Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia), as well as operation of old oil pipelines even with Russian co-owners (Slovakia). Boris Abramovich gained control of former Hungarian national air carrier MALÉV.

Also, last year, Putin paid visits to some of these countries. He was welcomed even in the Czech Republic whose government wants to host a US missile defense base (a position with less strategic thinking than Poland's), President Klaus went as far as defending Putin against critics in public.

In Hungary, all Socialist PMs (1994-1998, 2002-present) had high hopes for renewed business with Russia, but it really took off in the last few years (exports to Russia, the part of trade not affected by oil/gas prices, grew fourfold in five years).

A politician talks

But more interesting than the ex-communists, and more significant than the rioting-WWII-memorial-damaging far right, is what's happening recently in the right-wing opposition.

The leaders of main opposition party right-populist Fidesz saw the recent round of pipeline poker as opportunity for another of its zig-zag moves. The party that attacked the government's neoliberal reforms by playing social demagogue, courted Eurosceptics and openly criticised the US suddenly reproached the government for not supporting the EU line on import diversification, also supported by the US foreign policy establishment.

In the course of this brief rhetorical overdrive, on 28 March, longtime Fidesz leader and former PM Viktor Orbán spoke about the danger of Russian economic influence, and went as far in Russophobia as to speak about differing Russian and European mentalities:

"A mi felfogásunk szerint az Oroszország és az Európai Unió kapcsolata, illetve az energiafüggőség problémájának lényege, hogy az orosz észjárás és az európai észjárás a gazdaságot illetően jelentősen különbözik egymástól""According to our understanding, the essence of the relationship of the EU and Russia, and of energy dependence, is that the Russian way of thinking and the European way of thinking with respect to the economy differs significantly"

The funny thing was that the Russian ambassador was present on this Fidesz conference, and rose to counter that this shouldn't be politics and should instead be a matter of talks, and maintained that it is all about market considerations for Russia and no differing mentality.

(This was then again countered by the Lithuanian ambassador by pointing to a seemingly politically motivated pipeline shutdown; see discussion on ET.)

Another politician talks

Orbán's talk was denounced not only by the governing parties, but the smaller right-wing opposition party MDF, too. But what I find truly interesting is what another Fidesz guy told in an interview this week.

Fidesz is a party led by a narrow, close-knit group of yuppies, no internal dispute ever gets out into the public. However, Orbán is slowly getting tired, and one future contender appeared on the scene: longtime and locally unquestioned major of Hungary's second largest city Debrecen, Lajos Kósa.

It is obvious for a year now that Kósa is making his own politics. He always finds an occasion to send a signal or give an interview that seems to counter Orbán's latest provocative act. And he is busy building an image of a moderate/pragmatist in contrast with Orbán the populist/idealist.

In an interview in this week's issue of liberal(!) weekly 168Óra, he criticised the government for inconsequent policy on improving Hungarian-Russian trade (naming missed opportunities), deeming it "insufficient". He said it's a bad omission to issue visas to Russians only in Moscow, which costs Eastern Hungary tourists. He told that "Putin doesn't care about our export, it is the Hungarian government's job to develop it." On the issue of the pipeline wars, he cleverly avoided to admit any contradiction with Orbán, but what he said was that "Hungary should avoid even the impression that Hungary will be the decider in Nabucco vs. Blue Stream" -- rather different from Orbán's decide-for-Nabucco line.

I suspect Kósa will take over Fidesz by 2010. Which means that whoever wins next time, Hungary-Russia relations will probably prosper.

This situation is not that different in neighbouring countries, for example both the present and the previous government in Slovakia favored improving relations.

(Disclaimer: don't read anything I have written above as endorsement. I dislike Kósa too, see his moderateness/pragmatism as opportunist, and am wary of business-pragmatist foreign relations.)

I'd really like some diaries on the Czech state of politics, also butr not only about present positions on the relationship with Russia.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 04:48:58 PM EST
I did some clean-up in the article and added two sentences (the one on MDF and the last before the disclaimer).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 04:48:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the opening, do you mean "The Common Sense" or "The Conventional Wisdom"?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 04:55:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks -- I did feel something was not alright there...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 05:22:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I understand your wariness of business-pragmatist foreign relations, but I have to say in the current environment I view it as a minor positive. The more links between Russia and Europe, the better. My own experience of ordinary people (mostly people in St Petersburg) is that there is a natural partnership between Russia and Europe and it's critical for links to be kept alive, despite the wishes of some (Cheney and Putin spring to mind) who might prefer a more aggressive stance for political reasons.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 05:38:39 PM EST
I agree.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 05:47:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes: the less democracy lectures to the natives, the better. In this environment, Putin's economic team (all Western-leaning "liberals") gets a chance of quietly working through negotiating processes and to achieve breakthroughs (WTO agreement with Europe that revived Kyoto and forced Russia to commit to raising gas prices springs to mind).

Din of hostile talk, which is commonly considered in Russia to be driven by economic interests and only disguised by "values", simply reinforces a belief that "the Europe", meaning Brussels, is so hypocritical it could not be trusted even to follow its own interests in any future negotiations. Which doesn't help in talks, unless one side's position is much stronger and the other just gives up. And explains why Russia prefers to talk to the governments. For example, Merkel's announcement that Russian money is welcome in EADS but that control would not be shared proportionally is opportunistic and arrogant, but clear, understandable from the economic point of view, and can be an issue for negotiations. Mandelson's attempt to separate politics from trade policy (today's FT) is also quite welcome, but I'm afraid he cannot follow through on his beliefs.

Plus, in the policy and expert circles in Russia, continental European economic model is looked at through FT or WSJ-colored lenses, which means less long-term incentive to get closer to the EU...

by Sargon on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 12:51:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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