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Attitudes of NATO's new Central European Members toward Russia's Role in the Euro-atlantic Structures

(Written for a conference "Euro-Atlantic Integration and Russia after September 11, 2001," Moscow, May 29-31, 2002) Attitudes of Central European countries toward Russia's future role in the Euro-Atlantic structures differ, albeit not significantly. Surprisingly enough, Poland's views of Russia's role in the Euro-Atlantic structures are currently the most benevolent, while key politicians in the Czech Republic and Hungary have been more skeptical toward an extensive role of Russia in the Euro-Atlantic structures.

This is surprising mainly because the history of Polish-Russian relations is much more troubled than the history of Czech-Russian and Hungarian-Russian relations. In fact, Russia and Poland did not have good relations until the late 1990's. Their relations were marred by various spy scandals and by Poland's resolute support for the enlargement of NATO into Central Europe first and, after the first wave of enlargement (which included Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) took place, into the Baltics.

But Polish President Kwasniewski's recent visit to Moscow and an earlier visit by Vladimir Putin to Warsaw helped to break the ice. Putin and Kwasniewski were quoted as saying that a new era in Russian-Polish relations has begun. Kwasniewski remarked during his trip to Moscow that he believed that the global community must come up as a united anti-terrorist coalition following the September 11 attacks on the USA, and that as a result, "relations between Russia and the USA are acquiring an increasingly greater significance in the wake of the terror attacks." He described the fact that NATO-Russia relations have improved as a very positive change. Most importantly, he prophesied that Russia may join the Alliance in the near future, "something he will not be surprised at," as he put it.

Politicians in the Czech Republic and Hungary have not been willing to go as far as Kwasniewski. Both outgoing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Czech President Havel have been openly skeptical about Russia's possible full membership in NATO. Both countries clearly prefer a role for Russia as a partner of NATO, who can be consulted on important steps, to a more extensive Russian involvement. No leading Czech or Hungarian politician, unlike Kwasniewski in Poland, has openly spoken in favor of Russia's membership in NATO.

In fact, some Czech, Hungarian, but also Polish officials, as well as public intellectuals, have been anxious since 11 September that closer ties between the United States and Russia, forged in their attempt to fight terrorism, could sideline NATO as the main vehicle of Transatlantic cooperation and supersede it with some new mechanism, in which Russia, rather than the European members of NATO, would be the main partner of the United States. Those fears have not materialized, but it still remains to be seen to what extent, or whether at all, Central European politicians embrace the recent creation of the NATO-Russia Council, which was initiated in Reykjavik.

Czech President Havel thinks, for example, that the creation of the NATO-Russia Council is not necessarily a bad step, but that the mechanism that had preceded the creation of the Council had not been really utilized--mainly because it had not been used by Russia--and, therefore, it is strange that a new mechanism has now been created. Nevertheless, in his recent article in the US press he expressed the hope that at its summit in Prague later this year, "NATO will confirm, in clear terms, its willingness to work with Russia and other large and important entities in today's world as equal partners."

Overall, however, it seems that politicians from the Czech republic, Hungary, and Poland are somewhat less enthusiastic about integrating Russia more fully into Transatlantic structures, such as NATO, than, for example, the United States and some other countries, because they are not entirely convinced that Russia has really become a full-fledged democratic country that can be entirely trusted. Surprisingly, echoes of Samuel Huntington's theory about the clash of civilizations can be heard in some Central European politicians' statements much more clearly than in pronouncements of, for example, US politicians. The Central Europeans occasionally imply that Russia's Orthodox Christian culture and Byzantine traditions are not readily compatible with Western values NATO is built on. Moreover, all of those countries would prefer that the same overtures that are made by NATO to Russia be extended to Ukraine.

To examine some of the reservations that Central European politicians have toward Russia, Havel's speech in Bratislava on 11 May 2001, seems to be a key document.

Havel questioned the fact Russia - which is much larger and more powerful than all the other neighbors of NATO combined - is consistently disquieted by the NATO presence and is rather displeased to see it enlarge eastwards.

Havel said he believed there are two reasons why this is so. The first lies in the inert mode of thinking which persists from the Soviet era when NATO was for decades portrayed by the totalitarian regime and its media as the Soviet Union's arch-enemy. Although NATO indeed made no secret of the fact that it was designed to contain Communism and that the Soviet Union was its strategic adversary, nowadays the situation is completely different--both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are gone, NATO now pursues other objectives than it did during the Cold War era and desires to be a partner with Russia - but it appears as if Russia has failed to understand or, in fact, to notice this, argued Havel.

The second reason for Russia's disapproval of NATO is, in Havel's opinion, even more serious. It lies in the problem of Russia's identity, or its self- understanding. Russia - despite the remarkable progress it has made towards democracy and market economy - is somehow still grappling with a problem with which it has grappled for more or less its entire history, that is, with the question of where it begins and where it ends; what belongs to its domain and what is already beyond it; where it should exercise its decisive influence and from what point onward it cannot do so.

Havel asks: "What, therefore, should the NATO-Russia relationship be in the future?" He answers:

"We occasionally hear the opinion that Russia should be offered membership in the Alliance, and that absence of this offer would be an expression of discrimination. Personally, I find it rather difficult to imagine Russia as a NATO member; moreover, I do not think that its membership would serve any good purpose. Russia is a huge Euro-Asian power that will always play a very specific role in world politics. It is true that a part of Russia lies in Europe and that Russia's spiritual wealth has always had a pronounced influence on the rest of Europe and vice versa. But this does not mean that Russia should simply be included in the region that we call the West. Not because it were in any way inferior, but simply because the modern structuring of the world, based on cooperation among various clearly delimited regions or historically determined entities, would thus lose meaning: anything could extend anywhere; any balance would be disrupted; all regional organizations could eventually turn into countless, and absolutely toothless, replicas of the United Nations.

There are a number of suitable environments for talks among the most powerful countries, including Russia - from the UN Security Council to the OSCE - and there are also a number of other environments where Russia's voice is a part of a broad and true polyphony, such as the Council of Europe, argued the Czech president.

Hungarian prime Minister Viktor Orban, too, has been opposed to Russia' membership in NATO, although he, like Havel, has advocated real partnership between Russia and NATO. At the same time, Orban, on several occasions has warned against developments in Ukraine that, in his opinion, is increasingly being pulled into the Russian orbit.

He also argued that "we, in Central Europe, have started to experience a peculiar situation, a new quality of relations with Russia. After the end of the first decade following implosion of the Soviet empire, we can state that the period of chaos is over. Russia does have a picture of itself, of its neighborhood, of Europe and of the world. The Russian presence in Central Europe is a clear indication of their strategy: they now want to establish an economic presence in Central Europe, and it is through the economic means that they wish to uphold an influence there. Soldiers and tanks are noisy things, and they are relatively easy to track down. Financial movements are very different. Moreover, no government that believes in free markets can make a distinction between capital purely on the basis of its national origins. We in Hungary shall continue to insist on the transparency of these capital movements, so that there can be no suspicion of organized crime, money laundering or hidden purchase of influence there. That is a very necessary condition for establishing prudent relations with Russia."

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In general, it seems that Central European leaders' views of Russia's role in the Transatlantic structures are in some cases unnecessarily ambivalent--influenced by traumatic experiences of the past. In view of what happened on 11 September and Russia's subsequent active role in the global anti-terrorist alliance, Czech, Polish and Hungarian leaders should, however, creatively help with defining Russia's more active integration into the Transatlantic structures, rather than ignoring, or even sabotaging the process.

First, Central European leaders need to realize that international terrorism cannot be effectively fought without Russia's active involvement. A proactive policy--for example, the creation of a joint Russia-Central Europe institution, whose aim it would be to coordinate anti-terrorist activities and share intelligence in this area--is one possibility.

Second, if other East-Central European nations are invited to join NATO at its November summit in Prague, a joint council between the former communist countries that have joined NATO and Russia could be formed, to promote deeper cooperation. This council could supplement work of the Russia-NATO Council. It would also serve to mollify Russia's worries about expanding NATO into some countries that in the past were part of the Soviet Union. Conversely, it could help to dispel fears in Central Europe that intensifying Russia-US cooperation could somehow sideline NATO as the main vehicle of Transatlantic cooperation.

Third, Russia could be eventually invited, initially as an observer, to join some of the existing initiatives, such the regular meetings of Central European presidents or meetings of the Visegrad group. Central European nations could also play a more active role in promoting closer cooperation between Russia and the European Union.

In short, Central European leaders should use their new status of NATO members to promote closer ties with Russia in a number of areas. Given their extensive experiences with Russia, Central Europeans could play an effective role in integrating Russia more firmly into Transatlantic structures.

For that to happen, however, Russia itself needs to show that it no longer actively opposes the enlargement of NATO, including its expansion into the Baltics. It would be, after all, quite difficult to talk about integrating Russia into prominent Transatlantic organizations, such as NATO, if Russia continued seeing such organizations as a threat.

One moment that may define the attitudes of various Central European countries toward Russia for some time to come, is Russia's attitude to what will happen at the NATO summit in Prague in November this year. Should NATO's enlargement at the summit include the Baltic countries, much will depend on whether Russia will embrace such a development as a move that poses no threat to it or whether it will adopt a defensive, or even hostile, attitude. Russian President Vladimir Putin's presence at the summit would not only show that Russia is serious about the prospects for the NATO-Russia Council and views its partnership with the Transatlantic community as important. Such an attitude would certainly help Central European countries to look at Russia with less suspicion.

Euro-Atlantic Integration and Russia after September 11, Moscow - 29. - 31. 5. 2002