What Now for Europe's East?
AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
What Now for Europe's East?
AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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When Romania broke through the headlines last month with protests against government efforts to enable corruption, it came as a surprise to many outside observers. Romania doesn’t usually get very much attention, but the protests this time seemed to go against narratives of rising populism and the longer view of a hopelessly corrupt and pliant European East. Indeed, as elections and long-simmering crises hint at a new European era, no part of the Continent is affected more than Central and Eastern Europe.

The European Union is troubled and changing. To the extent it continues to matter, it will be shaped by that enduring and resurgent reality, the national interest. The consequences of this are most immediate in the East, where an always dynamic region now meets a dynamic period in history. The question is whether states in this region can build on the advances made in the last 25 years. Romania at least in some measure suggested hope.

Outside influences

For states from the Baltic-to-Black seas bridge, such changes to the regional order are a great concern. Countries as diverse as Romania, Serbia, and Estonia know that when history’s doors open and close, their territories have been the hinge over which those doors swing. At worst, states like these fall into categories imposed from outside. They are seen as borderlands -- a periphery, a zone of influence, or a strategic gateway to greater fields of battle. 

As such, nation-building, especially in Southeastern European states, has long involved the intervention of outside powers. The chaos of the Greek revolution didn’t clear until Otto, a Bavarian prince, was installed. Likewise in Romania, where Alexandru Ioan Cuza unified the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia under the French model. That unity was further consolidated when Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was made the monarch in 1866.

The European Union has continued that historical trend, serving as an outside steward of post-Communist countries re-entering international society. To put it charitably, it has not always done well. But at its best, it has sought over the last 25 years to give these states additional tools to develop strong institutions and an ability to express a personality on the global stage.

Move east and you get a less caricatured view of the usefulness and perception of the European Union -- not only of its relative competence, but of which tools are used and to what effect. The European Union’s mandate has been eroding at an accelerated pace because poor crisis management has made its structures at least a perceived threat to the national interest. But from the east the view is different, even in currently contrarian states such as Poland and Hungary. Set aside Poland’s current government with its stridently anti-EU tone and more-than-a-little-undemocratic practices and you have a state poised in the medium term for regional leadership; the Visegrad group began as a forum for four of the region’s states to assert a common stance on the European stage; EU structures have moved painstakingly to groom a process in Serbia and Kosovo that has some buy-in from Belgrade and Pristina; more broadly, EU investment and economic links have worked to boost national economies, and are seen very favorably in countries such as Romania and Poland, and with desire in those such as Serbia and Montenegro.

That process was on full view when I visited Romania last year.

“Energy Is Security”

Victor Grigorescu was typical of many of the people I met in Romania: Quick with a laugh, eager to share what he knows about the highly underrated range of Romanian wines, and completely nonchalant about the fact that he was, at the time, the country’s energy minister. He was very serious though about his mandate: Grigorescu was part of a Cabinet installed after the socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta stepped down amid a corruption scandal. The Cabinet was staffed with technocrats on a one-year mandate to professionalize the Romanian government. As we wrote at the time, anti-corruption efforts were vigorously accelerated.

Grigorescu understood his task quite well: In the decade previous, he had taken part in Romania’s accession negotiations to the European Union, and later he was on the board of directors of one of Romania’s largest electric distribution companies. Romania has a long and proud history as an energy producer, and in the best of worlds the country could serve as a hub for production and distribution. Grigorescu was acting on a pointed set of priorities.

“We are in the middle of changing paradigms,” he told me. “We are evolving from a paradigm where you talk about energy independence and self-sufficiency and we are moving to something else, which has at its center a concept of energy security that will involve a combination of judicious use of indigenous resources and interconnectivity. There is a balance to be had here, but I think this is the most sustainable approach for many reasons. We talk about the fact that now there is a common [European] market, a single market for goods, there is free circulation of people around Europe. Why treat energy differently?”

That view marks the key difference between the European Union and past geopolitical competitors on the Continent -- and more importantly, its current competitor, Russia. The European Union looks for common wins, while Russia looks for opportunities to divide and corrupt, establishing a quiet domination. Energy is security, as a Romanian colleague told me. The European Union, working closely with allies such as Grigorescu and the rest of Dacian Ciolos’ former Cabinet, seeks to give states the tools to take that security into their own hands, while Russia, in line with the traditional model put to work in the Balkans, seeks to co-opt and subvert.

Neighboring Bulgaria helps illustrate the case. That country, stretching from the Black Sea coast to the Balkan mountain range, carries the heaviest economic deficit with Russia in the region and is heavily dependent on energy imports, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. CSIS found that Gazprom charges Bulgaria a price 26.5 percent higher than the average, while acting to block energy diversification and to create a monopoly in the country. There’s good reason then for Russia to be satisfied with the decreasing influence of the European Union. The successful consolidation of a single state in its periphery could well spread calm and security to other states, and that scares Moscow. Consider what Grigorescu’s ministry was working on at the time: Infrastructure projects included an interconnector with Moldova, which had gone operational; a Romania-Bulgaria interconnector; and the Romania segment of the BRUA pipe, hundreds of miles of high-pressured gas pipe that upon completion would cross Romania from the south to the western border.

Mapping out a new geography

The question is what options are available to Central and Eastern European countries as this kind of incrementalist, cooperative state-building approach becomes a memory. The benign period following the Balkan wars of the 1990s and ending with the Brexit vote in June 2016 was a time of slow but hopeful state consolidation, but that job is hardly finished. Nervousness was already high in 2016. In another tabletop conversation I had in Bucharest late last summer, one political activist called Brexit a “betrayal,” and he was hardly alone in that view.

The vigorous defense of good governance in Romania during weeks of protests speaks well to the region’s growing political maturity. But as Eugene Chausovsky wrote recently: “[E]ach of the borderlands countries -- which include the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus -- is reacting to the shifting geopolitical circumstances differently.”

So once again, the political geography of this region is being rewritten. One question is how much energy is left in the West-led project to strengthen the region. Can designs such as the energy union move forward even as the EU as a whole remains distracted, changes, or even falters? Far more important a question is what these countries do now themselves, and what they can do despite Russian interference. Was the peace dividend of two decades, and the helpful influence of supranational institutions, enough for a state like Romania to create a durable personality on the world stage -- enough for a state like Poland to establish itself as a regional leader capable of rallying against external aggressors? The answers will be different in each state, and the process will be as dynamic as the history of the East.