Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic*
The countries that flank the Eastern border of the European Union from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean share a unique characteristic. They are strategically positioned between two vastly similar, but also divided worlds. They have first-hand experience with both East and West and understand both perspectives.
These countries are entering a new era, one that is marked with uncertainty and surprising twists and turns. Brexit, squabbling Europe and the developments in the US are stark reminders of the challenges that lie ahead in a world that is waking up to renewed divisions. Competing rhetoric and interests are once again drawing lines between the East and the West, and Europe finds itself split in the middle.
The old continent will commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the end of the First World War in 2018. As bells tolled to announce the end of the war, they also spelled the end to Europe’s mightiest empires, out of which only the United Kingdom survived into the modern era. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the German Reich, Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire all came tumbling down. The question remains, are there any parallels between the squabbling Europe of today and the disintegrating Europe of the past?
‘The Voices of the East’ series explores Europe’s current geopolitical landscape from the perspective of the East and its turbulent past. It reveals just how much Eastern Europe has in common, but also just how different the countries are when it comes to their views of Russia. The situation in Ukraine marks opening of the Pandora’s box and indicates that the period of relative peace and calm could be coming to an end.
To better understand the perils of the 21st century, we begin our discussion with the West’s most immediate Eastern neighbours, the four countries of the Visegrad Alliance: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. We then turn our attention to the rich tapestry of newly independent countries from the Baltics (north) and the Balkans (south). They all prepare the grounds for discussing the only civil war in Europe viewed through the eyes of Ukraine, the last country in Europe fighting for its sovereignty.
What lessons do these countries have to offer the world? They have acquired a unique advantage, located on Europe’s buffer zone as Anne Applebaum puts it. One thing is certain in the whirlwind of confusion. Given the events in Crimea and Ukraine and Russia’s flirtation targeting the Visegrad Group, Eastern Europe is a region to watch, a fact confirmed by renowned Stratfor analysts. The Europe east of Germany and Austria once again finds itself in the very centre of tumultuous shifts. Strategically positioned between Russia, Turkey and Middle East and the West, it is no surprise they are both threatened and courted to by so many interests.
Yet, these countries are not just objects of foreign policy, but also subjects of history that carry a vault of precious and important knowledge. In a polarizing world, there are no better negotiators in place than societies that have walked a mile in the shoes of multiple civilisations and both Eastern and Western models of state management. While some are enthusiastic about his prospect for the region, others are concerned that this could make them a land in- between. Why? A territory that is allied to no one is both neutral and, by the same token, vulnerable to Russia looking to recreate its influence over the Eastern Europe. These seemingly inconspicuous countries that went from kingdoms to communist reign to now free democracies are critical in helping to maintain balance and harmony in the rapidly changing world. It is vital that their voices are heard.