World powers jockey for influence in Eastern Europe


World powers jockey for influence in Eastern Europe

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Tuesday separately met with the poster boys of Eastern European populism, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, respectively. The Washington and Moscow meetings underlined the growing international interest in the region, as Brussels and Beijing also jockey for economic and political influence.

Trump and Duda discussed stepping up cooperation in security and energy, with the US president declaring relations have “never been closer” and indicating that Washington may seek to build a permanent military base in Poland. Earlier the same day, Putin met Orban (who Trump has said is a “strong and brave person”), with energy diplomacy also high on the agenda. Hungary imports most of its gas from Russia under a long-term supply agreement scheduled to expire by 2020, providing significant leverage for Moscow in its bilateral relationship.

Yet it is not just Moscow and Washington looking to improve their geopolitical and economic influence in the region. In July, for instance, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met Eastern and Central European leaders in Bulgaria for the seventh “16+1” summit to discuss Beijing’s investment across the continent, with about 250 Chinese businesses and representatives of some 700 European firms attending.

And, in a growing sign that countries across the region are becoming increasingly adept at using this world power competition to their advantage, Romania hosted the annual Three Seas Initiative on Monday and Tuesday to discuss projects that aim to boost regional transport, digital and energy connectivity. Trump spoke at the same forum last year in Poland, and this year’s event in Romania — attended by US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Shen Yueyue, a senior official in the Chinese National People’s Congress — sought to step up cooperation among the nations strategically located between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. 

Brussels is increasingly aware of US, Russian and Chinese interest in the east and center of the continent

Andrew Hammond

Juncker’s trip to Romania this week, attending the Three Seas Initiative for the first time, underlines that Brussels is increasingly aware of US, Russian and Chinese interest in the east and center of the continent. He is also cognizant of the fact that the popularity of the EU is waning in a number of key states in the region, especially Hungary and Poland. 

Indeed, even though challenges to Brussels are often seen through the prism of Western European states — especially with Brexit — Budapest and Warsaw are also proving big thorns in the side of the EU. This includes through their leadership of the Visegrad Group of ex-communist states, in what has been called a potential “East-West rift.”

While increasing euroskepticism is now prevalent over much of the EU, what is striking about Hungary and Poland in particular is the rise of right-wing populism. Orban and Duda are forcefully promoting values that often clash with the standards promoted by Brussels on democracy, the rule of law and wider freedoms. 

Take the example of Hungary, a country with a population of about 10 million that was at the forefront of Europe’s migration challenges of recent years. There are growing concerns in Brussels that the nation, under Orban, is following a so-called Russian model by weakening democratic norms, including clamping down on press freedoms. Indeed, last week the European Parliament voted to trigger the EU’s most serious disciplinary procedure (Article 7), which asserts that the nation’s government poses a “systemic threat” to democracy and the rule of law. 

On the migration front, for instance, the country saw in 2015 some 174,435 asylum requests, many from Middle East migrants. In 2017, the number was reduced to 3,397. Yet, despite this drop-off, Orban said earlier this year that “external forces and international powers want to force all this (immigration) on us with the help of their henchmen here in Hungary... They want to take our country and force us to give it up voluntarily over a few decades to strangers arriving from other continents who do not… respect our culture, our laws and our way of life.”

Poland, with a population of about 38 million, has also earned the ire of Brussels and faces Article 7 procedures — that can lead to the imposition of sanctions, including relating to a country’s EU voting rights — over its controversial judicial reforms. These include measures to lower the retirement age for judges, give new discretionary powers to the president to prolong the mandate of Supreme Court judges, and reduce the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Problematically for the EU, Hungary and Poland are leaders of wider groups of countries, including the Visegrad Group, which also includes Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with a collective population of about 65 million. While Visegrad countries are by no means a monolithic bloc, they have agreed joint positioning on pushing back at proposals being floated for greater post-Brexit integration amongst the EU 27.

It is in this context of discontent with Brussels that other world powers are looking to build influence, as the Three Seas meeting and the Trump-Putin sessions with Duda and Orban underline. With Washington, Moscow and Beijing jockeying for position, international interest in the region is only likely to grow significantly in the coming years.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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