ISSUE 4-2010
INTERVIEW
STUDIES
Александр Пилецкий Богдан Олексюк
RUSSIA AND DEMOCRACY
Pavel Venzera Женя Снежкина
OUR ANALYSES
Алена Гетьманчук
REVIEW
Petr Vagner
APROPOS
Владимир Воронов


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

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REVIEW
THE CONTENT NOT LAGGING BEHIND AN INTRIGUING TITLE
By Petr Vagner | Historian, the Czech Republic | Issue 4, 2010

Valášek, T.; Nič, M.; Jarábik, B.; Bátora, J.; Hirman, K.; Kobzová, J., BRUSELENIE VALAŠIEK, Kaligram, Bratislava 2010, 191p.

       Everybody, at least in the Central European region, knows what the Slovak word valaškameans. For our broader audience we could saywith a certain amount of inaccuracy that this old weapon and one of the most visible symbols of the Slovak nation is similar to the tomahawk used by Native Americans in the past. Whereas the second word in the title of the reviewed book is understandable without any problem, in the case of the second one certain puzzlement could arise. The word bruselenie is an untranslatable equivoque playing with word Brussels and brúsiť (sharpen). Unlike Native Americans, Slovaks have an ambition to sharpen their valaškas in Brussels as often as possible. The authors of the book presenttheir ideas on how to do this in the sphere of foreign policy.
        With respect to the focus of this journal, only the considerations connected with Eastern Europe will be analyzed. First of all, it will be useful to start with a part of the book that tries to summarize basic historicaland ideological terminus a quo for Slovak foreign policy. Milan Nič, author of this chapter, sees three important historical features affecting Slovak foreign policy: 1) a sensitivity to the issue of borders and minorities; 2) unclear national interest; 3) unclear political identity.
        The first issue is based on acomplicated Slovak historical experience withthe establishment andchanges of Slovak borders andthe problem with the Hungarian minority. Such an experience, according to the author, makes Slovak foreign policy sensitive to similar topics in the world which could turn into a precedent. Therefore Slovakia is alert to various changes of borders, whether it is in Kosovo or in the South Caucasus.
        A long-term historical struggle for survival, as the second mentioned feature,makes Slovak foreign policy too focused on itsclose neighbours, causing it to miss an understanding of the Slovak question in a broader European context. That is why Slovakia very often maintains a rather alibistic position to events abroad.
       Slovakia has gone through several historic changes since the Great War and its political identity is still being shaped. Two decades of independence have not been enough to consider this process accomplished, so Slovaks have not yet understood their exact capabilities, Nič concludes.
        One may think thatbuildingforeign policy on this basis could be too difficult. Nevertheless,the authors propose ideas how to do this. Following our topic, namely the Eastern European region, it is rather surprising that in the book we do not find a chapter devoted to Russia. Only Slovak positions towards Ukraine and Belarus are analyzed in detail.This is done in the chapter devoted to Eastern Partnership (Balázs Jarábik, Jana Kobzová).
       The authors of the bookmay have followed the old proverb Blood is thicker than water,maybethey understand very well that it is better to shape or to sharpen (bruseliť) policy towards RussiainBrussels. They might have had other reasons. Although the book does not comprise a chapter devoted to Russia, we can often come across it. No wonder.
       The sections devoted to Ukraine and Belarus, Russia is presentedas an important player on these territories with most of the trump cards in its hand. The chapter inwhichenergy security as part of Slovak foreign policy is analyzed (Karel Hirman) describes Russia as a complicated supplier of gas and crude oil,viewing such business as an important instrument of foreign policy. Better said, as the instrument of effective pressure in international relations.
       Tomáš Valášek,in looking at the role of Russia in the final period of Pax Americana, comes to the conclusion that Russia is reacting on the Obama cooperation proposal in a cynical and mistrustful way. He asks whether Russia will be able to think outside the frame of contest with the West. It is not possible to exclude that Russia would rather use a power vacuum to try to increase its influence in neighbouring countries than to really cooperate.
       Doubts about the Russian attitude toward possible cooperation with the West are also apparent in connection with the Eastern Partnershipprogramme. As Jarábik and Kobzová write, Russia considers this initiative suspicious and views it as an effort by Western countries to penetrate its sphere of privileged interests.Slovak borders in the Russian reading have become the line where a new power and ideological confrontation between the West and Russia culminates.The authors conclude that without any clear promise of the European Union membership, it is not possible to offer a viable and attractive alternative to Russian impact on Belarus, Moldova or Ukraine.
       Governments of neighbouring countries feel uneasy under permanent Russian pressure but no other option because the EU does not have a clear position due to its inability to elaborate a unified policy towards this region. By force of these circumstances these countries are enforced to play the Russian game, although Ukraine above all is tryingitselftries to play its own game. The authors suppose that the current establishment develops its Ukrainian standard[1]
, it means to keep the country inagrey zone between West and East, where local compradors can make a deal with both sides.
       This effort recalls a revival of the famous Kuchma multi-vector foreign policy. However, a very important question arises: is the current Ukrainian diplomacy, i.e. the Yanukovitch administration and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, able to play this game? The situation is very different. First of all, Putin and Medvedev are not Yeltsin. Their first steps when Yanukovitch was elected showed that their pressure on Ukraine would be strong and very systematic. Understanding how strong pro-Russian forces in Ukraine are, we can suppose that this multi-vector game will be extremely difficult and Ukraine will be forced, sooner or later, to make its choice.
       In analyzing the situation in another complicated country -Belarus- the authors come to the conclusion that currently Belarus is a more predictable country than Ukraine. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, cornered by Moscow, tried to find ways to improve the relationship with EU countries. The warming of relations between Minsk and Brussels based on Belarusian economic problems (which Russia refused to help solve), according tothe authors, provides an initial dialog, with the chance of continuing in the future.
       Current developments in Belarus, which became visible after the publication of the book, once again prove how difficult it is to predict anything in Lukashenka´s realm. The dialog was broken after the presidential elections whenLukashenka, probably losing his instinct for self-preservation, had the demonstration against the elections results brutally dispersed. On 7 January 2011, EU diplomats decided to launch a procedure to reinstate a visa ban on Lukashenka and several of his associates. On the one hand it is understandable that the EU could not be silent, on the other hand it is clear that Russian predominance in Belarus will increase because the condition of the Belarusian economy does not allow Batka to act independently. A walk to Canossa seems inevitable if the EU does not its eyes narrow.
       The subchapter entitled The Ugly Ducklingis devoted to Moldova, which nowseems to be the most promising country now. New Moldavian leadership declares very clearly that it has an ambition to lead its country to the EU, but there are at least two factors which can become very serious obstacles. Firstly, it is Transnistria where Russian army units are deployed and the frozen conflict there can be heated up whenever Russia wants. Secondly, the country cannot achieve a stable political situation. The authors express their concern that the communists would return power. This didnot happen but democratic forces were not strong enough to receive the necessary number of seats inParliament to elect the President, and the political crisis will probably continue.
       In reading an exact assessment of the situation in these three Eastern countries, unwittingly sad ideas come toone’s mind. Ukraine is losing its chance. Belarus lost it before it got it and Moldova may be “the uglyduckling” but a miracle transmutation has not occurred yet. What about the Western effort to help these countries? The EU needs at least one success story because it is believed that it could bring a breakthrough. A desired breakthrough has not happened yet and the EU pilgrimages from one country to another waiting for a miracle that does not come. Given all objective obstacles, we should ask ourselves: have we done really all that we can? It is a pity but the answer seems to be: no.   
       If we evaluatethe Eastern Partnership, which should be one of the most important topics of EU foreign policy, the situation does not look very optimistic, and we have not even spoken about the problems connected with energy security yet. The picture drawn by Karel Hirman could also be more favourable.
       Hirman returns to January 2009, when Slovakia, with some other states, became victimto the gas war between Russia and Ukraine. This case serves Hirman as evidence that to be completely dependent on energy supplies from Russia is risky. A given lesson showed Slovakia its vulnerability and forced it to take appropriate remedial measures. These are based on the diversification of suppliers and closer interconnection with other European pipeline systems.  The dependence of Slovakia on Russian supplies will not be completely solved but itsnegotiating position will be better. This is significant because there are other ways to improve the situation gradually.
       The more varied measures in this direction the better. Russia should understand that energy supplies are just and only business and steps like these can help it learn quickly. Therefore it is fully possible to agree with the author who says: Also in the case of energy security is true that the best foreign policy starts by us at home.
       The authors of the book not only describe the situation, they also try to highlight ideas which should help Slovak diplomacy be more aggressive and effective. Primarily, they recommend using all possible mechanisms with which the European Union provides its members.
       Conditio sine qua non is the creation ofstrong and cohesive politics by the EU and NATO towards Russia. This precondition is underlined in nearly all materials dealing with western policy towards Russia but the reality is not very impressive. The particular interests ofseveral EU and NATO members obstruct the creation of such a policy.
       Russia has been playing with this dissonance and the results of Eastern policy will be weak until some substantial change occurs. It is very difficult to imagine what change this should be when European policy went almost unchanged after the Georgian conflict as well as after the gas war in 2009. Of course, we can speak about a certain movement particularly in the sphere of energy security, but it is not enough.<
       As the European Union has not had a common policy yet,the authors look for other options that Slovak foreign policy has. They seeat least fourpaths: 1) to help in creation of common policy through activities inside the EU; 2) to use the instruments which Eastern partnership provides; 3) to realize activities wherever possible and necessary.[2] 4) not to make trouble and thus not to weaken solidarity and security inside the EU.
       The book presentsnot only analyses of some of the directions in Slovak foreign policy, it alsoambitiously proposes some solutions. The final result is interesting and worthy offurther discussion, whichthe authors encourage.
       The further discussions could make Slovak’s valaškas sharper and may be useful for all EU activities in Eastern Europe. No doubt there is potential here.

 


[1] Another lovely pun playing with the expression “Ukrainian standard”- “Russian standard” what is the name of the sort of Russian vodka.
[2] It is appropriate to add that Slovak potential is not insignificant.

 

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