Central and Eastern Europe: Caught between the EU, US and Russia

Martin Sletzinger*

Director, East European Studies program

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

July 25, 2007

House Committee of Foreign Affairs

I. Overview

Over the last 18 years, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have undergone profound changes. With their accession to the European Union and NATO, US interest in the region has dropped, along with government funding of development programs. Indeed, it is their membership in these international institutions that seems to justify diminishing funding and attention paid to these countries by the United States.

However, this assumption is based on flawed logic, and it is imperative that we get out of this conceptual trap. The EU accession process was never meant to build democracy but to bring a country's legal structure to a European norm. The fact that it has helped democratization along in postcommunist countries seems undeniable, but precisely how those mechanisms work is still a subject of research, analysis and debate.

There has been an unfortunate tendency in this country to cast our eyes on Eastern Europe and see only what we want to see, which is that successful transitions have been made. In fact, these transitions are still very much in play. Great strides have been made but much remains to be done, as I am confident that this hearing will reveal. Despite their successes, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are still contending with weak political systems, severe economic inequality, an uncomfortable discord between politicians and civil society and institutions that are highly susceptible to corruption. There is no doubt that European Union and NATO enlargements have done much to push the political forces within these countries to put their differences aside in order to attend to the greater good of European and transatlantic integration. However, as these countries join the EU and NATO, huge challenges continue to confront them and will not disappear overnight. Real change will take generations.

Another factor that has come to view recently is the renewed and resurgent role of Russia in this region. As the United States turns all of its attention elsewhere, and because it has partially abandoned the international principles of human rights and multi-laterlaism in its fight against terrorism, Russia has taken the opportunity to pursue its interests. Russia's burgeoning confidence, due in part by its ability to control the energy market, has meant that Russia is making renewed efforts to assert itself in Central and Eastern Europe and to become a more dominant player on the international stage. If history is any indicator, a resurgent Russia does not bode well for neighboring regions, and Central and Eastern European countries have already felt an impact, whether directly (as in Ukraine and Belarus, where gas supplies from Russia have been cut off) or indirectly (as in Poland and the Baltic States, which have been protesting the Russian-German deal to build an underground pipeline without their knowledge).

II. What have we learned from the process of EU accession?

The EU is a complex and often confounding international organization and is a relatively new actor in the international arena. Therefore it is not surprising that the EU—let alone the EU enlargement process—is poorly understood in this country. Yet, over the last few years, academic analysis of this important organization and the effects of EU accession has grown in the literature. Let me briefly summarize some of these findings.

1). EU conditionality is as good as it gets in terms of achieving positive external influence on democratically-adopted domestic reforms.[1] The reforms adopted by the postcommunist member states in order to get into the EU were quite diverse and far-reaching, in terms of affecting that which is traditionally thought of as the purview of the sovereign state. For instance several countries had to make constitutional amendments or amend their naturalization procedures in order to comply with EU requirements. Moreover, the EU insists that the solutions to problems and reforms must be conceived by the accession country, in accordance with that country's democratic institutional structure and legal culture, so the process is decidedly "hands off" and solutions are "home grown." The EU can point out what is wrong with a country's laws, but it cannot draft legislation to fix that problem: proposals and solutions must come from the accession country.[2] So, at the end of this process, not only is the reform adopted, but the state's institutions and political parties have proven that they can solve differences through democratic means, and that they have what it takes to be a fully-functioning member of the EU.

2). The reforms that the EU requires need to be based on hard law within the acquis communautaire, or on other international institutions' treaties to which countries have become parties. The acquis define European norms, which are decided upon by consensus of all EU member states. This means that these norms are not necessarily comprehensive or coherent, since they only cover those issues on which the member states were able to agree upon by consensus. For example, there are lots of norms when it comes to non-discrimination policies within labor codes, or consumer protection issues, but absolutely nothing that deals with minority rights. Moreover, they do not take into account the peculiarities of any individual country. While there is some wiggle room in adopting the acquis into the country's "legal culture" no opt-outs were allowed in the most recent enlargements. The EU has some flexibility to ask accession countries for more than what is in the acquis, by testing a country's compliance to the treaties of other international organizations to which it is a party. In that way, institutions (namely the Council of Europe) that do have jurisdiction on issues such as minority rights can be brought into the accession process. However, experience shows that these norms are less strongly applied by the EU during the enlargement process than norms that are in the acquis.[3]

3). EU accession requires that a state be able to assimilate and comprehend a huge system of laws and participate in a complex supra-state bureaucratic structure. Therefore, even if it is not a specific priority or goal, the effect of the EU accession process is to centralize state power in the executive branch order to improve the state's institutional capacity.[4]

4). The EU has no mechanism for civil society building or other traditional democracy-promotion efforts in which the United States and other bilateral actors as well as independent philanthropists have been engaged in postcommunist Eastern Europe. The EU's pre-accession funding and post-accession structural funds are not geared towards NGO development, election monitoring, government oversight, or human rights promotion.[5]

5). The final contention that has been presented in academic work is that for the EU accession to work, a country already has had to achieve a certain level of democratization.[6] This is because the EU has no mechanism for transmitting "democratic sensibilities" to other countries.

Therefore, although the EU accession process certainly has many positive attributes, it should by no means serve as the only test for determining the stability of democracy. Democratic principles take time to be absorbed. Over the last year, troubling developments have been reported in the region: in Poland the separation of powers has come into question as the nationalist-leaning Kaczynski brothers control both positions of the President and Prime Minister; in Hungary, after information surfaced that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany lied about the country's economic condition, he continues to hold office with impunity despite civil protests there; in Slovakia, populist leader Robert Fico's party won elections and formed a coalition government with the party of former authoritarian president Vladimir Meciar. These are certainly disturbing trends that should attract American attention. Given the fact that through EU and NATO accession we have lost the largest "carrots" with which to tempt the region's populations into compliance, the question we should be asking ourselves isn't whether we should continue to be interested in the region but what tools we have to continue a positive influence on the region.

III. The Effects of NATO Membership

Unlike the European Union integration, NATO membership for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been a mixed blessing. Symbolically and politically, NATO membership has reinforced in very strong terms the linkage between Central Europe to the Euro-Atlantic partnership region. NATO membership has helped some of these countries modernize their forces, but has also forced these countries to expend more precious capital on the military than perhaps they are able to do. In addition, being members of NATO has thrust real responsibilities upon these countries: whereas during the time of the Warsaw pact, these states were called upon relatively infrequently to make excursions into neighboring countries, within NATO these countries have been forced to "see the world," through their deployments to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan where they face actual warfare and have suffered causalities. I'm not sure that this is what most of the central and East European countries had in mind when they joined NATO in the first place. Indeed, the populations of these countries are beginning to vocally oppose their governments' unwavering support of US missions. Future elections in the region could certainly threaten future military cooperation with the US.

The expansion of NATO to include the Central and Eastern Europe has also brought new responsibilities and obligations for the United States. In 1956 in Hungary; in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and in 1990 in the Baltic States, the United States and the West contented themselves with throwing sponges and rhetoric at the Soviet invasions. Now, the United States has treaty obligations to defend these countries if they come under attack. Although Russian military invasion of these countries is unlikely, given the resurgent Russian meddling in this area means that we need to pay close attention.

Membership in NATO has also had the inadvertent effect of placing several of the key Central and East European countries in a bind between links to the US and obligations to fellow EU member states. Poland in particular has found itself caught in this dilemma, particularly over its decision to join the US-led coalition in Iraq. NATO membership has also, not unexpectedly, begun to create tensions with Russia, as witnessed by Poland and the Czech Republic's commitment to the building of a missile defense system on their territories, to which the Russians are vigorously opposed.

IV. US involvement in the Region

What this all means is that while the European Union will have the most important role in integrating and stabilizing Central and Eastern Europe, the United States will continue to make an enormous impression on and retain a key role in the region. We cannot dismiss Central and Eastern Europe as a "job well done" and devote all of our attention and resources elsewhere. The United States needs to learn that the solutions to the region's problems are long-term, difficult and complex.

In this regard, the United States needs to continue, not only its support for the countries of the region, but its support for the continuation of knowledge and expertise on this region in the United States. Many outside the US government would be surprised to realize that as far as the US government is concerned, federal support for the furthering of knowledge and expertise in the Central European region now extends only to the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania. All the rest have been "graduated" from US assistance and hence from programs that support advanced research and training on these countries. At the same time, other academic and philanthropic sources for such funding have also disappeared. What this portends, unfortunately, is that in another generation, we will again have a shortage of experts with deep knowledge of these critical allies. A situation could develop not unlike what we are facing in the Middle East, where we have very few Americans who are conversant in the languages and societies of the region. The US government needs to find a way to renew its support for the so-called "Title VIII" (the Research and Training Act for Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union of 1983 of the Foreign Assistance Bill) which has funded research and analysis for more than 20 years. Failure to do so could one day, once again, leave this region at the mercy of its large neighbor to the East or self-destructive forces of nationalism and populism within the countries themselves.


* Dr. Martin Sletzinger is the Director of the East European Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. He has served in the US Congress as a Staff consultant for the House International Relations Committee and at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He received his PhD in 1977 and was a Fulbright Fellow to Yugoslavia from 1972-73. His expertise is in Balkan, Russian and NATO enlargement issues. His most recent publication was "Kosovo: Mission Not Yet Accomplished" The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn, 2005. He speaks Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin and Russian. The East European Studies Program was recently awarded a grant of $270,000 by the Department of State for the FY 2007 competition for funding from the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act for programs on Southeast Europe.

[1] Many authors have noted the positive effects the EU enlargement process has had on democracy-building in Central and Eastern Europe. To understand how the process of conditionality works and why the EU was so successful, see Milada Anna Vachudova, Europe Undivided: Democracy, Leverage and Integration after Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). See also "Conclusions" by Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier in The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe, Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) p.210-228. In terms of raising the standard of human rights see "The Effects of EU Conditionality on Citizenship Policies and Protection of National Minorities in the Baltic States" in The Road to the European Union – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia ed. Jan Zielonka and Vello Pettai (Manchester University Press, 2003) also published as a Working Paper of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, No. 2000/68.

[2] See the discussion of the "lack of templates" in Heather Grabbe "How does Europeanization affect CEE governance? Conditionality, diffusion and diversity" Journal of European Public Policy 8:6 December, p. 1014.

[3] For specific evaluations of the application of minority rights criteria in the enlargement process see Nida Gelazis, "Statelessness in the Baltic States: Ramifications for European Citizenship and Social Stratification after EU Enlargement," in the European Journal of Migration and Law 6: 225-242, 2004. See also, James Hughs and Gwendolyn Sasse, "Monitoring the Monitors: EU Enlargement Conditionality and Minority Protection in the CEECs" in the Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 1/2003.

[4] Grabbe describes how the enlargement process empowers the executive: "Although the applicants have found different solutions to the organizational challenges of conducting negotiations, the EU's demands for managerial competence and central co-ordination favour a concentration of efforts on a small team. This further encourages the trend towards a ‘core executive', which was already emerging owing to other domestic factors." Op. cit. Grabbe, pp. 1018. Moreover, Jan Zielonka similarly argues that "the traditional parliamentary form of democracy is likely to suffer as a consequence of joining the union" in his article "The Quality of Democracy after Joining the European Union" East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2007 p. 163. Zielonka concedes that the EU accession process also requires states to devolve power to regional units that can administer structural funds (p. 164). However, a separate study concludes that the EU's ability to influence regional policy was actually quite limited: see Europeanization and Regionalization in EU Enlargement by James Hughes, Gwendolyn Sasse and Claire Gordon (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2004).

[5] See Andrew Green's data comparing civil society development in Eastern Europe through 2004 at

[6] "The evidence discussed in this book suggests that the prospect of EU membership helped to reinforce processes of democratization that were already well under way in most of the CEECs. EU conditionality for membership, on the other hand, was in practice so generic and had such diffused institutional and attitudinal impact in the policy area analysed here [regional policy] during enlargement, that it fits well within the definition of international conditionality more broadly as being in essence ‘declaratory policy'." from Europeanization and regionalization in EU Enlargement by James Hughes, Gwendolyn Sasse and Claire Gordon (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2004) p. 166. These conclusions are echoed in Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier eds. The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).