Two decades after the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union, David Uwakwe examines the change in politics and dynamic between east and west
Two important statesmen are busy negotiating, cutting deals, and making friendly reassurances with one another in Eastern Europe at the moment. It’s not the current economic crisis or climate change, however, that has brought US Vice-President Joe Biden to tour the region, or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the Serbian capital Belgrade. These twin devils besetting the world today were but a twinkle in capitalism’s eye when the motivating factors behind these current diplomatic manoeuvres were in play.
So why does the United States now feel the need to make a show of solidarity and friendship with the likes of Poland and the Czech Republic, and what are the historic and strategic underpinnings of the €1bn loan just granted by Russia to Serbia?
It’s all part of an exercise to tie up some of the loose ends from the fallout of a very 20th century concern – the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago next month, and the consequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
The breach of the Berlin Wall was not in itself the end of the Soviet Union – that didn’t come until December 1991, two years later. Neither, for that matter, was it even the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union; that was probably marked by the legalisation, and coming to power, of opposition parties in Poland and Hungary earlier that year.
Undoubtedly however, the iconic scenes of thousands of East Berliners flooding over the wall on the night of 9th November 1989 are the most potent symbol of the demise of the USSR. It was an unforeseen outcome of these seismic events that brought us from there to the flurry of diplomatic activity underway in the region today.
That event, or process of events, was the scrambling for NATO membership by the former Soviet satellite states. Seeing what happened in Croatia and Slovenia – where Serbian minorities, backed by the forces of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Federation, took up arms against the newly independent states – Poland and the Baltic States feared a similar backlash by their own significant Russian minorities, and sought the protective embrace of NATO membership.
Having gained this and incurred no wrath from Russia, they were eventually admitted to the European Union, benefitting from the attendant social and economic progress. Opposed though it was to these countries joining NATO, Russia was too weak to halt what it perceived to be the growth of an anti-Russian alliance. Since then Russia has been on the defensive – and on the rise.
It’s no surprise that Russia now has some clout again; it is standing up for its interests in the region and coming to the support of its allies and ethnic kin. This explains Russia’s support for the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which ultimately resulted in the brief Russo-Georgian war last year. It also accounts for their extremely hostile reaction to the quickly scrapped plans for a missile defence shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
It is to calm major fears in the region – that the US has abandoned the locals to fend for themselves in the face of Russian aggression – that Joe Biden has been dispatched to the region. It also explains Russia’s support for Serbian claims that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was illegal, illustrated by the billion-euro loan granted to Serbia by the Kremlin.
Upon closer inspection we see that the circumstances surrounding Joe Biden’s visit to Europe and Medvedev’s to Serbia are in fact very different to those that necessitated the visits in the first place. The acrimony is gone – while Biden is there to reassure the Baltic countries that they can always depend on American support, relations have already improved with Russia with the scrapping of the plans for missile defence, and so there exists less of a threat in that regard. Similarly, though Serbia is accepting Russian loans and investment in its energy infrastructure, it is also committed to joining the EU and sees no conflict of interest, saying it will be Russia’s best friend within the EU.
The negotiations and deal making going on here are different in tone to what has gone before, because they have the seeds of positive change within them. If handled delicately, we could finally see Europe clearing up the political detritus left in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.