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In the past ten years, Eastern Europe has proven itself to be a site of conflict and international tensions. From Tallinn and Moscow to Tbilisi and Ankara, from Budapest and Warsaw to Kyiv and Baku, stability is lacking. Several active conflicts simmer in Ukraine’s Donbas and Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, a few dozen other “frozen conflicts”—South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniestria—damage regional security. And new domestic and international conflicts remain a distinct possibility.
How did this region become so prone to conflict? Can the current conflicts be stopped? Is there any way to prevent new ones? And how can we return long-lasting—if not permanent—peace to Europe’s east? Several steps suggested in this article, if implemented, may help to solve this problem and bring greater stability to this critical region.
Currently, Eastern Europe has no effective system for resolving military, political, and economic conflicts. It also lacks conflict prevention mechanisms and instruments for maintaining peaceful coexistence. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and the launch of the Donbas war, as well as the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, have all demonstrated that the OSCE, the UN, the Council of Europe, and virtually all other international organizations cannot effectively secure international borders, uphold peace, and quickly thwart growing conflicts in Eastern Europe.
In fact, Eastern Europe completely lacks infrastructure to coordinate the tactical and strategic interests of the countries in the region, as well as other interested parties—primarily the United States, the EU, and China. In part, this problem stems from the unjustified geopolitical optimism that flourished in the Eastern Bloc in 1989–1991 and dominated nation-building efforts throughout the 1990s.
Ostensibly, there were grounds for such optimism. The countries of the region were transitioning from socialism to a united, democratic Europe. The Soviet Union had disintegrated (largely) peacefully, and the Soviet nuclear arsenal was safely transferred to Russia. Post-Communist states—including some post-Soviet ones—joined NATO, and all the countries stretching from Dublin to Vladivostok became members of the Council of Europe. A widespread belief held that war and hostility would have no place in a region unified by common political and legal structures. Even the conflicts and ethnic cleansings that erupted in the South Caucasus appeared vestiges of the Soviet past, rather than the harbinger of new, even more serious conflicts. For this reason, Belarus was viewed as Europe’s last dictatorship, not its first one.
Blinded by optimism, the global community failed to create reliable international instruments that would monitor minority rights and contain poverty, transnational criminal networks, and separatist movements.
A decade of degradation in communication between NATO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and their Eastern European members institutionalized mistrust among political, diplomatic, and military communities in the region. Powerful expectations of a democratic, post-socialist transition increasingly diverged from the reality of an aggressive and authoritarian Russia and increasingly illiberal and nationalistic Central and Eastern European regimes. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to prevent the current problems.
We can no longer afford to remain prisoners of optimism. But the “geopolitical reality check” we now face is causing panic. This was especially evident during the Russian-Georgian and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts. The adversarial states severed communications with their new enemies, virtually held ethnic minorities hostage, undermined national economies with self-destructive sanctions, and supported extremist ideological movements that threaten their domestic stability more than their enemies. Political, legal, and economic rationality—rare in Eastern Europe—practically disappeared altogether. Panic disengages reason and produces authoritarianism, ethnonationalism, and militarism.
But there is another option: political realism, where optimism about Europe’s peaceful future is balanced by pessimism about the region’s bleak post-Communist political achievements.
All Eastern European countries now share certain common characteristics, regardless of whether they belong to the EU, NATO, or the Eurasian Union. This commonality manifests itself in the region’s dominant conservative ideology, which masks the leading role played by informal institutions (paternalism, the mafia state) in the countries’ political systems.
In fact, the countries of Eastern Europe have created an ecosystem in which four types of political regimes sustain and support one another, both through cooperation and conflict.
First, there are fully authoritarian regimes like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Turkey. In these countries, power verticals serve as an alternative to the separation of powers. These verticals distribute power and property by exercising informal control over all three branches of the central government and local government bodies.
Although these authoritarian states have created sophisticated systems that preclude both constitutional and non-constitutional replacement of their rulers, the regimes’ personalized nature remains their main weakness. None of these leaders is immortal, and regime change poses enormous risks to the countries’ territorial integrity, political stability, and economic growth. It could also cause a new domestic or international conflict in Eastern Europe.
The second type of Eastern European regime can be described as pluralist authoritarian. As in full autocracy, informal institutions (clans, neopatrimonial networks, and mafia conglomerates) take precedence over formal ones. Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are each governed by clans that have triumphed in an internal struggle, but their victory is incomplete. Every clan controls part of the central government’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as some local government bodies. Nevertheless, no single clan is able to build a consolidated power vertical or hierarchy.
If one clan usurps power under such a regime, the opposition clans displace the usurpers, as during the 2004 and 2014 Ukrainian revolutions. In other countries, this displacement takes less tumultuous forms. Either way, regime change in pluralist authoritarian states can also destabilize both the country and the region. In the case of Ukraine in 2014, a power vacuum allowed the Kremlin to annex Crimea and support radical separatists in the Donbas.
Pluralist authoritarianism does have certain advantages: it allows for political pluralism, a degree of press freedom, and even alliances with Western democracies. However, each of these countries remains vulnerable to civil unrest, poverty, and separatism—and they can export such instability to their neighbors. Weak governance and poverty in these states can also provoke conflicts and friction in the region at large.
Conservative illiberal democracies in Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland constitute the third type of Eastern European political system. Here, clan structures and ethnocratic ideologies go hand in hand with strong, EU-influenced democratic institutions. In these countries, democracy tends to be associated with ethnic and/or religious majority rule that infringes on minority rights.
Key to these systems’ ideology is the myth of returning to the 1920s, when most of these countries gained statehood for the first time in recent history. Riding a wave of ethnocratic populism, these countries’ clans take power democratically and begin dismantling the most powerful liberal democratic institutions. For instance, in Poland and Hungary, political structures controlled by the victorious clans subordinated constitutional courts to their will and significantly restricted freedom of the press.
These regimes’ conservatism also leads to conflicts over collective historical memory, which in turn destabilizes regional security. In 2017–2018, Hungary and Poland both found themselves in conflict with Ukraine over minority rights and historical grievances. Risks of renewed ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia are also running high. And a new surge of reunification aspirations in Romania might compromise the fragile peace in neighboring Moldova.
These conflicts lead to the passage of new laws, which make the countries’ cultural and social spheres more conservative. And the growing presence of radical sociopolitical groups will sooner or later destabilize the countries internally and at their most problematic national borders.
Finally, the fourth type of Eastern European political system is the unrecognized state. South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo, the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, and Transdniestria have all created an entrenched network of semi-state entities that satisfy three or four of the five criteria of a full-fledged state. For over two years, they have: (1) controlled and defended their borders; (2) maintained stable control over the population of their territories; (3) provided state-level services to their populations;
(4) and produced some resources to sustain their regimes. The fifth criterion—regime recognition—can to some extent be applied to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Kosovo. But they have not been sufficiently recognized to be considered members of the international community.
These unrecognized breakaway states also cannot fully satisfy the fourth criterion: their governments depend on other countries’ sponsorship, since their economic opportunities are limited by a lack of international recognition and the enormous expenses required to defend themselves from the mother country.
Unrecognized states also contribute to potential conflicts in Eastern Europe. Their very existence implies constant disputes over internationally recognized borders. Their economies fuel the shadow sector, smuggling, and criminal business networks. And these pseudo-states spread separatist ideas and practices that undermine the political and social order of neighboring countries.
These illiberal and authoritarian political systems emerged from the fall of communism. Now, however, several global and regional processes are setting them up for conflict: Russia’s proclivity for aggressive actions; growing geopolitical confrontation between NATO, the United States, Russia, and possibly the SCO members; the militarization of Eastern Europe; and national governments’ growing gravitation toward identity politics, which often involves new attempts to assimilate minorities and offer preferential treatment to certain religious denominations.
These diverse and escalating tensions must be controlled to keep the region—and possibly the entire world—from sliding toward military conflicts.
Despite the challenges, Eastern European security can indeed be managed, provided that the international community is able to balance optimistic goals (establishing peace, cooperation, and good neighborly relations in the Greater Europe) with a strong understanding of the pessimistic results of thirty years of post-Communism in Eastern Europe (the authoritarian belt stretching from Ankara to Moscow; the elites’ penchant for the use of force to resolve international conflicts; the popularity of radically conservative political beliefs among the ruling elites and the public; escalating geopolitical confrontation in the region).
I believe that several concrete policy steps will allow the international community to successfully manage conflicts in Eastern Europe:
1. Establishing a permanent diplomatic conference on peace in Eastern Europe.
Maintaining communication between governments should be the conference’s primary goal. Further goals could include restoring the international legal regime to the region, reestablishing the inviolability of borders, restoring minority rights, limiting the region’s militarization, and reintegrating uncontrolled territories into their mother countries.
However, such a conference should not become a substitute for the work of international organizations. Rather, it should bolster the efforts of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the UN, and other organizations. Ideally, this initiative should decrease the degree of confrontation between national elites and recommit them to the cause of peaceful development.
2. Creating an effective communication system between defense alliances, defense ministries, joint chiefs of staff, and security services.
The ongoing militarization of Eastern Europe increases the risk of new conflicts with potentially unforeseen consequences. It is necessary to establish new communication channels and guiding principles that will support a degree of trust between different states’ militaries and security services and help avoid accidental conflicts. Once established, this framework could later be used to build a larger-scale cooperation structure between blocs and countries to reduce tensions and demilitarize the region.
3. Establishing an economic cooperation fund.
Both returning international economic cooperation to Eastern Europe and increasing household incomes are extremely important for sustaining a long-term peace process in the region. Beyond economic cooperation, this fund would also coordinate government efforts to guarantee rights and security for millions of labor migrants. The ultimate goal of the initiative would be to bring economic rationality back into the decisionmaking processes of Eastern European governments.
This fund should ensure long-term peaceful development for the peoples of the region and help to involve broader segments of the population in commercial activity.
4. Formulating a Minority Rights Protection Treaty and establishing a regional organization to monitor its implementation.
Growing populist sentiment in Eastern Europe places a strong emphasis on granting full citizenship rights only to the majority. Any successful approach to overcoming this populist trend, guaranteeing equality to all citizens, and abandoning assimilationist policies would help prevent the development of new separatist movements and decrease neighboring countries’ interference in each other’s affairs.
This initiative should reduce tensions between ethnic, ethnolinguistic, and religious groups and make the national governments’ cultural policies more consistent with the concept of human rights.
If implemented, these four initiatives will lay a solid foundation for preventing new conflicts in Eastern Europe. They can help to make the united Greater Europe a continent of peace, rule of law, and prosperity.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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