This article was originally posted on Political Critique.
By Zolo Mikeš
Russian aggression in Ukraine has split leftists–and not only Slovak ones–into two groups: pro-Russian and anti-Russian. The pro-Russians blame their adversaries for not being “leftist enough” and claim that if you are not with Russia, you are for the preservation of the status quo with the U.S. and NATO. This is simply not true. It is time to dream big dreams–dreams of a future Central Europe without Russia, without the U.S., and without NATO. Dreams that stem from the ideological foundations of the Balkan federation, adapted to present conditions and refocused on a space closer to the center of Europe. The realization of these dreams would result in a third power, acting as a counterbalance to Russia and Germany in Europe that would not serve as a mere puppet of U.S. interests.
Why is it Necessary to Dream?
The forceful annexation of Crimea has proved that Russia, like the U.S., feels that it is a superpower that does not have to respect rules or values. Politicians like the idealistic Mikhail Gorbachev, or not-too-harmful alcoholic Boris Yeltsin–similarly to America’s John F. Kennedy–were here only temporarily. The idealism ended with their removal, and realpolitik–based on a desire to extend one’s own influence, economic domination, and eventually, territory–has become the new norm. Everything else is just talk, which aims to cloak the only real ambition of both superpowers. Forget the U.N. and human rights on one hand, and Slavic unity and the Eurasian Union on the other. Do not believe in anything; a sober nihilism should prevail. They are interested only in gaining influence, economic domination, and territory. It is possible–in fact, it is the only correct option–to judge all Russian and American policy through this prism.
Every unfortunate country that happens to be in a geopolitical area of Russian or American interest has to adjust to the above-mentioned facts. Otherwise, it pays the price that Ukraine did. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the waiver of nuclear weapons, these were all just foreplay to the current Ukrainian tragedy. The Ukrainian president, who sought France’s guarantee on the Budapest Memorandum, has received a bitter lesson: it was politely explained to him that the treaty is only a piece of paper, and nuclear weapons would be the only real guarantee for Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. In the end, Russia and the U.S. became the guarantors of the Memorandum. The same Russia that attacked Ukraine not even twenty years later and the same U.S. that not only does not intervene, but doesn’t even have the courage to promise the mutilated Ukraine NATO membership in the distant future. To sum up and underline, the case of Ukraine is a lesson for all pacifists in post-socialist republics–including Slovakia–who babble on about how we need neither army nor weapons, to the great delight of Russia. Unfortunately, we do need an army. A strong one. The stronger and more efficient an army we have, the smaller the probability we would need to use it, as it works as a deterrent. It is sad indeed, but that is the case–and looking back into our history since 1968, it is the only possible way.
With Whom We Should Not Dream
Of course, we have to be a part of a bigger union if we are to protect ourselves against Russian aggression. The mooring of Slovakia in NATO and the EU is not sufficient and is not efficient economically. The U.S. has ignored the Budapest Memorandum in the case of Ukraine and, ignoring Article 5, it will also not come to the aid of any Baltic or Eastern European state if the need arose. If Ukraine was not worth it, then we are definitely not worth it.
The U.K. can’t be relied on either. Its anti-Russian stance is encouraging, but its anti-EU sentiment as well as its xenophobic attitude, particularly towards migrants from the Visegrád group (V4) working on the other side of the Channel, is unacceptable. It has to be said loudly and clearly: at least since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the U.K. has been “annoying” the EU with claims to its reputed “special status”. It has no such status–its “exceptionality” today is rooted only in the especially erosive effects of London’s demands for all sorts of exemptions and exceptions, an example that is slowly becoming a bandwagon for other countries. The only positive aspect to be highlighted is the possibility for citizens of new member states to work in the country without a transitional period. But that was at the time of the Labor government. The Conservative party, having seized power, has made a 180 degree turn, largely due to the political successes of a Euroskeptic opposition. Currently, it seems that the U.K. will no longer be a member of the EU from June 23, or at least will significantly curtail the basic social rights of V4 citizens who contribute greatly to public revenue with their labor and taxes. This social hostility and humiliation, this violation of the basic principle of equality among peoples cannot be accepted or tolerated. The U.K. is not a partner the V4 can count on.
The EU does not have its own army and nothing suggests it is interested in creating one. Germany, as the most economically advanced and strongest country of the EU, is not a reliable partner for the V4 in any potential defense pact. It is not only due to bitter memories of World War II, but also due to insufficient German commitment towards European ideas and its agreements with Russia. It was Germany that opposed and fervently opposes the idea of a real currency union and European bonds. And if someone does not want to pool finances in a European project, the suspicion arises that they are not counting on the project in the long term. In other words, there is a real suspicion that Germany prioritizes its own interests over European ones in the long view. There is a real danger that Germany will support the EU only as long as it is advantageous for the Germans.
The current German realpolitik towards Russia does not engender much trust either. There is obviously the matter of Nordstream, but also the dealings of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with Gazprom or the training that the German army provided to the Russians, even throughout the latter’s Ukrainian operations. All of this painfully evokes ominous memories of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which we do not want to witness again. As history tends to repeat itself, our vigilance is understandable.
With Feet on the Ground, but a Head in the Clouds
Vigilance does not mean temerity. Central Europe surely does not have options other than being part of the EU and NATO. The Ukrainian crisis is so unpleasant for us for precisely that reason–if the Russians had not stopped somewhere in Donbass, we would have had no other choice than to beg all the gods and Obamas that NATO would intervene and that the EU would continue to function.
Comparing life before 1989 and now–I have witnessed both–and comparing the living standards in the countries of the former USSR and those of the U.S.–there is no doubt that, if we must choose, Russian domination is worse than American. Yes, even for me as a man on the left-of-center, the working conditions of those in the U.S. are preferable to those of their colleagues in the states of the former USSR, not to mention the freedoms. The evidence lies in the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksander Litvinenko, the jailing of Pussy Riot, Vladimir Putin’s war on LGBT people, etc. I’m sorry to say, but Edward Snowden, unlike Politkovskaya or Litvinenko, is still alive and Chelsea Manning is as well, although jailed. It goes without saying that it does not mean the American treatment of Snowden, Julian Assange or Manning is correct – quite the contrary. Undoubtedly, the Americans have committed worse atrocities in the past than the Russians today – but nowadays, American dominance is still more acceptable than Russian.
Nevertheless, as the title says, it is time to dream big dreams, dreams of a Central Europe under no one’s dominance. The Ukrainian crisis should serve as a warning on the one hand, and as a wake-up call on the other. The Russians have not attacked us yet, but what if, someday, someone invites them again? The neo-Nazi regional mayor of Banská Bystrica in Slovakia has addressed letters of admiration to Viktor Yanukovych; followers of pro-Russian politician Jan Čarnogurský look up to Putin; Viktor Orbán’s eyes turn in the same direction. The Russians support extremists outside Slovakia, so is it really so unimaginable? What comes next, once we know that we are not worth it for NATO and the EU’s future seems uncertain?
We in Central Europe cannot be content to sit and watch how Berlin articulates its own national interests regardless of the EU, we cannot sit and watch the rise of Euroskeptics, national conservatives and fascists in European elections. As long as it is possible, let’s dream our European dream and let’s try to reshape it towards the left; let’s emancipate ourselves from Washington, without the danger of falling beneath Russian tanks. Like Germany, let us prepare our backup plan–just in case all of our suspicions regarding the end of the EU and the non-European priorities of Germany are proved right.
With Whom to Dream?
The first step should be to cooperate in the EU with those who are economically equal to us and geopolitically the closest. Strengthening the Visegrád group should be our primary security concern, a fact currently felt most strongly by Poland. Polish historical experience with Russia and Germany is the essence of their foreign policy, and it may be worth learning from them.
The V4 as a counterbalance to Russia and Germany is certainly not enough. Other potential partners are those who are in the same situation as we are, in particular Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. If all these countries coalesced and lobbied for Ukrainian membership in the EU, a solid base of foreign policy cooperation could emerge. A cooperation of countries on the same industrial level–apart from Ukraine, which will nevertheless progress and could become an agricultural granary–that could work together without serious ruptures.
In the case of EU disintegration, the cooperation of the Baltic countries, the V4, and Ukraine could result in a bigger geopolitical unity, ideally a sort of a Central European equivalent of the Balkan federation, an idea that scared Stalin so much he poisoned Georgi Dimitrov.
The idea of a Balkan federation was first formulated as a reaction to the fall of the Ottoman Empire–but only after its fall. Creating a backup plan while the EU exists in case of its disintegration could improve the chances of the realization of a Central European federation in contrast with the Balkan one.
The Balkan federation project could serve also as the ideological basis for a wider social solidarity and economic equality, and above all, for loyalty to the ideals of the French Revolution. It is necessary to emphasize other ideals, such as protection of human rights of every individual regardless of their religion (or lack thereof), origin, social status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. To a certain extent, we can discuss Mikhail Bakunin or Karl Marx, but the protection of the aforementioned ideals should take precedence over the application of their philosophical opinions. For security concerns, the foreign policy of such a federation should favor cooperation with France, owing to their nuclear weapons, instead of cooperation with Germany.
It is still only a dream, but at the time, so was the French Revolution, just as it was once a daring desire to look upon Bratislava from the Austrian side of the Danube. Both changes could have gone better, but without them things would have been worse. As was the case then, it remains the case now that if you do not have a dream, you have nothing to translate into reality, and so reality then mirrors the dreams of others. It mirrors the dreams of those, for example, who try to dominate and fragment the EU through free market deals with the U.S. Or the dreams of those who see the light at the end of this pseudo-capitalist tunnel, but which is only the reflection of Russian towers. Thank you, but these do not interest me.
Zolo Mikeš is a journalist, political commentator, and lecturer at Goethe University at Bratislava, Slovakia.
[Photo courtesy of Občanská democratická strana]