Security and Stability in Central and Eastern Europe: Challenges and Prospects

Thomas Graham
May 18, 2016

On April 6, 2016, the MacMillan Center hosted a roundtable discussion at Whitney Humanities Center with four Eastern European ambassadors to the United Nations: Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, Former Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN and MacMillan Center Research Scholar; Ambassador Janis Mažeiks, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Latvia to the UN; Ambassador Milan Milanović, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Serbia to the UN; and Ambassador František Ružička, Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the UN. Thomas Graham, Jackson Institute Senior Fellow, and David R. Cameron, Professor of Political Science, presided over the talk. In light of the many new challenges facing the European Union and Europe as a whole, different perspectives were introduced.

Professor Thomas Graham introduced the ambassadors and highlighted the strange place in which Europe finds itself. Just a few years ago, the European project seemed to be a great success, yet now the region is facing brand new challenges both from the outside and from within, including the migration crisis, global terrorism, economic problems, the Ukraine conflict, Russian sanctions, and internal divisions on many policies. Turning the presentation over to the ambassadors Graham asked, “Where is the European Union headed now? And what role does Eastern Europe play in the region?”

The ambassadors spoke in turn and focused on both global and regional issues, as well as those most affecting their countries. Generally, they found the present situation in Europe complicated, but not unresolvable. The overarching theme that pervaded parts of the discussion was the variety of opposing interests and seeming lack of unity present in Europe today.

First to speak was Slovakia’s ambassador, František Ružička. He touched upon the history of European integration after 1989. In the early 1990s, Slovakia, along with the Czech Republic and Poland, was among the most eager countries to join the EU. He stated that at that time countries did not have reservations about joining the EU. The institution was very stable economically, and exuded strength, unity, and progressive values. After 2005, however, problems began appearing in the EU, and the organization started losing its focus and sense of common purpose. Despite attempts, the EU was unable to commit to a unified security force. Then the EU was faced with many crises at once, and serious divisions on policies began appearing.

According to the ambassador, the first thing that occurred that seriously splintered opinion was the dispute over Kosovo, (which Slovakia does not recognize). Later divisions came over the treatment of Russia following the Georgia crisis in 2008. Inconsistencies continued to abound with differential treatment during the financial crisis, and most recently with migration and security policies. The ambassador believes that unless the EU is able to solve its internal inconsistencies and divisions it will no longer appear attractive to either current or perspective members. He was positive in his outlook for the future, but adamant that the EU needed to once again find a common direction.

Serbia’s ambassador Milan Milanović spoke next, and focused on both Serbia’s difficult past, and its hopes for the future. He said that the situation in Serbia is always tough and full of problems, but that is the nature of being in the Balkans. Now, however, the country is trying to move beyond past conflicts and become a member of the European Union. The ambassador stressed the continual need for regional cooperation in the Balkans as a major priority. He also underlined the similarity of Serbia’s economy to many countries in the EU, and noted that integration should not be an issue. Serbia’s other priority in recent years has been staying neutral in various disputes and conflicts and cooperating in numerous international organizations. With these plans, the country hopes to join the EU in the near future.

Ambassador Janis Mažeiks of Latvia stressed that different positions of the countries present depend greatly not only on their histories but also their locations on the European continent. Considering Latvia’s history and geographic location, its preoccupation with military and security is hardly surprising. At the moment, according to the ambassador, it is the one major concern, especially after what occurred in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Presently, Latvian officials continue to be concerned about Russian military planes flying over Latvia’s territory, as well as of Russian troops training near the border. The ambassador touched on a number of other topics, such as the importance of trade with the EU, Latvia’s stable economic growth, and its large Russian minority. But it seems at the present moment, security is the one issue that preoccupies the Latvian government, and overshadows other EU wide concerns.

Last to speak was former Ukrainian ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev. He is currently retired from his position, and perhaps because of this, was able to be critical not only of the outside factors affecting Ukraine’s political and economic situation, but also of the structural problems within the country itself. Sergeyev began by recalling the end of the Cold War, when Europe breathed a “sigh of relief.” However, it turned out that Russia continued to have interest in its former republics and satellites. Sergeyev reminded the audience that in Russia’s eyes, post-Soviet conflicts were the fault of the West, and that all of Russia’s actions were merely reactions to infringement on its historic sphere of influence. He stated that the Baltic states had no reason to trust Russia after the fall of the USSR, and that other countries should have been equally wary. He believes that former republics like Georgia and Ukraine lost time working closely with Russia in the early years after the USSR’s collapse, and would have been better off following the pro-Western Baltic example.

The ambassador also thinks that Western reaction to Russia’s past aggressions, including sanctions, have been too soft, and this allows Russia to continue acting in a belligerent manner. This, he believes sends the wrong message, and will create problems in the future. He sees the current situation as an opportunity to stop Russian aggression from threatening the rest of the region’s security. Ukraine, he believes, needs to strengthen its army and defense systems, and needs Western nations to stand in solidarity with its efforts. He believes that despite years lost in flux between east and west, Ukraine needs to follow the Baltic example, establish priorities moving forward, and decide on a concrete path. Ukraine’s stability, he believes is vital for European security.

The last twenty minutes of the discussion were open to questions that were as diverse as the topics covered in the presentations. The ambassadors continued to address concerns about EU integration, the collapse of socialism, federalization of Europe, support for Russian sanctions and opinions on the migration crisis. The topic of lacking European unity continued to make an appearance throughout the last parts of the discussion. Despite these concerns, however, and Europe’s apparent lack of consensus on many issues, the ambassadors were positive about Europe’s future.

Written by Julia Sinitsky, Class of 2016, European & Russian Studies