Redrawing the MAP in Europe
From The Economist print edition
Germany is up, and Russia in. What will America do in eastern Europe?
THE job of NATO used to be straightforward: keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out. These days things are less certain. A week after the alliance's acrimonious summit in Bucharest, and an inconclusive follow-up meeting between presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin to discuss anti-missile defences, NATO's future role in Europe's security seems particularly unclear.
The most controversial question for the coming months, even years, will be how far the alliance should expand; in particular whether it should take in Ukraine and Georgia. At NATO's summit in Bucharest, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, led the resistance to an American-led move to grant the two countries the next step to membership—known as the Membership Action Plan (MAP). NATO postponed the issue to a meeting of foreign ministers in December, or perhaps to its 60th anniversary summit in April next year. Or perhaps, given that Mr Bush's successor will still be getting his team in place, a decision may be delayed for much longer.
On one reading of events, this expansion of NATO is a mere formality. Ukraine and Georgia claim to be delighted with the summit communiqué, which said firmly: “These countries will become members of NATO”. Without a date for MAP, however, this promise may mean less than it seems.
The fallout in Ukraine has been limited so far. Only a minority of the public supports NATO membership. That is one reason why the alliance is chary of issuing a firm invitation. The government in Kiev says it will concentrate on making the case for NATO and pushing ahead with the less controversial bid to seek an association agreement with the European Union, which it hopes to secure in September. Ukraine's leaders also still have plenty to do to convince other NATO countries that they both meet the criteria and really want to join the alliance—something that is bound to bring a big political cost in relations with the Kremlin.
Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, said that Russia should punish Ukraine for even trying to join NATO. According to a Russian newspaper report, Mr Putin lost his temper with Mr Bush at a meeting on the final day of the Bucharest summit, telling him: “Do you understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state.” Claiming that most of Ukraine's territory was “given away” by Russia, Mr Putin supposedly also said that if the country joined NATO it would “cease to exist”. A Kremlin spokesman at the meeting says he did not hear the exchange. Still, intemperate language from Russia may stiffen Ukrainian resolve to move closer to the West.
In Georgia, the authorities complain that Russia is accelerating the “creeping annexation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway regions that maintain an unrecognised independence, backed by the Kremlin. On the day of the summit decision, Mr Putin sent a letter to the secessionist leaders promising that Russia would “further widen and deepen its all-embracing practical co-operation”.
Georgia fears that the price of NATO membership may be the permanent loss of Abkhazia, in particular, from which the 250,000-strong majority ethnic Georgian population fled in 1993. One worry is how Mikheil Saakashvili, the impetuous Georgian president, will handle the Abkhaz issue. Another is the upcoming Georgian parliamentary elections in May, in which Mr Saakashvili's clannish supporters are battling a hot-headed opposition. A fairly-counted poll, and a calm approach to Abkhazia, may help to allay fears in NATO countries, particularly Germany, about Georgia's suitability for membership.
Indecision in NATO leaves plenty of room for the European Union. But the EU shows little sign so far of wanting to take the lead in the continent's security policy—for example in reaching out to Ukraine. It is still struggling to digest its most recent expansion to Romania and Bulgaria—countries that seem to be going backwards rather than forwards on issues such as the rule of law and organised crime. This week the European Commission reiterated that Bulgaria needs to tackle gangsterism and corruption. Despite 150 assassinations since 2001, nobody has been convicted, nor has any senior Bulgarian official successfully been prosecuted for corruption.
The other big issue is America's planned missile defence bases: ten interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. In its dying months, the Bush administration is keen to settle the issue with Russia, but has so far been unable to do so. It has offered several “transparency” measures—such as a promise not to switch on the system until a threat (from Iran) emerges, and access for Russian liaison officers—to reassure Mr Putin that the missile shield is not an attempt to neutralise Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Russia insists that it wants around-the-clock monitors based at both sites—a demand that causes resentment in countries that 19 years ago were unwilling members of the Soviet-led Warsaw pact. The Czech Republic has reached a deal on hosting the American radar, but Poland is holding out for better terms—especially American help to modernise its armed forces.
America's policy in eastern Europe is running out of steam. Earlier successes, such as expanding NATO to the Baltic states, are now overshadowed by disunity. Some newer NATO members even view Germany as something of a “fifth column” for Russia. Given the uncertainty over what a new American presidency will bring, the outlook for many in Europe's ex-communist states is worrying.