Slovakia and the New Cold War

The frontline of Vladimir Putin’s political maneuverings in relation to Ukraine may be a lot closer to home than many of us realise. Being married to a Slovakian woman, I’m one of the fairly small grouping of people from the British Isles who have been educated to use the term “Central Europe” rather than “Eastern Europe” when referring to people from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and, indeed, Poland.

Eastern Europe being used to describe these countries is a hangover from the binary politics of the Cold War era, rather than an accurate geographical reflection of the continent. Five other European countries, for example, border Slovakia. This hardly renders it a nation existing on the peripheries.
While Russia’s current actions in relation to Ukraine and Putin’s previous actions in Georgia have raised fears in former Soviet states like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and former Soviet satellite states such as Poland alike, the reality is that Russia’s military might is not even required to exert a stranglehold over much of Europe.

I’m typing this while visiting my in-laws in Slovakia. They live in a beautiful village of around 2,000 people. There is a castle, a river running through the village and the forested foothills of the Mala Fatra mountain range complete the image of an enchanted settlement existing in splendid isolation. The problem is – this is 2014; nowhere exists in splendid isolation.

Even in such a beautiful part of Slovakia, the shadow of Russia vs Ukraine is being felt.

Even in such a beautiful part of Slovakia, the shadow of Russia vs Ukraine is being felt.

TV, newspapers and the Internet bring news of the latest political or economic tribulations and, more crucially, gas-powered boilers keep homes that face harsh winters cosy. The source of that gas? Russia. So far, Vladimir Putin’s backlash against EU sanctions over Ukraine has seen the wealthier countries of Germany and Austria hit by a 40% squeeze on the gas making it through the Russian pipelines. Economically weaker Slovakia, to date, has only been hit by a less punitive 10% squeeze.

This is the perfect move by Russia. Only this 10% cut is required to have a genuine and hard-felt effect upon energy prices in the country, while the smaller cut can also be spun as a symbol of relative goodwill born of Slavic brotherhood. The memory of Soviet forces on the streets of both Prague and Bratislava crushing demonstrations during the days of the former Czechoslovakia means the latter aspect is unlikely to be taken at face value.

I’ve already established that Slovakia is not geographically isolated… and nor is it politically isolated. This nation of around 5.3m people (roughly the same as that of Scotland) is a member of the EU, the Eurozone and NATO. In theory, it has a whole gang of big brothers who should be able to stand up to the playground bully on its behalf. In European terms, the issue is that the playground bully is bigger than the brothers. In NATO terms, the issue is that may be possible to stand up to the bully… but at the cost of destroying the playground.

In the old days, what you need to defend yourself was a castle. These days? Who knows.

In the old days, what you need to defend yourself was a castle. These days? Who knows.

The fighting analogy only goes so far though, because, as I’ve said, Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to roll tanks back into the streets of the former Czechoslovakia to make a point or to bring a country to heel. He just needs to turn off the taps. You don’t have to subject your own army to a freezing Central European winter to win… when you can subject the people you’re trying to exert influence over to it instead.

That’s only to mention imports from Russia, not exports to Russia. A nearby car manufacturing plant and its sub-contractor are the key local employers but around 100 people have already been laid off due to a combination of the sanctions imposed against Russia and the tit-for-tat nature of Russia’s reaction.

There is precious little support for Putin or his actions in this part of the world but there is genuine fear of them. The problem is that negotiations and stances will be led by Western Europe and America…while the people suffering in the front line will be the populations of Central and Eastern Europe.

As someone from Western Europe it can be sobering to visit museums or exhibitions telling the story of Central and Eastern Europe during WWII. We have a fairly clear picture of events. The Nazis were bad… but we defeated them and everybody lived happily ever after. A fuller picture would be that the Nazis were bad, we teamed up with Stalin to defeat them, he engineered things to leave the Soviets occupying or influencing half of Europe and lived out his days to a (probably) natural end, by which point he’d killed more people than Hitler.

The history of Central and Eastern Europe is that of being trapped between the power of Western Europe and Russia. They’re always the afterthought, always the negotiating pawn. If being married to a woman from a former Communist country has taught me anything (She would say it seems to have taught me nothing, I would say it’s taught me many things; for the sake of this example I’m going to say it’s taught me one thing.) it’s that you judge strength by the situation of the weakest, not that of the strongest.

When the Iron Curtain crumbled, the people of Central and Eastern Europe were sold a dream of Western life. Democracy would solve all and any issues would be dealt with by the protective powers of the countries attached to the lucrative open market. If that is to be the reality, it’s time to start protecting the vulnerable. Don’t sit back and imagine that Ukraine is a distant situation that doesn’t affect or that the countries it borders are pawns that can be used for our own moral negotiation.

World War II was a horrific chapter in world history. Let’s not make it retrospectively worse by failing to learn from it.

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