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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- EU, NATO, European Divisions

Washington, 17 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The expansion of the European Union could divide Europe even more than the expansion of NATO, not only exacerbating existing international tensions but possibly creating new ones as well.

And to the extent that proves to be the case, often-heard suggestions that EU expansion could serve as a surrogate for the security that NATO expansion would definitively provide may prove ill-founded. Indeed, the expansion of the EU could under certain circumstances create security problems which the Western defense alliance might have to cope with.

This somewhat unexpected conclusion is suggested both by the comments of a Kaliningrad political leader and even more by the outcome of a Monday meeting between a delegation from the European Commission, the EU's executive body, and senior Russian officials in Moscow.

Speaking to a Western reporter recently, Sergei Pasko, the leader of a pro-business party in Kaliningrad, said, "It's not NATO expansion we're afraid of, but EU expansion." And he gave compelling reasons for his conclusion.

On the one hand, if as seems likely Lithuania follows Poland into the European Union, Pasko's region of Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous portion of the Russian Federation that once was part of Germany but is now populated largely by ethnic Russians, would find itself surrounded by EU states, a situation that would make trade across its borders far more difficult.

On the other, if Kaliningrad tries to extricate itself from that situation, it faces few good options. Most officials in Moscow would likely oppose giving Kaliningrad either the autonomy or the free trade zone status that might allow it to take advantage of being a neighbor of EU states.

At the same time, few in the Russian capital appear likely to be willing or able to provide Kaliningrad with the subsidies it would need to overcome its current economic and social difficulties.

And that combination could convert Kaliningrad into a security flashpoint in Eastern Europe, either by setting the stage for demands by Kaliningrad residents for greater autonomy or independence than Moscow would accept or by creating conditions that might prompt Germany, Poland and Lithuania to expand their roles in the region.

But the potential problems created by European Union expansion are not limited to Kaliningrad. Indeed, the potential for such problems elsewhere was highlighted by a meeting in Moscow Monday between Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak and Ottokar Hahn, the head of a delegation from the EU executive.

While both sides put the best face on the situation, each was careful to point out that the EU and the Russian Federation will have to approach one another with extreme care if they are to avoid problems.

Bulgak stressed in his closing statement that "the problems that exist in relations between Russia and the EU can be resolved without detriment to their respective interests" only if the two sides work "in full compliance with the spirit and letter" of their cooperation agreement.

The Russian official indicated that Moscow was especially concerned about being frozen out in any way from the sale of Russian energy to European markets. But while he did not say in public, Bulgak and others in Moscow may also be very concerned about restrictions on the flow of labor and citizens as well.

One reason for thinking that issue is very much on Russian minds was a statement on the same day by Germany's Deputy Foreign Minister Guenter Verheugen. He noted that EU countries are prepared to extend visa-free travel to the Baltic countries precisely because the latter have strong border controls along their eastern frontiers.

The European Union has made such controls a requirement for closer integration, and those countries that want to join have willingly agreed to it. But such border controls which allow free movement within the EU also have the effect of limiting movement into the EU. And that in turn affects EU relations with Russia and other post-Soviet states.

In various commentaries over the last several years, Russian officials have generally viewed the eastern expansion of the EU as a positive development for Russian interests. Indeed, they have suggested that a Russia-EU border would work to Moscow's advantage even as they have argued that a Russia-NATO border would be destabilizing.

But these more recent developments suggest that at least some in Moscow may now see the EU expansion in a different light, one far less favorable and more likely to spark conflict than they or others had earlier assumed.