Prague, 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Concerned that Russia may lose some of its traditional markets in Eastern Europe, Moscow is now seeking a voice over the pace and pattern of any future expansion by the European Union.
Such a demand is likely to slow down that process still further and to undermine the calculations of those who had hoped to use membership in the EU as a surrogate for NATO security guarantees.
Speaking in Paris on Monday, Russian Minister Aleksandr Livshits said that Moscow does not oppose the growth of the European Union but simply wants to ensure that the process will "not harm the interests of Russia." Livshits, who currently coordinates Moscow's relations with the G-8, introduced a note of urgency, saying such talks must begin immediately because any delay will mean that they will be "too late."
In the past, Russian officials generally viewed EU expansion to the east in a more positive light. On the one hand, they regularly suggested that EU growth was far more benign than NATO expansion as far as Moscow was concerned. And on the other, some of them even suggested that Russian foreign trade might increase if there were EU states adjoining Russia's borders.
Now, Livshits' remarks suggest, Moscow has reexamined the situation. Not only do ever more Russian political figures appear to recognize that the external trade barriers maintained by the EU could harm Russia's economic interests, but they also have concluded that EU expansion could limit Moscow's political leverage in Eastern Europe.
Moreover, they have made another calculation as well: Having achieved a seat at the table of NATO in Brussels as a result of their objections to NATO expansion, they clearly have decided that they can do the same in the European Union by adopting the same tactics.
Such calculations are all the more likely to work out because Russian officials certainly understand that many countries now in the European Union are reluctant or even openly opposed to any growth of the EU anytime soon. Consequently, by calling for talks, Moscow can play on these divisions in the hopes of gaining both economic and political benefits.
But the most significant consequences of this Russian shift are likely to be felt elsewhere. Over the past few years, Western governments typically have viewed EU growth as a surrogate for NATO expansion. Indeed, some of them have argued that if the EU expands without Russian objection, the Western alliance may not have to and can thus avoid a break with Moscow.
That in turn has conditioned the foreign policies of several East European countries. Recognizing that NATO may not take them in as quickly as they had thought, these states have pinned their hopes on being included in the EU, a membership that would in their eyes provide a kind of soft security.
Moscow's new position calls all of this into question. NATO governments may now have to reexamine the pace of alliance expansion if they cannot count on the EU to move quickly, and East European countries that had counted on the EU may again become more insistent in seeking membership in NATO.
To the extent that happens, each of the participants in this diplomatic maneuvering may discover far more difficulties than any of them had expected. And these difficulties in turn will only be compounded by other, broader ones.
If Russia succeeds in slowing down EU expansion, both the Western alliance and the countries of Eastern Europe will be confronted by a stark choice: either to expand NATO at the risk of certain Russian anger or defer to Moscow by not extending any Western institutions into Eastern Europe.
And precisely because both the EU and NATO appear committed to avoiding such a choice, many in Eastern Europe are likely to see it as already having been made, a conclusion that could lead at least some of them to retreat into the kind of extreme nationalism they exhibited more than half a century ago or to reorient their foreign and domestic policies away from the West.
Either of these choices would likely make a bad situation even worse, but both are the likely products of the Russian efforts to involve Moscow in EU decision making.