WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have expressed concern over democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe as it discusses ways to improve frayed ties with transatlantic allies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Representatives Bill Keating (Democrat-Massachusetts) and Dina Titus (Democrat-Nevada) told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on July 14 that leaders in former communist nations, including Poland and Hungary, have used the pandemic to consolidate power.
“We have seen human rights abuses. We have seen journalists attacked. We have seen a lot of this in Eastern Europe, and I am afraid we are going to be dealing with the impacts of democratic backsliding that has taken place during this virus for many years to come,” Titus told the hearing.
Titus also said she was “particularly concerned” about Ukraine reversing its reform agenda.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won in a landslide last year on a promise to fight corruption and attract foreign investment, fired his pro-reform government in March after six months. The central bank chief also stepped down this month after complaining of political pressure.
Rachel Ellehuus, a former official dealing with NATO policy at the Defense Department, told the subcommittee that Brussels could encourage democracy and the rule of law in its Eastern neighbors by tying EU stability funding to progress on those issues.
Addressing concerns over Ukraine, Ellehuus said the United States could coordinate with Poland, the Baltics, and other nations to “invest a significant amount of money there.”
Ukraine’s economy has struggled since 2014 following the forceful annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia and the outbreak of war in its eastern provinces between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists. The unrest has caused investment, both domestic and foreign, to whither.
James Carafano, a national security and foreign policy fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told the hearing that U.S. investments in energy infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe could not only give regional economic growth a boost but also enhance energy security in the face of Russian aggression.
The United States and the EU are promoting energy infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe that runs north to south to diversify supply options.
“That is potentially a new engine of economic activity that is really going to benefit all of Europe,” Carafano said of the infrastructure projects, adding that private companies are ready to invest.
The United States last year passed a bill that sets aside $1 billion in funding to support energy infrastructure projects in Central and Eastern Europe.
However, Carafano said the launch of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany would destroy the economic rationale for some of those projects under discussion.
Congress is now considering more sanctions against Nord Stream 2, which would double gas exports to Germany, to halt its completion. Russia is trying to finish the project, which is more than 90 percent built.
Keating said the House will discuss appropriation bills next week “with strong investments on the international front in many areas,” though he did not give more details.
The National Defense Authorization Act submitted to the House includes a provision to turn a Soviet-era air base in central Romania into a regional hub for the U.S. Air Force.
The experts said the coronavirus has weighed on already strained U.S.-EU relations. They called for more transatlantic cooperation on finding a cure for the virus as well as developing integrated supply chains for medical equipment that helps reduce their mutual dependence on China.
The United States and the EU have disagreed over a host of issues in recent years, including NATO funding, trade, climate change, and policy toward Iran.
The disagreements have intensified under President Donald Trump.
The pandemic, rather than enhancing cooperation, “has exposed just how bad relations have gotten,” Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund and a former National Security Council official, told the hearing.