Opinion: Who’s losing ground in Eastern Europe and who’s playing the history card?

Opinion: Who’s losing ground in Eastern Europe and who’s playing the history card?

By Sabina Fati *

For the first time, the head of the Hungarian government Victor Orban is presenting maps that no longer correspond to the current borders, as defined by international treaties.

Russia began the game of redrawing its borders four years ago by annexing Crimea, with virtually no reaction from Ukraine or any major Western power. Since then, the regional balance has been shaken and Romania appears to be an “oasis of liberal democracy surrounded by dilemmatic states bearing old-fashioned authoritarian reflexes, which Russia has been trying to exploit to regain its influence in the Black Sea, the Balkans, in Central Europe”.

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban, posted on his Facebook page the map of his country, including the territories of Transylvania and Banat which until 1918 were administered by Budapest, under the pretext of the graduation exams in history, which take place in Hungary. In this way, the head of the Hungarian government is proving that the accusations fired by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis could only be true and that Hungary is impatiently eyeing Transylvania.

However, Victor Orban has something else to say; that history did not stop last century with the Trianon (1920) or Paris Treaty (1947), and that the Hungarian youth must not forget that during the last hundred years Hungary has always been the loser; but things could change, even if the borders remain the same. The strategy developed by Viktor Orban in recent years for the cross-border enlargement of the area inhabited by Hungarians is neither new nor contemporary; but now Romania has opened its gates, offering all the conditions, given that Bucharest has crossed the Prut River.

Hungary lost 70% of its territory during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and more than 60% of its population under the Trianon Treaty, which Budapest will be celebrating later this year. Two and a half million Hungarians were left on the other side of the border. For them, Hungary prepared, almost immediately, plans that would give them hope, that would preserve their nostalgia for the lost empire; plans that were valid for 100 years until today, when borders no longer seem to matter, because the European Union has become a land of free circulation.

The coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the dividing lines in the region and has encouraged relapses in history. Hungary is better prepared to achieve its goals, so she sent aid all across the Balkans where Hungarians can be found, and beyond. She came to the Republic of Moldova to prove that she can enter the space where Romania is competing with Russia.

Bucharest is more timid and, unlike Hungary, has no long-term strategy, neither on the other side of Prut nor with the rest of the neighbors. Romania seems to only want peace without any effort. She does not necessarily want to remove the Republic of Moldova from under Moscow’s wing, although with minimal investment she could provide to the small Republic its energy independence from Russia. The area beyond Prut has probably remained a good place where Romanian politicians collect votes, in exchange for symbolic gifts.

However, military bases in Romania, home to US troops with advanced weaponry, show a clear direction for long-term foreign policy. This is rather an indirect strategy to discourage possible Russian ambitions, given that Moscow would not dare to lead a hybrid scenario in an area where the Americans are settled, according to the Okkupert (“Occupied”) TV series model or the Berlin Station.

But while Romania is considering her future within the confines of her present, the states around her are developing broader visions or are carrying the desires of more prominent actors. In Serbia, near the border with Romania, there is a Russian military base, and last year Moscow sent high-performance missiles to Belgrade.

Then, amid a pandemic crisis, Bulgaria received a 40% discount on natural gas imported from Russia, while last year Moscow negotiated long-term entry visas with Bulgaria, a country where the Russian minority is growing and about half a million Russians have settled, according to various sources.

The chances of Serbia, the largest country in the Balkans, being accepted into the EU by 2025, are becoming more and more uncertain. Albania and the states of the former Yugoslavian region are even further behind, although Albania and North Macedonia are already NATO members.

The whole Balkan region is still fragile and has already become a hotbed of Chinese economic and Russian and Turkish political interests. After all, the Balkans have never been isolated, but instead, according to director of the Brussels Institute of International Affairs Nathaliei Tocci, “the danger is not that the Western Balkans are heading for a Chinese El Dorado, but that the region is sinking economically and democratically under the weight of an epidemic and the realities Covid-19 has shed light upon”.

Ukraine, which is in conflict with Russia, finds itself in a similar position. The country appears to have been abandoned by the West and will, at best, remain in a “zone of isolation” between the West and the East. Ukraine has tried in its long-term strategy to cut ties with Russia but wasn’t successful; furthermore, she differs from the surrounding states that have minorities in her territory, since she changed the use of the mother tongue to the detriment of minorities in schools. Romania has always suspected that Kiev wants to regain northern Bukovina, and the outcome of the negotiations on the area around the island of Insulei Șerprilor (Island of the Snake) in favor of Bucharest has been an argument in the minds of many Ukrainian nationalists.

There are therefore problematic states around Romania, with Russian enclaves in their territories (Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova) or with military bases funded by Moscow (Serbia), with authoritarian leaders and supporters of pro-Western proletarianism (Hungary) or policies (Bulgaria). The next zone includes Crimea, with the most militarized port in the Black Sea, that is, Sevastopol, Turkey, which aims to regain the sphere of influence it held a hundred years ago, and the complex Balkan region that has experienced throughout history poverty and the traditional balance between the East and the West.

In this changing territory, the West is in control for the time being, but Russia is lagging behind by using unorthodox means, hybrid methods, propaganda, important people in key positions to regain its influence in a space she believes belongs to her. /ibna

* Sabina Fati is an award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Romania