283. East Europe in the Middle East: Contributions and Challenges

By
Ronald Linden

Ronald Linden is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Meeting Report 283.

Involvement in the Middle East is not something new for the states of East Europe, especially those in southeast Europe, such as Bulgaria and Romania. During the communist period both countries traded extensively with Iraq and Libya, whose regimes were not receptive to Western countries. Bulgarian and Romanian involvement in the Middle East now comes, not as supporters of a putative struggle against Western imperialism or exploitation, but as allies in a security—based struggle against tyranny and terrorism. Moreover, it is the US—more than any European ally—that is determining the terms of that struggle and demanding contributions, including from new allies. Although the East European allies have seemed more eager than most to contribute to the US-led coalition, these new circumstances and demands set up unique challenges to the new allies in East Europe.

Contributions
Militarily, the contributions of Romania and Bulgaria to the Middle East are marginal. Both countries sent small contingents to Afghanistan and later to Iraq, where they are operating under Polish command. Their chief contribution to this aspect of the struggle in the Middle East and South Asia lies in their capacities to offer logistical support because of their location. The Michael Kogalniceanu air base in Constanta, Romania and the Sarafovo air base in Bulgaria provided an air bridge for equipment and personnel transfers to both regions of conflict. Though intense activity was short-lived, it can be expected that as the focus of NATO and US military action shifts toward the Middle East, the alliance will continue to expect these facilities to be available.

The symbolic significance of these countries joining the US effort should not be forgotten or underestimated. In the international arena—especially in the Security Council in which Bulgaria held a seat—unequivocal support from Europe was not in evidence. Having several allies from the ‘new' Europe, in addition to support from Great Britain and Spain, bolstered support for the US case.

But unlike the traditional allies from West Europe, most of the East European states had extensive, recent knowledge of the conditions and people in the countries of the Middle East, especially in those that had held hostile views of the US and its Western allies for some time, such as Iraq, Libya and Iran. For instance, before the revolutions in East Europe, Iraq had been among Romania's top 10 trading partners. Recently, Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana claimed that Romania had built one-third of Iraq's economy and installed more than half of the country's technical infrastructure. In the reconstruction of Iraq it is likely that such ties and experience could be helpful.

Bulgaria and Romania can also contribute their recent experience with regime change and democracy building to the current effort in Iraq. While there are limitations to any direct analogies, more than one Romanian has noted the similarity between the regimes of Nicolae Ceausescu and that of Saddam Hussein. The populations in both of these countries know something about the trauma of extended totalitarian rule followed by a sharp and unexpected end, bringing high levels of uncertainty. At the same time, people in both countries held high and usually unrealistic expectations about their immediate future, leading to some disillusion and discontent. In the realm of post-revolution governance, the revolutions of 1989 in East Europe and the democratizing process since then demonstrate the importance of the legitimacy of follow-on government. People in countries undergoing regime change need to feel that their new leaders not only have the power but the legitimacy to be in positions of power.

A related point is that when new governments fall into disfavor, as they inevitably do in times of difficult economic and social transition, there must be available—and perceived to be available—mechanisms for changing the government. As Adam Przeworski famously observed, democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. A key moment in the transition in Bulgaria, for example, was the outbreak of large-scale demonstrations against the socialist government in early 1997. Instead of producing chaos and violent upheaval, this movement produced new elections and a new government.

There is much to be learned, both positive and negative, from the transitions to democracy in East Europe. For example, the region has seen the creation of representative institutions, flourishing civil society, organization and inclusion of a variety of interest groups and—with the notable exception of Yugoslavia—the absorption into the representation and governing process of large and previously aggrieved ethnic groups. On the negative side, the experience of several of the southeastern European states offers cautionary tales about pitfalls that can affect transitional states, especially those that undermine confidence and trust in government. One is the creation of institutions that appear to be forms of national or democratic government but are in fact hollow, either because they are ineffective, having little real power, or because they systematically skew political preferences toward an entrenched elite. Economically, transfers of state resources will be crucial in Iraq, as it was in East Europe. Thus the privatization process, which varied across East Europe, can also offer guidance on what to do and what to avoid. In the latter category might fall the rapid mass privatization attempted in Czechoslovakia and the process in Romania that people there refer to as din noi, la noi (from us to us). Among the most serious issues to arise in the region, and one that threatens both economic and democratic transition, is widespread governmental and private corruption. It is repeatedly identified as one of the key issues by publics in East Europe and, though it is not a new phenomenon here or elsewhere, its pernicious effect is significant on systems that are going to depend on public trust.

Some elements of the changes in East Europe will not be directly relevant to the region. Among these is the impact of ‘joining Europe.' The desire of the public and elites to accomplish this stimulated and allowed a range of difficult changes to begin in East Europe. Both NATO and the EU have been able to use the lure of membership and acceptance into Europe as powerful levers to produce changes in institutions and practices in economic policy, democratic governance and defense policy. Such an inducement is not likely to be in play, however, in the Middle East, though there has been at least one proposal to offer NATO membership to Egypt, Israel and Iraq.

Challenges
Needless to say, the states of East Europe have not achieved everything they promised, nor have they done everything West European organizations want from them. But in terms of Middle East policy, acting as part of Europe brings its own serious challenges. For the new allies in East Europe, ‘joining Europe' has developed from a relatively straightforward, low-cost choice to a potentially costly one internationally and domestically. Contributing militarily to the EU or NATO roles in the Middle East have put few demands on the East European states, largely because the European role there has been minimal. Even the creation of the EU's own rapid reaction force, whose role outside of Europe has yet to be determined, is in its very early stages. It is likely that new EU members, such as Poland or the Czech Republic, will be able to meet whatever obligations stem from this force without difficulty. Romanian and Bulgarian obligations will come only after their membership is achieved, currently set for 2007.

Such contributions are not likely to affect East European countries' abilities to contribute to ongoing NATO missions, though this will depend on the nature of such missions and the expectations held by both the US and Europe. For Romania and Bulgaria what is likely to continue is the expectation of logistical support (bases) for either EU or NATO action. This is not likely to be burdensome.

Before 9/11 and for a time thereafter, the contributions of East European countries to joint US-European actions were largely confined to providing forces for SFOR or KFOR. There were international political challenges involved, e.g., incurring the displeasure of Moscow by prohibiting overflights, and in both Romania and Bulgaria there was domestic opposition to support for the US in the war against Serbia. But support for the US-led effort in Afghanistan was relatively unproblematic politically because the rest of Europe was united both symbolically (the invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty) and in real terms (provision of support and eventual NATO control of some operations in Afghanistan).

The difference now is that Europe itself is divided and, even more important, is partly divided as well from the United States. Thus for the East European states, it is no longer clear what it means to ‘join Europe.' Which Europe? That of Great Britain and Spain—which strongly support the US action in Iraq and the preemptive policy that it signifies—or that of Germany and France—traditionally much closer to the East Europeans, who forcefully oppose both the general policy and the specific action in Iraq?

In the case of US action in the Middle East, at least as regards Iraq, the new allies have been forced to make an either-or choice. The problem is more acute for Romania and Bulgaria than it is for the Czech Republic or Poland for two reasons. First, the latter two states are already in NATO and have their invitations to join the EU. Thus the EU cannot credibly chastise or threaten them as French President Chirac did Bulgaria and Romania, which are farther behind in the queue. Second, both Bulgaria and Romania, because of their locations, are squarely in the path of any US (or NATO) action in the Middle East, in Iraq or elsewhere. That means that the US will likely continue to force a very public choice on them, as it did with Turkey. For Romania and Bulgaria, more than for any of the other ‘new allies,' engaging terrorism forcefully in the Middle East means action in their own neighborhoods. To the extent that NATO's orientation follows that of the US and turns toward this region, Bulgaria and Romania will be center stage. To the extent that NATO is united, the political cost will be lessened for these countries. When the European house is itself divided, new guests will have to choose on which floor to stay.

Finally, engagement with (or against) Europe in the Middle East will pose an additional challenge, perhaps one with which East Europe is less familiar: the challenge of formulating and executing a democratic foreign policy, one on which attentive publics will pass judgment. This is not a crippling challenge as evidenced by the fact that both the Romanian and Bulgarian governments supported the US in Serbia despite domestic opposition. Though both governments subsequently lost elections, the evidence suggests that foreign policy played only a minor role in those elections compared to domestic issues. Still, supporting missions in Kosovo and Bosnia did not involve stationing large numbers of foreign troops on home territory. Nor did it involve putting soldiers into the middle of a shooting war. This is true for East European forces involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq and is particularly unpopular in Bulgaria, where public support for joining NATO is at a level below that in Romania and below the level of support for joining the EU. In Bulgaria, there is another consideration not present in Romania or any of the other East European states, that is, the presence of a large Muslim population. While Turkish and decidedly secular, this population could pose a challenge to any government too supportive of an aggressive policy on the Middle East, due to solidarity with the national homeland (Turkey) or because they fear being targets of domestic or international terrorism policy. Already, Bulgarian leaders have been obliged to assert the peacefulness and support of the Bulgarian Muslim population.

For the East European states, the need to make adjustments in policy and politics in order to join the Western alliances is not unexpected. Nor is the expectation to become, insofar as possible, net contributors to the creation of the alliances' public goods. But the nature of this new contribution, and the specific challenges it brings with it—especially the uncomfortable pressure to choose among allies—is both unexpected and, in a complex and rapidly changing environment, difficult to calculate with confidence.

 

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