The recent NATO summit in Vilnius was all about defending the alliance’s eastern border. From Estonia in the north all the way to Bulgaria in the south, NATO’s most tested and heavily militarized region could also prove the most fragile. It all comes down to politics.
The eight nations that make up NATO’s eastern flank are the most exposed to potential Russian aggression and to the effects of the war in Ukraine. They are also amongst NATO’s most diverse, from the stable and predictable north to the more politically chaotic south. Making sure these nations are in lockstep without politics getting in the way of regional security is a matter of survival.
Europe’s vulnerable frontiers
Ever since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union, the Baltic nations have been a model of democratic stability. Estonia, which is at the forefront of the region’s democratic accomplishments, shares a 183-mile border with Russia. On the southern side, Lithuania has a 171-mile border with Russia’s exclave Kaliningrad, which mostly cuts the Baltics off from the rest of NATO. These geographically vulnerable democracies know what’s at stake given the current crisis in Ukraine.
For Eastern Europe, the Ukrainian tragedy strikes a deep chord not only because of its proximity but because stories of Soviet occupation are still entrenched in the public mindset. Eastern Europeans have rightly won plaudits for welcoming Ukrainians fleeing war and offering continued assistance to Ukraine.
According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Eastern European nations top the list of countries committing aid to Ukraine as a share of their own gross domestic product (GDP). The small Baltic nation of Estonia has offered the most to Ukraine by GDP share; Latvia ranks second.
It is this very push that is slowly changing the face of the European Union, with Eastern Europe at its vanguard. In short, Eastern Europe has proven to be a moral leader in this crisis. But goodwill, favorable public opinion and military assistance are not enough. Internal politics needs to deliver, too.
Corruption is widespread and getting worse
Unfortunately, the farther south you go in Eastern Europe, the less stable internal affairs get.
According to Freedom House, Poland’s democracy has been backsliding due to partisan influence over state institutions. A key NATO ally, Poland has been criticized over the last few years for its policies that undermine the rule of law. A country’s defense is only as strong as its institutions, and creeping authoritarian tendencies are not reassuring for NATO’s strongest eastern partner in a time of great need.
Hungary follows suit. Viktor Orbán’s cabinet has been pounding the country’s democratic institutions for years now. The populist government in Budapest has been pushing for chummy relations with Putin. Its potential to disrupt EU and NATO affairs is significant. Since both systems require unanimity, via Hungary, Russia and China nearly have a seat at the decision-making table in Brussels.
Move further southeast and things continue to get dicey. Romania shares the longest border with Ukraine of any EU or NATO member state. The country has had its fair of internal woes, from the government backtracking on its pledge to curb corruption, to declining press freedom.
Romania has tried and failed to join the Schengen Area, the borderless free movement zone of the EU. Schengen is crucial because it not only provides freedom of movement but also security. Schengen regulations help curb everything from organized crime to smuggling and terrorism.
Romania may get even further away from joining Schengen if it fails to secure its border with Ukraine. This border has proven to be the most lucrative in terms of smuggling and illicit trade in the entire EU as Romania remains the country worst hit by cigarette smuggling in the European Union.
Stop Contrabanda, a website monitoring contraband cigarette busts, reported that 110 million contraband cigarettes were seized by the Romanian authorities in 2022 alone. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; many more hundreds of millions of euros worth of fake cigarettes evade being seized by authorities, as recent investigations show.
Bucharest recently announced its intent to suddenly raise taxes and prices, for the third time this year, on various sectors including the tobacco industry most prone to contraband. This will only lead to an increase in the smuggling of cheaper, more harmful fake cigarettes and other illicit goods. The European Anti-Fraud Office has been sounding the alarm on the manifold risks of illicit trade.
A surge in contraband will lead to new smuggling routes being opened, routes which end up being used not only by smugglers but also by organized crime, weakening the EU and NATO’s border during a time of conflict.
Mixed news from Bulgaria
Things are currently beginning to look up for Bulgaria, Romania’s southern neighbor, which has seen no fewer than five parliamentary elections held over the last two years. The country has been on a political rollercoaster, and its security approach has been following suit. From a rather shy supporter of Ukraine to one of its most important allies. Bulgaria has internally fluctuated between pro-Western and pro-Kremlin politicians, which is a liability.
Given these sensitivities and the many elections over a short period of time, there has been a lot of uncertainty as to where Bulgaria really stands regarding the war in Ukraine. Fortunately, a recent investigation by the German daily Die Welt revealed that Bulgaria, although the poorest country in the EU, has punched well above its weight when it comes to helping out Ukraine and has proven amongst its most reliable partners.
For NATO to prevail in securing its member states and allies, unity and predictability need to be more than an encouraging slogan. Governments need to act to ensure internal stability and rule of law. Some do indeed a better job than others, but with a war raging next door, that may not suffice.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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