How the War Changed the Political Perspective of Central Europe

The war in Ukraine has highlighted cardinal differences between democracy and autocracy. In reaction, citizens of Central European states started looking for closer relations with the West - but in the knowledge that the West is also divided on many issues.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shaking hands with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during their meeting in Kyiv
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) shaking hands with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (C) next to European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (L) during their meeting in Kyiv on 8 April 2022. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / www.president.gov.ua

“My Commission will be a geopolitical Commission committed to sustainable policies,” proclaimed Ursula von der Leyen, describing her new obligations as president of the European Commission in 2019. Her words were more a reference to her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker who had spoken about “a political Commission” than a declaration of political will.

Central Europe to West relations

But now, three years later, it is easy to notice that she was right in focusing on geopolitics. With the Russian aggression on Ukraine, this issue became more important than anybody expected only a few months ago. If the pandemic was seen as a shock to the rapid globalization of the world, the war became a real quake. This conflict meant that even the greatest supporters of the concept of the ‘end of history’ had to put on geopolitical glasses overnight. Von der Leyen, who announced this in 2019, predicted the coming trend well.

The war has yet forced another change in the assessment of reality – it has made everything black and white. Previously, it was possible to afford to be vague, to avoid harsh judgments. After 24 February, this became impossible. As Joe Biden described it in his State of the Union speech in March:

In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security. This is a real test. It’s going to take time

Joe Biden in his State of the Union 2022 speech

American president put it very simply, but Russian hostility against its neighbor changed global geopolitical dynamics and exposed the choices of successive countries. It is clearly seen especially in Central Europe – a region historically very vulnerable to turbulence in its neighborhood. What implications has the war had on CEE countries? The changes have gone further than anyone could have expected, especially in the context of geopolitical awareness.

Final choices

What has the war transformed? To get an idea of the scale of the change, it is first worth recalling how the situation looked before. This is well described by a European Council on Foreign Relations survey in September 2019. Respondents in 14 different European countries were asked whom their country should side with in the event of a conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Most answers were neutral. Generally, Europeans preferred not to name any side. But looking at the responses, the choice between the USA and Russia was not so obvious after all.

Only in Poland did a clear majority point to the United States – 33% of Poles favored the American side, only 6% Russian (45% answered “neither”). In Czechia, 23% of respondents preferred the American side, and 9% – Russian (59% stayed neutral).

In Romania – 17% pointed at the US, 5% at Russia (65% without declaration). 13% of Hungarians wanted to take the American side and 6% Russian, and in Germany, 12% of respondents declared the alliance with the United States and 7% with Russia (70% said “neither”).

In three countries – Slovakia, Greece, and Austria – more people preferred to take the Russian side than the American. Slovakian answers were particularly surprising as 20% of citizens of this country favored Russia and only 6% the US.

The eastern wind changes in Central Europe

After Russian aggression against Ukraine, this sentiment changed dramatically, demonstrating the influence of the black-and-white specter of war. As then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower put it: “In the final choice, a soldier’s pack is not so heavy as a prisoner’s chains.” When the final choice arrives, all countries start looking for allies who help them avoid the fate of being in chains.

What does this look like in reality? This is demonstrated by a GlobSec survey conducted after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. People living in Central European countries were asked if they saw their states as part of the West or part of the East. The most astonishing was the change in the perception of the geopolitical situation between this year and last year. For instance, in 2021, 47% of Lithuanians saw themselves as part of the West; in 2022, this percentage increased by 10%. In Czechia, this rise was even more significant – from 33% last year to 56% now.

The feeling of being part of the West went up as well in other countries, e.g., Latvia (from 39% to 49%), Hungary (from 32% to 38%), and Bulgaria (from 27% to 34%). The only CEE country which felt the opposite was Romania. Last year 43% of Romanians saw themselves as part of the West; this year, it is 27%. The other nine countries involved in this survey demonstrated their commitment to the West.

This reaction best demonstrates how much the years of communism made the countries of Central Europe aware of the threat from the East. Prior to that, years of relative calm had caused relativism to creep into the assessment of the situation. But as soon as the dust of war appeared on the horizon, the CEE countries immediately, even reflexively, turned towards their Western allies.

The cardinal difference between democracy and autocracy

This democratic instinct of states associated with the Three Seas Initiative is seen not only in the context of war. Tensions between democracy and autocracy (according to Joe Biden’s definition) had started before Russia attacked Ukraine. The brightest example of that trend was held during Winter Olympic Games in Beijing at the beginning of February this year.

On the sidelines of this sporting event, there was a meeting between Russian and Chinese leaders Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. In a joint communiqué afterward, they declared that “friendship between the two states has no limits” and there are “no forbidden areas of cooperation” between China and Russia.

“This is the cardinal difference between democracy and autocracy: even weak democratic governments are able to preserve their legitimacy, whereas the legitimacy of the autocrat depends on how strong the public perceives them to be,” wrote Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia in the “Financial Times.” The war in Ukraine significantly impacted the legitimacy of autocratic regimes, not only for Russia but also for China.

This is evident in a recent GlobSec survey. Respondents in 10 CEE countries were asked if the Chinese regime could be an inspiration for them – and it definitively proved that Beijing was not regarded as a dream model. For instance, only 6% of Poles, 8% of Czechs and Latvians, 22% of Hungarians, and 24% of Romanians treat China as an example worth following.

Central Europe to West relations strenghten

Clearly, these numbers are not impressive. But they look quite encouraging compared to the view of Russia in Central Europe. The GlobSec poll showed that 78% of Central Europeans have a negative perception of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And his image has broken down further over the last year. In 2021, 70% of Bulgarians saw him positively –now, this number sits at 29%. In Slovakia, his level of support decreased from 55% to 24%, and in Hungary – from 42% to 19%.

The same happened in Romania, where only 16% of citizens think of Putin positively; last year, it was 40%. In Czechia, his popularity went down from 24% to 4% and in Poland from 12% to merely 2%.  This slump in support is so powerful that it could be the starting point for a book called ‘How to lose all your friends in a year and surround yourself with enemies.’ Putin has proved that it is possible.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted cardinal differences between democracy and autocracy. In reaction, citizens of CEE states have started looking for closer relations with the West – but with the full knowledge that the West is also divided on many issues. This point was clear in the GlobSec survey when respondents were asked about the perception of different countries as strategic partners.

Russia – no longer a partner

In 2022, Russia is no longer seen as a strategic partner for obvious reasons. But the aggression against Ukraine has also diminished the level of support for Germany – and boosted the US’s ratings. For example, 55% of Estonians want to see the United States as their strategic partner; last year, this number sat at 49%.

At the same time, positive opinion about Germany decreased from 58% to 48%. In Romania, the level of support for the US went up from 47% to 75%, and for Germany, it went down from 42% to 19%. In Slovakia, approval for Germany is still high, but the trend looks similar. The perception of the US as a strategic partner increased from 17% to 29%, but the perception of Germany decreased from 64% to 56%.

This change in attitude towards the US and Germany has taken place even though Berlin – not Washington – plays a key role in European politics. The best proof of how much security issues can change perspectives. In moments of trial, they prove more critical than even the best-developed economic relations and the most vigorous trade. This trend is expected to shape politics in Central Europe in the coming years.

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