By Jacob L. Shapiro
In Eastern Europe, events that may seem disconnected are often intertwined, even ones that at first glance don’t seem that important. This week, there were three developments that together are signs of changes that, over time, will reshape this region and beyond. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko said in his annual address to the nation that the country was not ready for a more equitable distribution of power and would not follow the path of Armenia, where the prime minister resigned this week following protests. In Turkey, pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will hold a campaign rally in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on May 20. And in Poland and Lithuania, a two-day economic forum was held and included participants from both governments.
Let’s start with the remarks from the Belarusian president. Belarus is Russia’s only remaining reliable partner in Eastern Europe, and even that relationship is not without its problems. Belarus, after all, wants what all Eastern European nations want – self-determination not just in name but in practice. But Belarus isn’t strong enough to resist Russia, and Russia cannot afford to loosen its grip on Belarus. For Russia, Belarus is of immense psychological and strategic importance. Losing Kiev in 2014 was a major blow, but Russia managed to cover up its deficiencies by seizing Crimea, supporting separatists in Donbass and demonstrating Russian greatness in Syria. Losing Minsk would not be as easily whitewashed.
Belarus is a crucial buffer state between Russia and would-be Western invaders. Smolensk, the preferred Napoleonic and Nazi invasion paths to Moscow, lies just 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the Belarusian border. For Russia, it’s an annoyance that the U.S. has deployed military assets to Poland, some 350 miles from the Russian border; it would be a threat to its very existence if Belarus were integrated into a U.S.-led, anti-Russia alliance and troops were placed close to this key land bridge to Moscow between the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. This is why the threat of Armenia-style protests in Belarus is so worrying for Moscow and its ally Lukashenko. But if it can happen in Armenia, Russia’s most stalwart friend in the South Caucasus, Lukashenko fears it could happen in his country too.
As for Turkey, the announcement of a political rally in Sarajevo comes on the heels of last week’s electoral drama. After the Nationalist Movement Party, a partner in the governing coalition, called for elections, likely with Erdogan’s blessing, Erdogan quickly moved to set early presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24. He may doubt his ability to win re-election if he has to wait until 2019. The performance of Turkey’s economy in recent years under Erdogan’s stewardship has been lackluster, and Turkey is routinely identified as being at risk for a significant downturn. (Just last month, Moody’s downgraded Turkish sovereign debt to two notches below investment grade.) There were also widespread protests in Turkey last week over the government’s use of the state of emergency – which has been in place since the 2016 coup attempt – to continue rounding up persons of interest.
Around this time last year, Turkey was in the throes of another highly contested vote – a constitutional referendum that narrowly passed and that will give more powers to whoever wins the June 24 election. Erdogan’s penchant for holding rallies in foreign countries with large Turkish populations has inflamed Turkey’s relations with European countries, and some have already banned Erdogan’s party from holding political rallies in their countries this time around. Turkish expats tend to support Erdogan and also play to Erdogan’s base – a nationalist firebrand is only as good as his vision is compelling. Turkey has been forging stronger political and economic ties with Balkan countries, and a rally in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Ottomans once reigned, is both powerful imagery for Erdogan’s re-election bid and an indicator that Turkey’s position in southern Europe is growing stronger.
Finally, the Polish-Lithuanian economic forum brought together senior politicians and business elites from both countries. It is notable that both the Polish and Lithuanian governments gave this forum their blessing. The two countries are united in their distrust of Russia, which directly ruled both in the past, but Lithuania also has an inherent distrust of Poland. Lithuania is a small country with a population of just under 3 million, and as such, it is susceptible to foreign domination not just from the east but also from the west. Poland is both an important ally for Lithuania against Russia and a potential threat to Lithuanian independence.
As a result, the relationship between the two countries has hardly been seamless. The memory of Poles and Lithuanians fighting for control of the Vilnius region after World War I has not faded away with time. Poles are the largest minority group in Lithuania, accounting for just under 7 percent of the total population and, according to the most recent Lithuanian census (2011), 52 percent of the Greater Vilnius District Municipality in southeast Lithuania. Lithuania wants to assimilate this minority, but the Polish government has at times objected to policies aimed at the Polish minority that it sees as discriminatory. If Poland is to establish a stronger position in Eastern Europe, it needs a strategy to deal with countries like Lithuania that are not interested in trading the specter of Russian domination for subservience to Poland. Mutually beneficial, government-sponsored economic ties are as good a place to start as any.
Together, these three seemingly unconnected developments offer a peek at the emerging strategic realities that will define Eastern Europe’s future: a weaker Russia, an ambitious Turkey and a powerful Poland. Russia’s inability to secure its strategic imperatives will continue to play out in its buffer states. Turkey will face its internal demons at the same time that it projects power into its old Ottoman stomping grounds. And Poland will evolve from a doormat on the North European Plain to a genuine regional power capable not just of survival but of shaping its strategic environment. None of this will happen overnight or in secret, but most change doesn’t. Change most often happens at a glacial pace and in front of our eyes, if we can open them wide enough to see it.