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Mar 4, 2003 | 21:25 GMT

12 mins read

The New Voice of 'New Europe'

Former Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus was elected president by parliamentary vote on Feb. 28. The true significance of the event is not Klaus' ascendancy, but the departure of his predecessor, Vaclav Havel. Havel's final exit from the political stage heralds the transfer of Central European leadership — not to Klaus, but to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. The shift will reshape Central Europe's relations with the current European Union states, Russia and the United States.
In the third round of voting on Feb. 28, the Parliament of the Czech Republic selected former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus president. As in the other Central European states, it is the prime minister who truly runs the government in the Czech Republic. But while the presidency is largely a ceremonial position, it holds a great deal of moral authority and plays a significant role in shaping policy and affecting domestic and foreign public opinion. The Czech Republic After Havel Klaus replaces Vaclav Havel, who retired earlier in the month after steering the modern Czech Republic through the entirety of its post-Soviet existence. Havel was synonymous with modern Bohemia: In 1990, he helped to spark the Velvet Revolution when, standing in the streets of Prague, he demanded that the Soviet-installed Communist authorities relinquished power — and they did. In 1993, he was the voice of reason that helped guide Czechoslovakia through the Velvet Divorce, quite possibly the world's — and certainly Europe's — least traumatic secession. Havel leaves office with the Czech Republic a NATO member, and with the country's invitation to join the European Union firmly in hand. Following Havel is a daunting task, but one Klaus relishes. Klaus considers himself Havel's rival — ideologically, professionally and personally. An unapologetic Euroskeptic, Klaus' current support of EU membership is decidedly bereft of fervor. In the not-so-distant past, he served as a lightning rod for passionate opposition to EU membership. His re-emergence comes at an awkward time for Prague: One of the Czech president's primary responsibilities before the country joins the EU in June 2004 will be to smooth over any last-minute problems, a task that includes rallying last-minute support from the Czech citizenry before the mandatory referendum on the issue. However, the biggest effect the changing of the guard in Prague will have will not concern the Czech Republic, but all of Central Europe. Havel is the last in a group of leaders who forged the entities of the former Soviet bloc — or at least the European portion of it — into independent states. His skills in smoothing both the Soviet pullout and the Czechoslovakian breakup earned the passionate yet soft-spoken poet/playwright-cum-president the kudos of both Europe and the United States. He also became the unofficial spokesman for all of the newly freed states of the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, from Estonia to Bulgaria. Klaus is stepping into some very big shoes. But because he is so out of sync with the government and the Czech political mainstream, where all major parties are firmly pro-EU, his election effectively ends the Czech president's role as spokesman for Central Europe. Diplomacy, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and someone eventually must step forward to fill it. At this point, the most likely person to step forward as the focal point for Central European politics is Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Until recently, STRATFOR considered Vike-Freiberga simply one among many, and certainly someone who trailed in Havel's shadow. But in February, she made her mark and now is rapidly emerging as the new political bonding agent for Central Europe. The Field of Contenders Many other candidates for the job are rather uninspiring. Estonia's Arnold Rüütel, Lithuania's Rolandas Paksas, Hungary's Ferenc Mádl, Slovenia's Janez Drnovšek or Bulgaria's Georgi Parvanov are simply either too new or too forgettable. The only other Central European president with a regional presence is Romania's Ion Iliescu. Unfortunately for Iliescu, Romania is a laggard in the EU accession process — not expected to gain membership until 2007 — making it difficult for him to be a convincing regional leader. It doesn't hurt that Vike-Freiberga has more tenure than any of these politicians. She has a clear advantage over Slovakia's Rudolf Schuster and Poland's Aleksandr Kawsniewski, the only two presidents who have held office as long or longer than she has. Schuster spends almost as much time in an Austrian hospital as he does tending to his duties, and the only reason that the bulk of the Slovak political elite threw their support to him was to keep former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar out of the limelight. That leaves Vike-Freiberga's only true competitor: Kwasniewski. The Polish president has been in office since 1995, four years longer than Vike-Freiberga, but he has become woefully distracted at a critical period. Kwasniewski currently is dealing with yet another Polish government crisis: The ruling coalition broke apart on March 1, leaving Warsaw with a minority government just a few short months before a crucial referendum on EU membership. The party booted out of power, the Peasants Party, is one of a small handful of Polish parties that actually opposes EU membership. This puts Kwasneiwski under heavy pressure to attend to domestic issues. By the time he again is able to pay substantial attention to the rest of the world, Vike-Freiberga most likely will have risen to the top of the heap. The New Voice of "New Europe" In early February, 10 Central European states — including Latvia — stressed their solidarity with the United States against Iraq. The response from France was swift and visceral: On Feb. 18, President Jacques Chirac called the joint statements "childish," "irresponsible" and "dangerous," and said the Central European states "missed a great opportunity to shut up." He then proceeded to obliquely threaten to deny them EU membership. The insulting statements were not kindly received by the EU applicants. None of the regional leaders expressed anything resembling agreement or solidarity with Chirac, and words such as "emotional" and "inappropriate" circulated widely. But it was from Vike-Freiberga that the real return salvos were launched: The Latvian president bluntly said, "We certainly have seen the results of appeasement ... It's much easier to tolerate a dictator when he's dictating over somebody else's life and not your own." When several warned her that she was playing with fire — France could veto Latvian accession into both NATO and the EU — Vike-Freiberga responded, "We did stick our neck out, and we will not pull it back." She added, "My predecessor in 1939 hoped to keep a low profile, and it didn't work."
Her comments were warmly welcomed in London. Vike-Freiberga always has been considered a bit of a loose cannon, particularly in the rather sedate world of Nordic politics. But it was in her response to Chirac that she ceased to be one in a crowd of politicians, with Western media referring to "Vike-Freiberga and her fellow Central European presidents" instead of rattling off a few of them at random. Many supporters and critics already have labeled her the Margaret Thatcher of the Baltics. Vike-Freiberga was on a roll during her Feb. 15-20 visit to Washington, where she proved an instant hit with the Bush administration for her steadfast support for a strong U.S. presence in NATO and Europe. She clearly explained that Riga stood with the United States regardless of what Paris said. In her habitual way of making not-so-veiled references, this time to France's appeasement policies of the 1930s, she said, "I don't think we can find security by hiding away in a 'hidey-hole.' In our history, we have learned that our only chance for real security is standing with our allies, and hoping they will stand by us." That stance already has earned Latvia some American patronage. Most Latvians, and particularly the nationalistic Vike-Freiberga, consider Russia their primary adversary. Russia's oil transport monopoly, Transneft, has cut off all oil supplies to the Latvian oil port of Ventspils as part of its ongoing pressure to force Riga to sell the port to Transneft. Despite the current warmth between Moscow and Washington, Bush in mid-February delivered a cold warning to Moscow to stop bullying Latvia on energy issues. The fact that Vike-Freiberga, president of a country with a population of 2.4 million and with zero strategic depth, was able to actually meet with Bush and elicit such a strong statement of support has not been lost on Riga, Brussels or Moscow. Nor has it been lost on the rest of Central Europe. All of the region's states — with the exception of Slovenia — have an ax to grind with Russia. That Vike-Freiberga is not afraid to embarrass people when she feels it is appropriate is a refreshing — and for many, appealing — characteristic in a regional leader. That she is fluent in English and French from her years as a psychology professor in Quebec doesn't hurt either. Central Europe: The Case for Cooperation Overall, the demeanor of the Latvian president has proven quite popular within Central Europe, even if the pro-war stance has not. The reason is simple: Vaclav Klaus and his ilk may not share Vike-Freiberga's Atlanticist or European proclivities, but they certainly won't stand for France's put downs any more than Vike-Freiberga will. That goes for the entire region. If anything, Chirac's statements only banded the Central Europeans into a tighter association. This association will make the job of seeking out common Central European stances much easier than it was. When Havel became president in 1990, the only common denominator among Central European states was their occupation by Soviet forces. Vike-Freiberga plays upon this legacy adroitly before Latvians and the wider Central European audience: She asserts that Latvia is entitled to reclaim its "rightful place on the continent," and that "the Baltics must become a member of the EU if Europe is to be free and democratic in the 21st century, as it should have been 100 years ago." For Vike-Freiberga, membership in NATO and the EU is a means to an end —it's about gaining the ability to deal with Russia from a position of strength. But while Vike-Freiberga can still draw upon that common Soviet legacy, the past 13 years brought other shared experiences that, if anything, are even more binding. All of the Central European states have striven or continue to strive to join the same organizations: the EU, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The fact that they are all on the same path has provided endless opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. The most selective of these clubs, the EU, has proven the most extensive bonding experience of them all. The accession process has often been likened to instruction and colonialism rather than to advice and assistance. This has pushed Central European diplomats and technocrats to exchange notes aggressively after each meeting with their EU counterparts. The result has been a practical partnership that serves all of Central Europe well and causes many EU states to worry that the potential members will work as a bloc once they enter the Union. That is a reasonable concern. With the exception of Slovenia, all of the Central European states will qualify for extensive regional development aid and subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy. Moreover, all are closer geographically — and to their collective chagrin, historically — to Russia than nearly all of the current EU states. That makes them all much more willing to side with the United States than France on security issues. On this issue, as on so many others, Vike-Freiberga is a forceful spokesperson for the region. … But No Vaclav Havel Vike-Freiberga's gung-ho strategy couldn't be less like Havel's calm, collected oratory — but for the region, the era of waiting humbly at Europe's door has passed. With firm invitations for EU and NATO membership in hand for most of the region's states, the question now is how to use their new positions to carve out the best possible futures for themselves. Their common past and purpose — personified by Vike-Freiberga — will make achieving that goal more likely. It is this reality that lies at the root of France's fear of future isolation. That said, Vike-Freiberga certainly has her weaknesses. While her role in resurrecting lost Latvian culture makes her a card-carrying nationalist, she — unlike Havel — was living safely in Canada during the bulk of the Cold War. Despite having been born in Latvia and spending part of her child as a refugee, never having lived behind the Iron Curtain robs her of crucial legitmacy from the get-go. But her greatest weakness is in her passionate opposition to what she identifies as her country's greatest foe: Russia. Twelve years after independence, ethnic Russians still comprise 30 percent of the Latvian population, a factor that Vike-Freiberga considers an "unnatural demographic profile" that is a "heritage of occupation." Her stance has drawn criticism about Latvia's treatment of the Russian minority. It doesn't help that Vike-Freiberga labels those who campaign for Russian rights in Latvia as "people who still have dreams of Russian domination." This anti-Russian sentiment is both Vike-Freiberga's greatest tool and greatest weakness. It will assure her broad support in Central Europe and the United States, because it will guarantee a firm U.S. presence in Europe for years to come. But it will do little for efforts to forge a stronger relationship between the EU and the Russian Federation. For most of the EU, Russia is an energy supplier and a reality that must be dealt with rather than ignored or wished away. For Central Europe, Russia is a former master whose influence needs to be minimized. Vike-Freiberga may be able to harness the latter sentiment to create a stronger position for Central Europe, but it will be at the cost of constant friction with her new European partners further west. Considering the mismatch between populous, rich Western Europe and smaller, poorer Central Europe, it isn't an easy fight. But under the voting provisions of the EU's Nice Treaty, the Central European states will be able to derail any policy they do not particularly like. Vike-Freiberga may be truthful when she says, "It is not a divided Europe that we want to enter," but her instinctive stance on Russia — no matter how logical or justified it may seem — will contribute to the very split in Europe that Chirac's insults so clearly laid bare.
The New Voice of 'New Europe'

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