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Can NATO save eastern Europe?

Sabina Fati
July 1, 2022

NATO can protect its eastern European members against a Russian attack — but not against their own internal problems. And these are an increasing threat, warns DW's Romania correspondent, Sabina Fati.

A soldier in the prow of a small boat, out of focus, gazes across a turquoise sea at an oil platform in the distance
NATO troops are now engaged in protecting Romanian infrastructure in the Black SeaImage: Mihai Barbu/AFP/Getty Images

In NATO's Strategic Concept 2022, Russia is mentioned 14 times and China 11. This strong focus on the dangerous alliance between Moscow and Beijing highlights the fact that NATO heads of state and government are well aware of the impending risks for which they must urgently prepare.

NATO's eastern flank is to be strengthened in several ways. Poland and Romania will be upgraded to essential pillars of NATO in eastern Europe. Troops under direct U.S. command will be moved to the region in order to contain Russia. NATO will also remain open to new members and now describes the western Balkans and the Black Sea as "strategically important."

Political instability and loyalty problems

NATO's new Strategic Concept emphasizes that the alliance cannot rule out the possibility of an attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its individual members. The document presents the abyss on the edge of which Europeans — and not only Europeans — are standing. Syria, North Korea and Russia have already used chemical weapons in recent times; China and Iran are covertly developing nuclear capabilities; dangerous non-governmental players continue to arm themselves.

Close-up of a woman with short blonde hair and brown eyes, wearing red lipstick and dangly earrings
DW correspondent and author Sabina FatiImage: privat

Beyond the depressing overall picture NATO's new Strategic Concept describes, there are several internal threats coming from within NATO itself. As yet, the alliance does not appear to be taking them seriously. Some NATO countries have serious problems with loyalty to Euro-Atlantic values. Political instability in various member states is damaging the unity of the alliance and the Balkans are still staggering beneath the weight of historical regional enmities.

NATO may be able to protect Romania and Poland against a Russian attack, but it cannot protect them against the evil they are inflicting on themselves. In both of these eastern EU NATO member states, the judiciary has clearly been subordinated to politics. Yet this evil, which subverts the rule of law, is being disregarded — because of the indispensable help Romania and Poland are providing to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees.

Populism even more dangerous in the east

Hungary actually seems closer to Russia than to NATO. Turkey is pursuing its own strategy of increasing its influence in both the Middle East and the Balkans. Bulgaria is teetering on an unstable seesaw, losing its balance each time it leans away from Moscow. Similarly, the westward direction taken by Slovakia and the Czech Republic has never been an irreversible one. Croatia has one seat of power that backs Russia — the president — and one — the prime minister — that prefers the West. Bulgaria is busy undermining North Macedonia, Tirana still dreams of a Greater Albania, and Serbia's politicians stand with Russia anyway. All these regional rifts work in Russia's favor: It can stir up the troubled waters and seek its own advantages there.

In Romania, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca, a pro-Western general, remains vulnerable, despite the fact that the judiciary came to his rescue when he was accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis. Not only is the Romanian state becoming increasingly paternalistic, but it also tending toward autocracy: The mass media and the judiciary, even the constitutional court, are controlled by politics. Increasingly, the model of Viktor Orban's Hungary is spreading to other countries.

Populism is making a powerful comeback everywhere in Europe. But this phenomenon is much more dangerous in the east than in the west, because the institutions there are still weak and do not even have the will to fight back. In that part of the continent, democracy, so far, has been little more than an interlude in a history dominated by dictatorships and autocracies. The question is: Can NATO rely on countries that are increasingly dispensing with democratic freedoms and stifling the rule of law?

This article has been translated from the Romanian.


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