The closed discussion, under the Chatham House Rule, was held on March 21, 2014 at the Emblem Hotel in Prague. The topic of the debate was democratic transitions in Central Europe and beyond, and future prospects for democracy.
The discussion began with opening remarks offered by a distinguished international legal scholar and former Ambassador, focusing on the importance of the European integration and democracy especially in the 21st Century. Calling it “a grand experiment,” the participants likened the European Union to a possible model for dealing with different ethnic, racial and religious diversity, and preventing conflict or war even beyond European borders. In this regard, the debate noted that the American “experiment” in diversity and democracy is even further advanced than it is in Europe. However, in structural terms, both represent the way out vis-à-vis the dangers of ethnic, racial and religious conflicts.
It was remarked that Central and Eastern European countries were the most ardent pursuers of the European vision and identity in the period after 1989 for very acute reasons: the traumas suffered over the previous 40 years of communist rule. Central and Eastern European countries were the only ones that were hit by the devastating ideologies of both Fascism and Communism.
However, the region is now divided with some players retaining a strong and continuing interest in the EU, such as Slovakia, and others who have lost the primordial “excitement about Europe,” and the general public as well as political representation is turning towards a different, Eurosceptic direction. It was suggested that the reason for this is the lack of prior democratic tradition or experience, as well as difficulties related to the austerity measures following the economic crisis. Countries such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia are becoming more ambivalent towards the EU in light of the crisis, and although there is still some interest in the populations, there are also tendencies to look to the East.
The debate also focused on the tumultuous events in Ukraine, which were referred to as a serious challenge to the rule of law on both the EU and international levels. Thousands of protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square demanded more democracy in their country; similarly as the people in many European capitals did 25 years ago. The question remains whether Ukrainians will be able to make their own democratic choice or whether they will be pushed by Russia.
Although the situation of Crimea is sometimes being compared to Kosovo, the discussion assessed the cases as very different, since there was never any real threat to the Russian population in Crimea. On the other hand, Kosovar Albanians were subjected to crimes against humanity by Serbian paramilitaries, which was the reason for the NATO intervention. In addition, Kosovo was never annexed by a NATO country. It was, under international supervision, allowed to determine whether or not it wanted to be independent. An important element of the Ukrainian crisis is the growing integration of the Euro-Russian economy, which is making it difficult for the EU to push back against Russia.
It was observed that we may have now entered the preliminary phases of a new Cold War, different than the previous one, and not necessarily ideological. It was noted that this time around, a balance of power is missing as Russia’s economic model and revenues will not allow it to continue its policies. Today’s threat is not about Russia’s power or military, but about what happens in the streets: the destabilizing popular protests. However, a participant noted that, psychologically, it is still difficult for Europeans to recognize Russia as a threat.
Furthermore, the speakers elaborated on the possibility that the Ukrainian crisis is going to force the USA to regain focus on Europe after the proclaimed pivot towards Asia. The discussion also stressed the critical importance of the reestablishment of the US–EU strategic partnership. It was proposed that a fruitful area where the partnership can flourish is in energy security. As the USA is getting closer to becoming energy-independent from foreign resources, it has a strategic interest to lessen Europe’s dependence on the unstable Russian source of energy. One speaker believed speakers that a revival of the partnership is crucial in order to assess the Ukraine crisis.
The discussion was thematically linked to the upcoming annual Forum 2000 Conference to be held October 12–14, 2014 in Prague and October 15, 2014 in Brno, Ostrava, Bratislava, Budapest and Krakow.