Closing the gap with Eastern Europe

Photo: European Commission

Almost exactly six months ago, the Czech Republic and seven other former Communist countries joined the European Union. With Romania and Bulgaria also knocking on the doors of the EU, further east electoral controversies have emerged in Belarus and Ukraine. As the Czech Republic and other countries go west, many say a gap has emerged between former eastern bloc allies and the EU, and some are asking how the gap can be bridged.

Photo: European Commission
Two decades ago, an Iron Curtain divided Europe. Now, many believe it's been replaced - along different borders - by a gap. It's not just that countries on the other side of the EU border have half the per capita GDP of the Czech Republic. They're also plagued by corruption and are lagging, if not backtracking, on democratic reforms.

But what can countries like the Czech Republic do to help bridge this gap?

Robert Cottrell is Central Europe correspondent for The Economist. At a discussion on the issue in Prague on Thursday, he said the EU helped countries like the Czech Republic get on the right track by raising the prospect of entering the union. Now it's losing steam for enticing reform.

"And until they settle on that, until they decide whether they want a political union or not, whether they want to include more countries or not, ... they're going to be in a state of disarray."

Although countries on the EU's eastern edge have more at stake in Eastern European reforms, Mr. Cottrell says the Czech Republic could make a difference by promoting an opening for EU entry.

"The Czech Republic is not in quite the same position. It's not a matter of cross-border relations for the Czech Republic, whether or not Ukraine or Belarus or Moldova comes into the EU in the future. However, I would hope that as a country which has benefited from the discipline and the know-how and the opportunities of the accession process, the Czech Republic would be supportive of extending those opportunities to other countries which are further behind in the queue."

Alex Znatkevich, a Belarusian journalist at Radio Free Europe, says major steps toward reform in his country can only come from within. With Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko being called Europe's last dictator, the country could still use a nudge toward reform.

"If there was a clear, unified position on behalf of all new members with a clear, single position that there should be further expansion, that would change things, but it is not something that it is up to us to decide and judge."

Mr. Znatkevich is positive about the Czech Republic's calls for reform in Belarus. President Vaclav Klaus and the Czech foreign ministry criticized the October referendum that removed term limits for the Belarusian president.

Transitions Online editor-in-chief Jeremy Druker says offering the prospect of EU entry more countries would spark reform in Eastern Europe. He says Poland's efforts to promote reform in Ukraine shows that Central European nations are better equipped to handle the job.

"It would be really great if Brussels would somehow outsource dealing with some of these countries farther east to Eastern Europeans or Central Europeans who understand the climate much better and who in many ways would be received better than westerners - West Europeans or Americans.

"I'm sure that in Ukraine they would be much more willing to listen to Poles or Czechs or Slovaks tell them how to run a democracy than Americans or French or Germans."