`Silk Curtain' cuts Europe in two once more

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

A new "Silk Curtain", replacing the Iron Curtain of old, is falling across eastern Europe, separating countries that are entrenching themselves in the Western world from countries that are slipping back into Russia's embrace.

While Western governments talk publicly of building a Europe undivided by political or ideological fault lines - "a Europe whole and free", in the words of George Bush, the former US President - the reality is that some countries are binding themselves closely to the West and others are experiencing a gravitational pull towards Russia.

Those which stand clearly on the Western side of the line include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Those on the Russian side include Belarus and the three Transcaucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In a grey zone, with their future status unclear, are Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Officially, European governments consider the term "spheres of influence" a dirty phrase these days. Privately, however, diplomats acknowledge that the West and Russia are involved in a silent struggle over where the new dividing line in eastern Europe will be drawn.

Russia's parliament, where the resurgent Communist Party is the dominant faction, made clear its views yesterday by approving a resolution that denounced the abolition of the Soviet Union. By 250 votes to 98, the State Duma (lower house) urged President Boris Yeltsin to reintegrate Russia with former Soviet republics that have been independent since 1991.

That process is already in motion in the case of Belarus, whose pro-Moscow president, Alexander Lukashenko, refers to Russia as "the great motherland". He favours not only an economic and military union with Russia but also the construction of a road "corridor" through Belarus to link the Russian heartland with the Russian-owned enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

That proposal has caused alarm bells to ring in Poland, since the road would probably pass through Lithuania - implicitly increasing Russian influence over an important Polish neighbour - and possibly through part of Poland. Russia's Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, told Polish leaders this week that "all the talk about the corridor was a misunderstanding", but Mr Lukashenko seems to be entirely serious about it.

Russia's principal objective in Eastern Europe is to prevent its former Warsaw Pact allies from becoming full members of Nato, a move that it says would threaten Russian security by bringing a Western military presence up to its doorstep. For its part, the Western alliance hopes to take in some new members, but is playing down the issue for fear of jeopardising Mr Yeltsin's chances of re-election next June.

Moscow has floated two ideas as possible compromises over Nato enlargement. One is to offer the eastern Europeans a joint Western-Russian security guarantee, and the other is to let them acquire political but not military membership of Nato.

Neither suggestion appeals to the Czech Republic and Poland, which are likely to be among the first new Nato members. The Czech Foreign Minister, Josef Zieleniec, said bluntly this week that the terms of his country's entry into Nato were a matter for discussion between Prague and the Western alliance, "but definitely not with Russia".

Poland's Foreign Minister, Dariusz Rosati, recalled how a British-French guarantee had failed to save Poland in 1939. Flatly rejecting the idea that Poland should be left as a buffer state between the West and Russia, he said: "Poland is determined to seek Nato membership. History shows guarantees are inadequate."

While the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles are developing ever closer relationships with the West, a question mark still hangs over Slovakia. The US and the European Union have publicly rebuked the government of Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister, for failing to observe Western standards of democracy.

Last week, the government approved a draft law ordering the imprisonment of people organising anti-government rallies or spreading "false information" about Slovakia abroad.

There is strong evidence that Russia is seeking to exploit Slovakia's bad relationship with the West to its own advantage. The Russians recently offered Slovakia a deal guaranteeing long-term economic supplies in return for Slovak neutrality.

According to central European officials, Mr Meciar personally turned down the proposal. This suggests that, despite its current difficulties, Slovakia is broadly set on the path of integration with the West.

Less clear is the future of the Baltic states and Ukraine. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were annexed by Moscow in 1940 and broke free in 1991, want to join Nato, but Estonia in particular is on extremely bad terms with Russia.

It is far from certain that Nato will ever feel confident about offering the Baltic states the unconditional security guarantee that comes with alliance membership. Western governments have a strong commitment to maintaining Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, but it seems unlikely that this will translate into a military guarantee.

Bulgaria and Romania are both anxious to detach themselves from Russian influence, but Bulgaria especially depends heavily on Russia for its energy supplies, a factor limiting its freedom of manoeuvre. Neither seems likely to be among the first new entrants into Nato and the European Union.