Border disputes spreading and intensifying in Eastern Europe, Moscow scholar says

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (Image: bohuslavsobotka.cz)

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (Image: bohuslavsobotka.cz) 

2015/03/31 • Analysis & Opinion, Politics

The announcement three weeks ago that Prague is prepared to transfer 360 hectares of territory to Poland in the Těšín Silesia area is the latest indication that the border changes in the former Soviet and Yugoslav spaces are sparking new questions about borders in the northern portion of Eastern Europe, according to Aleksey Fenenko.

On March 6, the Moscow State University international relations specialist notes in an article in “NG-Dipkuryer,” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka announced the transfer, something he said would end a territorial dispute between the two countries that has been going on since 1958.

Because Sobotka provided no additional details and because the amount of land involved was so small, his words attracted relatively little attention. But Fenenko argues that border disputes are endemic in the region and that “the wave of de-Stalinization” at the end of the 20th century “has led to the de-legitimization of the borders of the 1940s.”

That is because, he continues, “for public opinion of these countries, references to the fact that the borders were established by ‘Stalin’s USSR’ is sufficient to recognize their illegitimacy.” The EU has been able to quiet “but not stop the process of their review.” And after the Těšín Silesia case, “the process is starting to take on a practical character.”

“Up to the present,” Fenenko says, “border changes have taken place in the Balkans and the territory of the former USSR. In Central Europe, on the contrary, the borders of the 1940s have been preserved.” He suggests that “the disintegration of Czechoslovakia … did not change the situation since it occurred quickly along administrative borders within the country.”

Now, however, “the situation is changing,” the Moscow specialist says, as the Těšín Silesia shows. Warsaw and Prague, under pressure from the Entente agreed to the border in 1920. But both sides had problems with it, and immediately after Munich in 1938, Poland demanded and got a border adjustment in its favor.

In 1947, following the Soviet occupation of the entire area, Poland and Czechoslovakia signed an accord that largely restored the 1920 border; but Poland later tried to make greater changes, something Czechoslovakia rejected. In any case, the small adjustment announced now highlights the reality that “Poland and the Czech Republic have a problem” with borders.

The 1938 Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain is “traditionally viewed in Europe exclusively in a negative way.” Any reference to it, including by Moscow, Fenenko says, represents a kind of “’red line’” that must not be crossed. But Prague’s action this month has the effect of implicitly and partially rehabilitating of part of Munich.

Could this prompt other countries in Central Europe, and especially Hungary, to raise similar issues, Fenenko asks. The answer is far from clear. Germany isn’t going to question its borders: the current ones are too much part of that country’s self-definition. But the situation with regard to Lithuania may be different.

The current Polish-Lithuanian border follows a line established by the Soviet-Polish treaty of August 16, 1945, but “problems of the border delimitation between Poland and Lithuania remain,” the Moscow scholar says, with each side having claims to portions now within the borders of the other.

On the one hand, many in Lithuania consider portions of Poland and Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast to be part of Little Lithuania. And many Poles still remember when Vilnius was within Poland, not Lithuania. As a result, Fenenko says, “Warsaw could activate discussions about the principles of the delimitation” of the border.

There is also the possibility of disputes between Poland and Ukraine. According to the 1945 Soviet-Polish treaty, Poland gave up territories to the Ukrainian SSR;” and “officially, Warsaw has refrained from advancing demands on Ukraine.” But that doesn’t end Ukraine’s western border problems: it also has them with Moldova.

The most serious set of border issues involve Hungary and Hungarians. After 1945, some of Hungary’s lands were handed over to Romania, others to Yugoslavia, still others to Czechoslovakia and the USSR. In 1991, Budapest began talking about the formation of “a Greater Hungary” that would reunite all of these.

The US blocked that at the time by promising Hungary eventual NATO membership if it refrained. But, Fenenko points out, “over the last few years,” discussions of this kind in Budapest have “intensified.” Budapest now has problems with Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine, problems it has exacerbated by demanding autonomy and offering dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians.

Now, given “the precedent of the Polish-Czech negotiations,” the Moscow specialist continues, “Budapest in the future may achieve the establishment of a negotiation framework with Ukraine about the provision of particular rights to Hungarians” in that country.

Fenenko’s article is important for three reasons:

  • First, it is clearly an effort to set the stage for Russian demands for border changes by suggesting that this is not a “Moscow problem.”
  • Second, it suggests that some in the Russian capital are interested in promoting such conflicts as a way of expanding Moscow’s influence over the region.
  • And third, it is a reminder that the West, having failed to stop Russia’s “territorial” adjustments in Georgia in 2008 or in Ukraine in 2014, has opened the door not only to Vladimir Putin but to other leaders around the world who may decide that the era of fixed borders is over and that they have everything to gain by seeking to expand their own.

Edited by: A. N.

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  • Dirk Smith

    Uh, typographic error. No such thing as a muscovite scholar.

  • Racquel

    How generous and timely it is for Zeman to end a 57-year territorial dispute with Poland and how thoughtful Johnny-on-the-spot Moscow is to spread the news about the suddenly numerous border problems in the neighborhood.

    If it really is true and the land is that insignificant, Poland might be wiser to reject it. The incitement is just relentless.

    • Mephisto

      I am Czech and this is the first time I am hearing about such a dispute. No mention on Czech news channels.

      Just to correct something: Zeman is a Russian troll (probably hired by KGB in his youth) and he has no real legislative power. We have a regular elected government. The problem is that both the government and Zeman have different foreign policies – Zeman is a Russian troll and the government is pro EU and pro USA. It is an unfortunate situation.

      Zeman is going to visit his comrade and boss Putin on 9.5. to celebrate the end of fascism and the victory of the Red Army (what an irony). Other invited guests include among others Kim Jong-un.

      • Racquel

        It’s good to hear Zeman cannot unilaterally make this decision for Czech. Considering the source, I took the article with great skepticism. However, this does sound like classic Russian gamesmanship. Since your government is pro-EU, acquiescence would fall right into Putin’s hands, it seems. The man is a cancer — Putin, that is.

        I did read Zeman was going to attend the “celebrations” but insisted he would not shake Kim Jong-un’s hand. Frankly, I don’t see the difference between these nuclear-threatening tyrants.

        BTW, I saw the good Czech citizens protesting Zeman, pelting him and all, and realize he in no way is a reflection of his citizens.

        • puttypants

          Why hasn’t Zeman been impeached?

          • Czech Friend

            because our constitution doesn’t allow that. :-( Can you believe that? There is only one instrument a special constitutional charge that has to be approved by the Senate.

            Activists who organized the protests had said they would push for it but they withdrew later…

            But this thing isn’t over, the man must go.

      • puttypants

        Why don’t the Czech get rid of Zeman if they so dislike him. He’s been an absolute troll for Putler.

      • Gryzelda Wrr

        I’m Polish and I read about this adjustment only in Russian and Ukrainian press:) That speaks a lot about the “problem” that Czechs and Poles have with the border :)

        • Czech Friend

          exactly :-)

  • Michel Cloarec

    Why not ask Stalin (sorry! Putin) to solve the problem !
    Lavrov has certainly interest in loosing conflict.

  • puttypants

    This is the Kremlin once again trying to foment problems in Europe so he can take over. Hopefully no one pays attention. When is USA and Europe going to say enough and put a stop to the Russians. They really are inciting WW3…so europeans and USA be ware!!!

  • Gryzelda Wrr

    “But Fenenko argues that border disputes are endemic in the region and that “the wave of de-Stalinization” at the end of the 20th century “has led to the de-legitimization of the borders of the 1940s.”
    Mr Fenenko is either an idiot or a shameless propagandist.

    • Czech Friend

      btw translated into Czech his name would mean something like “Bitchenko”

      Nomen omen

      • Michel Cloarec

        A puppet is a puppet ! As usual we will laugh when we will see the puppets standing on kremlin wall watching the masquerade .
        WAVING and CLAPP I HANDIES ! Your president is a shame and everybody know that (puppet nr ?) Sorry for the real Czechs !

  • Czech Friend

    I’m glad even our Prime minister Sobotka who is not the bravest and most resolute has shown Putin a finger recently when he personally met our American allies and said Putin’s Russia is a threat.

    Kremlin propaganda stands no chance in our country as the overwhelming support for US Army convoy showed.