The Russian offensive in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has left the world unsettled. But nowhere has it rattled more nerves than in Eastern and Central Europe.
Client states or subject republics of the former Soviet Union until a few years ago, Russia’s western neighbors have watched the bloodshed through the lens of their own troubled past.
Their view is framed by half a century of repression, which led to Soviet troops crushing unrest. That legacy has aroused apprehension over Chechnya, while at the same time counseling restraint in confronting Moscow.
There are differences between Russian fighting in Chechnya and Soviet forays into the former East Bloc. But the similarities are great enough to create a new urgency for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization among many onetime Soviet satellites.
Even so, it is unlikely the fighting will hasten NATO’s expansion. The Atlantic Alliance is not eager to antagonize or isolate Russia, especially amid political and military uncertainty. NATO has been more concerned about maintaining relations with Moscow than soothing its worried neighbors.
Here is the view of Chechnya from the former East Bloc:
BALTIC STATES: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and did not regain independence until 1991. Since then, the countries have squabbled with Moscow over Russian troop withdrawals and Russian minorities.
Official reaction has been cautious. But public sympathy for Chechnya runs deep. Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev, who commanded a Soviet strategic bomber brigade in Estonia, refused to mobilize against independence groups in 1991. “There but for the grace of God go the Baltic states,” said Latvian legislator Juris Sinka of the bloodshed in Chechnya.
Leaders say the fighting proves that Russia still holds “imperialistic reflexes.” It could sink a proposed agreement that would allow Russian troops to cross Lithuania by road en route to Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad.
POLAND: Warsaw has had strained relations with Moscow since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Eager to join NATO but aware of the shadow Russia casts, it has been difficult for Poland to balance westward leanings with eastward realities.
Following the United States, the government has characterized the fighting as an internal Russian matter. Other Poles have been more critical. The government has called Moscow to task for attacks on civilians.
There is no real fear that Russia will turn its military might on Poland. But the war has shaken confidence in Russian democracy and confirmed suspicions that violence remains a Moscow policy tool.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Reforms in Czechoslovakia were put down in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Since splitting from Slovakia in 1993, Czechs have had no common border with the former Soviet Union and are on the fast track to Western integration.
The government was the first in Eastern Europe to criticize the Chechnya offensive. President Vaclav Havel has spoken of Russia’s “massive violation” of human rights.
The underdog Chechens have shamed some Czechs, who gave up in 1968 without a fight. More importantly, the conflict has bolstered arguments that Russia remains militarily adventurous.
SLOVAKIA: With the same Soviet-era history as the Czechs, democratic Slovakia has had a stronger Moscow tilt than its Czech neighbors. Dependent on Russian oil and other trade ties, the Slovak government issued a mild statement on Chechnya that did not mention human rights.
Slovak opposition has spoken of Russian “imperial tendencies” and has drawn comparisons to 1968. It has called for greater solidarity among countries eager for NATO security guarantees.
HUNGARY: Victim of the bloodiest Soviet military crackdown in Eastern Europe, Hungary later became the Wunderkind of the Soviet Bloc, adopting reforms long before its neighbors. In exchange, it was fiercely loyal to Moscow.
Commentators have drawn parallels between Chechnya and Hungary in 1956, but official reaction has been muted. Budapest remains heavily dependent on Russia for trade, especially energy, and has emphasized the conflict’s internal nature.
As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hungary has been bolder, condemning “serious violations of human rights” in Chechnya and urging Russia to use the OSCE to mediate the dispute.
UKRAINE: Long a docile Soviet republic, Ukraine gained its independence in 1991. Since then, Kiev, dependent on Russian oil and gas, has emphasized the importance of relations with Moscow.
Reaction to the fighting has been low key, with officials lamenting the loss of life but avoiding irritating Moscow.
With its own separatist problems in Crimea, it is unlikely Kiev will encourage Chechen self-determination or challenge Moscow’s defense of its territorial integrity. Even so, right-wing Ukrainians have traveled to Chechnya to support the rebels.
ROMANIA: Considered of minor strategic importance by the Soviets, Romania enjoyed relative independence from Moscow, albeit within an authoritarian context. Soviet troops withdrew in 1958, and Bucharest refused to join the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The government, controlled by former Communists, has expressed concern for human rights in Chechnya and said it fears clashes could erupt elsewhere in the Caucasus region. With its own energy reserves, Bucharest remains less dependent than neighbors on Moscow.
Although still eager to join NATO, Romanians find comfort in Russia’s bungled offensive. The fighting has weakened Russia, they say, and revealed its military ineptitude--making moves in Eastern Europe less likely.
BULGARIA: Long the most loyal of the Soviet satellites, Bulgaria last month voted to return the former Communists--repackaged as socialists--to power. It has maintained good relations with Moscow, but with the new government not yet in place, there has been little reaction to events in Chechnya.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Brussels and special correspondents Mary Mycio in Kiev and Michael Tarm in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.
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Reasons for Fear
The Soviet Union no longer exists. But its onetime satellites say history has taught them to fear rumblings to the east, especially from the largest of the former Soviet republics--Russia. Here’s why:
1940: Soviet forces occupy Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in first step toward incorporating them into Soviet Union.
October, 1956: Soviets in Poland mobilize after dispute with Polish Communist Party. Crisis resolved.
November, 1956: Soviet forces crush revolution in Hungary that sought withdrawal of Soviet troops. About 25,000 Hungarians killed.
August, 1968: Soviet and other Warsaw pact countries invade Czechoslovakia to end “Prague Spring” reforms.
September, 1981: Soviet Union issues ultimatum on union unrest. Martial law later declared.
December, 1994: Moscow sends in troops to reassert control. Chechnya (in black) declared its independence in 1991.
Estimated troop strength of Eastern European nations:
Active Reserves Russia 1.7 mil. 2.4 mil Ukraine 517,000 1 mil. Poland 283,600 465,500 Romania 230,500 427,000 Czech Rep. 92,900 --- Bulgaria 101,900 303,000 Hungary 74,500 195,000 Slovakia 47,000 --- Lithuania 8,900 12,000 Latvia 6,850 18,000 Estonia 2,500 ---
Source: The Military Balance, the International Institute of Strategic Studies