By JOHN KERRY | From today’s Wall Street Journal Europe.
Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall and the repressive Communist regimes of Eastern Europe came crashing down to usher in a new era of political and economic freedom. Today, it is Eastern Europe’s banks and economies that are threatening to crash.
[Commentary Europe] AP
Crossing the street for food in Kiev.
The Polish zloty is down 38% against the dollar in the last six months alone. Hungary’s forint is down 32%. Ukraine posted a staggering 34% drop in January industrial output from a year earlier. While the entire world is reeling, right now the eye of the global financial storm has moved to Central and Eastern Europe.
If Western nations do not act quickly to address the snowballing financial crisis that is brewing from Latvia to Hungary, we risk replacing an era of promise and progress in Eastern Europe with one of soaring unemployment, instability and a weakening of the influence and ideals we have spent decades building.
While many Americans are rightly focused on our domestic troubles, we must also recognize the global dimensions of the current crisis. Last week, Latvia became the second government, after Iceland, to collapse as a result of a financial crisis that has already sparked riots in the Baltics and Greece and is likely to be a driving geopolitical force for a long time.
Eastern Europe’s currencies are plummeting as investors instead seek the safety of the dollar and the euro. This means that Eastern European countries, companies and individuals face increasing challenges to pay back their large foreign-currency loans — which only deepens the currency problems to create a vicious circle.
At first glance this may seem like a traditional emerging-markets crisis like those we saw in the late 1990s. But in fact it’s far worse. This is a truly global financial crisis in a highly connected financial world, and Eastern Europe is feeling the brunt. Many of the region’s banks are foreign-owned — in the case of Hungary, more than 80% — and many of those banks are now contemplating unprecedented protectionist steps, pulling back lending operations to their home countries. Meanwhile, as larger countries consume more of the world’s capital in refinancing their own debt, emerging markets like those of Eastern Europe are likely to find the bank windows closed to them.
The result is that the economies of Eastern Europe are already falling faster and further than anyone expected. There is a real danger that, if every country affected by this crisis defines its interests narrowly, several strategically vital countries could fall through the cracks. For example, Ukraine’s dire situation could trigger a domino effect, not only destabilizing Western Europe banks with large exposure to East European markets, but actually changing the geopolitical map as well.
America should support World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s call for the EU to lead a coordinated global effort, alongside the IMF, World Bank and other development banks, to support the economies of Central and Eastern Europe. Austria, too, deserves credit for trying to focus Europe’s attention on the plight not just of eastern member states such as the Baltics, but also of non-EU neighbors like Ukraine.
But Eastern Europe will not be the last financial fire the world will have to help put out in this crisis. Nor will our problems be confined to traditionally unstable corners of the globe. Our oldest European allies are also in deepening financial trouble, and three of our most important partners in the Muslim world, Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, today all face acute balance-of-payments crises.
We also need to ensure that the U.S. Treasury and State departments have the capacity to deal with these fast-moving crises in real time even as they turn our domestic economy around. That means the Senate must make clear its willingness to quickly confirm the Obama administration’s nominees for posts vital to international economics and finance, such as the international staff at Treasury and the economic staff at the State Department, once the administration nominates them.
Our needs at home are urgent and great. We must put our own economic house in order and we will. But as we balance the domestic and global demands of this crisis, we should be warned that, in cutting corners today we risk incurring far greater costs down the road. A retreat into our domestic problems will not only leave us diminished on the world stage — because our world is so economically and financially interconnected, it may well also worsen our own economic crisis.
Instead, as we restore confidence in our own markets, we will also need to find a strategy to project leadership, share burdens, build the capacity of institutions like the IMF and spread stability as this crisis continues to reverberate world-wide.
We have already lost a great deal in the last few months. But two decades of prosperity, democracy and institution-building in Eastern Europe is one investment that America must not allow to go up in smoke.
Mr. Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Posted by: euzoia | March 2, 2009
Eastern Europe need the US help
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