28th Oct 2016


The future of freedom in the post-Soviet world

  • 'EU monitors should be sent to Ukraine without delay' (Photo: Crisis Group)

On a hot summer day in August, now almost six years ago, after having enjoyed a picnic with friends on one of the picturesque lakes which make Berlin suburbs so lovely, my cell phone started ringing off the hook. It was around 2am, we were at war with Russia and I had to report back to Brussels immediately …

That day might have changed our lives forever, but as we have been warning our Western partners all along, it also changed the future of the post-Soviet world. If anyone had doubted it, I suggest they tune into the news.

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The Russian occupation of Georgia’s regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not happen overnight in August of 2008, it took some 20 years.

First, there was insubordination by the “legitimate” local authorities to Georgia’s central government. Then came wars fought by the paramilitary groups, rather than regular Russian army units, then distribution of Russian passports to Georgian citizens living in the regions and ongoing military provocations, culminating in a full-blown military invasion in 2008.

Now Russia has set the same course in Crimea, but this time it has accelerated history, doing what took 20 years in Georgia in a few short days.

As Russia changes the borders of a sovereign European state through military intervention for the second time in less than six years, the West can no longer deny that it got Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, wrong.

It got Russia wrong when the EU continued referring to it as its strategic partner, opening the doors to Russia’s membership in the G8 and other exclusive clubs, despite its abominable record on human rights.

It got Putin wrong when it did not take seriously his grand design for a revival of the remnants of the Soviet Empire through the Eurasian Union.

The EU-sponsored report on the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, which placed equal blame on both sides and which called the Russian military invasion and occupation of Georgia, “a disproportional use of force”, was another grave mistake.

It led to the EU doing “business as usual” with Russia shortly after it carved up my country through brutal force, making Putin think there is no cost for his military adventurism.

The misjudgements continued as the West tried to convince Putin, a hard-nosed KGB colonel, about “win-win” solutions when he can only think in “zero-sum” terms.

The foremost mistake

But the original sin, which gave birth to all the subsequent problems, was the failure by Nato to grant a Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest Nato Summit of 2008.

Bucharest taught Putin that he has a say on the future of the relationship between our countries and the West.

So when we ask ourselves today how on earth we have suddenly arrived on the threshold of a major military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with grave consequences for European security, let us admit that there was nothing sudden about it. We have watched this disaster slowly unfold for the best part of a decade.

Looking to the future, what can the West do in the coming days?

The EU, UN, and OSCE all need to discuss an urgent deployment of emergency monitoring missions to Crimea, equipped with all the technical tools they need to exercise their mandate.

While Russia can block missions at the UN or OSCE level, it cannot do so in the case of a European Union mission. This is why the extraordinary EU foreign affairs meeting on Monday (3 March) should discuss the deployment of EU monitors as the first item on its agenda.

Secondly, the time for talking about vague “costs” which Putin might pay for his repeated violation of both the letter and spirit of international law has to end.

The West has to come up with a co-ordinated list of sanctions, which will be applied against the financial assets and business interests of the kleptocrats who run Russia under Putin’s command. Visa bans on travel to the EU and the US should also be put on table.

Such concrete steps will undermine Putin’s power base in Russia.

They should target the energy sector, which he relies on for maintaining power. They need to be written out in black and white and faxed to the Kremlin.

The West also has a chance to remedy its mistakes by setting in motion accelerated Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia for the EU and for Nato.

When some 10 years ago, following the Colour Revolutions, Georgia, together with Ukraine, embarked on the road towards Euro-Atlantic integration, we argued that clear membership perspectives for both institutions are necessary for ensure the irreversibility of our democratic future.

What we have learned in Ukraine is that the West can be helpful in shaping our future, but it has to be built by our own hands. The Ukrainians have proven that they are up to the task.

The plan to revive the remnants of the USSR through the Eurasian Union has been reduced to ashes because Putin failed to convince Ukrainians to put freedom aside.

As Ukraine mourns its freedom fighters, great uncertainties lie ahead, but for now, democracy has claimed the day.

Democracy has survived in Georgia as well, where Russia’s attempt at regime change in 2008 failed.

In the coming months, until the EU association and free trade agreements with Georgia are finalised, we will remain vigilant to make sure that the democratic change of government through free and fair elections in 2012 does not turn into a backdoor for Russia into Georgia.

So far the rhetoric of the new Georgian government is to continue the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. This is encouraging.

Expanding the circle of freedom

For now it seems, Putin has been defeated by democracy in both Georgia and Ukraine, despite his military aberrations.

Regrettably, we will have to advance on the road toward freedom leaving behind some of our citizens, who will continue living under Russian occupation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and possibly, Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.

However, if the West gives our countries a chance to solidify our democratic gains through making our future in Europe and Nato irreversible, the likelihood of expanding the circle of freedom to eventually include all of our citizens and, possibly one day, Russia itself, will become considerably greater.

The struggle between authoritarianism and freedom will not stop in Crimea.

As Putin enters the last decade of his rule in Russia, the frontline for advancement of freedom and democracy will move further east, towards the Kremlin itself.

What the West decides to do today will to a large degree define the future of the millions of people living in the parts of the former USSR, where democracy still has not taken hold, Russia included.

The millions whose eyes, hopeful for a better future, are firmly fixed Westward.

The writer is Georgia’s former ambassador to the EU


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