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Supporting Democracy to the East: A matter of self-interest 0

Interview with Vladimir Socor,
Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies
Columnist, Wall Street Journal Europe

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Sometimes it can seem rather strange to think that Latvia was once part of the Soviet Union – especially with NATO and EU membership right around the corner. Given this context, is there any utility in talking about a post-Soviet identity, either social or political, for all of what was once the Soviet Union?

No, I don’t think so. I very seldom think of Latvia as a post-Soviet country. I think about Latvia in those terms only when certain Russian left-wingers in Latvia or rhetoric out of Moscow forces me to remember that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union for over half a century. But, that was an unnatural development that interrupted Latvia’s close association with Europe – just as with Lithuania and Estonia – that had extended for over one thousand years. The three Baltic States have belonged to Europe throughout their entire history and joining NATO and the EU was simply a return home.

What, in your opinion, made this ‘return home’ so successful? I suppose it had something to do with this historical base…

Yes, I am convinced of it. The more I compare the situation in the three Baltic States with the situation in other former Soviet-ruled countries, I become ever more convinced of the importance of historical background.

Just make a comparison between the Baltic States and Moldova, a country for which I have a special affinity being myself born in Rumania. Here in the Baltic region you had the good fortune to be associated, for many centuries, with Germans and Scandinavians. These contacts left an indelible imprint on your civilization. Along with these Germans and Scandinavians, you experienced Western Christianity, then the counter-reformation, the enlightenment, the culture of modernization, the rule of law and local autonomy and administration.

By contrast, what did a country like Moldova or Ukraine, for that matter, experience? They had no such traditions. They did not have the enlightenment or the religious reformation. They experienced the rule of local landlords, or even warlords, who were despotic towards their subjects. They were under Turkish Ottoman rule and then under Tsarist rule. That is, they were under repressive administration that had no concept of the rule of law, property rights or individual liberty. All this was lacking in these countries to the south of the Baltic States.

If the answer is as simple as history, what does that say for those countries that haven’t experienced a history similar to ours – say Belarus and Ukraine or, perhaps, Moldova? What is the chance that they will have any success with democracy in the future?

It is anybody’s guess. Take Belarus for example. The democratic opposition in Belarus has not managed to get its message across to the public. It is true that the government has not allowed the opposition access to state television and radio and its newspapers are not circulated. This, of course, is a major handicap.

But this is not the only reason why the opposition has not been able to connect with the populous at large. They have been deeply divided into parties that constantly attacked each other during the last decade... as a result, the population could not understand this opposition.

What do you think it might take to actually change the government in Belarus?

It seems to me now, looking at the Belarussian opposition, that they finally got their act together. I am heartened to notice that they put together one joint slate of candidates to run in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for October of this year. Also, they put together a common program that demonstrates a good deal of common sense. It is a program designed to be understood by the great masses of the electorate – by people with a lower level of education. It is a program that does not deal in abstractions or reforms for their own sake. Rather, it promises significant improvements in peoples’ daily lives. This program is a great improvement over the previous program of the democratic opposition.

Also, they are making a determined effort to forge a tactical alliance with elements in the Belarussian nomenklatura. In the past, the Belarussian democratic opposition has attacked the nomenklatura in block, across the board. This sometimes served to strengthen a sense of solidarity among the nomenklatura around Lukashenko…

Now I think that the opposition has found the golden middle. It is pushing the opposition leaders forward, as it should. But, at the same time, it is trying – I think wisely – to fragment the officialdom, to split the nomenklatura, by promising to work with substantial parts of them, those who are less tainted and disassociate themselves from President Lukashenko.

If we look at this situation, which you seem to regard as rather optimistic, what sorts of things could a country like Latvia do to support democracy in Belarus?

Latvia, just like Estonia and Lithuania, is a very credible mentor. It has the unfortunate Soviet experience behind it and it has been able to overcome it. When Westerners come to these countries and teach democracy or reform, they are often met with a great deal of skepticism. The three Baltic States are best qualified for a transfer of experience to countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldova.

A few weeks ago, the former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar published an article in the Wall Street Journal imparting his experience as Prime Minister of Estonia during its most difficult period…

In his article, Mart Laar advised the new President of Georgia, Mr. Sakashvilli, to follow Estonia’s example.

So you think that in the case of Georgia, there would be a chance of pursuing a Latvian or Baltic model of development?

That would be the best possible outcome, an ideal situation. But, we should not set our expectations that high because Georgia does not have the traditions of the Baltic peoples. As long as the Baltic example is considered by Georgians as desirable, as something worth following even if at a slower pace, then we can be confident that Georgia will find its way out of the present crisis.

As far as most Western observers are concerned, this Baltic model of development is really working. Everything is going along quite well here. But then what about what is going on in Lithuania right now – the crisis with President Paksas? Would you say that this is an isolated incident, or does this crisis say something more about the state of democracy in Lithuania or the Baltics as a whole?

I think the main lessons from the Paksas affair are the following:

First, that Russia is still not reconciled to the independence of the Baltic States. The origin of the Paksas case is an attempt by the Russian security services working hand in hand with organized crime – as they do both internally within Russia and beyond Russia’s borders – to infiltrate the Presidency of Lithuania to establish political influence, first in the Presidential circle and then in the Lithuanian political system…

The second lesson is that the Lithuanian political system is coping with this situation admirably. The situation is a threat to Lithuania’s political and legal institutions, but institutions have held and they have held strongly.

The third conclusion is that the rule of law is following its course. After this shocking revelation of infiltration into the Presidency, the constitutional procedures for impeachment were begun according to the constitution and are following their legal course to the letter. Nobody has tried to hound Paksas out of office or to accelerate these proceedings. No one has challenged the legitimacy of these proceedings. The atmosphere in Lithuania is tranquil…

The fourth conclusion is that the economy has not been affected. The Lithuanian economy is booming, just as the Latvian and Estonian economies are… With respect to GDP growth, the Baltic States are the most successful region in all of Europe…

Concerning the first lesson you have drawn from this affair, that Russia has not reconciled itself to losing influence over the Baltics. What do you see as the future of both Russia’s relations to this region, and its foreign policy in general? Specifically, do you sense the beginnings of a backlash against Putin’s western orientation?

I never thought that Putin had oriented Russian policy towards the West. I thought it was a grave mistake of some Western analysts to believe that after September 11th Putin had re-oriented Russia’s foreign policy towards the West. That was never the case…

On the contrary, he attempted to exploit America’s problem with terrorism in order to re-extend Russia along the Eurasian landmass. It was clear to me from the moment Putin came to office that his top priority was to restore Russia’s great power status. Initially, this was to be done on the Eurasian landmass by regaining influence and control over the countries of the former Soviet Union and then, in the next stage, using this increase in Russian power in order to become, once again, a global power and thereby challenging the United States beyond Eurasia.

In a case like Georgia, which unlike Latvia will not be joining NATO or the EU any time soon, what would you say the ultimate limits of Russian policy in the region might be? Would you exclude the possible use of force?

I don’t exclude it. Russia attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain American consent to a Russian military intervention in Georgia. This was even before September 11th, before even Putin became President, back when Putin was still Prime Minister in late 1999. Putin began publicly agitating for a Russian military intervention in Georgia.

The Russian campaign against Georgia - politically, propagandistically and with respect to its intelligence services – intensified after September 11th and Russia attempted to establish a parallel or an equivalent between American action in Iraq and what they wanted to achieve through military action in Georgia. It came very close to achieving that.

Fortunately, the United States became concerned and not only did it not give its consent to any such Russian action, it warned Russia that US-Russian relations would be gravely damaged if Russia were to move militarily against Georgia…

There are eight thousand Russian troops in four different military bases in Georgia at the moment. Russia has absolutely no desire to withdraw and has demanded an eleven-year period to withdraw. But, this eleven-year period would only begin from the moment a bilateral Russian-Georgian agreement comes into force. Of course, it will take years to negotiate such an agreement.

The question is, will the United States become seriously involved and elevate this issue to the top of the bilateral US-Russia agenda. If the United States does that, then we can expect the Russians to finally withdraw from Georgia within a few years.

The same is true with Moldova, essentially. However, as far as Russia is concerned, the United States seems every time to find higher priorities than the issue of Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. The United States feels that it needs Russian cooperation on issues that are of more immediate importance to the United States, like the recent war in Iraq and nuclear non-proliferation in the context of Iran and North Korea.

What about the EU? Considering the recent calls within the EU to reevaluate the Union’s relations with Russia, what do you think the potential there would be?

The EU, for the time being, does not have a foreign policy. It is trying to find one, to establish the basis for one, but it does not yet exist. Basically, the relations between Western Europe and Russia are the relations between individual major West European countries and Russia. There is no such thing as an EU policy towards Russia and certainly not on such things as strategic political issues; on economic issues yes, but not on strategic political issues…

In the European Union, we witness what I would call the ‘Putin Applause Brigade,’ which consists of Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroder and Silvio Berlusconi. Occasionally, even Tony Blair joins it. They would excuse anything. They excuse the conflict in Chechnya. They certainly excuse the occupation of Georgian and Moldovan territory by Russian troops. The European Union is far from playing a political role that is proportionate to its economic weight.

For the Baltic States, the situation is not the same as it is for countries like Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine. The Baltic States are safely in the European Union. But, for countries outside the European Union, Russia is playing its games almost unrestrained by the EU. The EU, at the moment absorbed with its own internal organizational problems, reforms and the integration of its new members, is almost blind to what is happening to the east of the current EU borders.

If we can come back to Latvia to wrap up – Latvia’s foreign policy has achieved its goals: membership in NATO and the EU. What’s next? What should be reasonable long-term goals for Latvia?

I would like to quote my friend, Toomas Ilves, former Estonian Foreign Minister. He said, “The best outcome for the Baltic States is for them to become boring North European countries.” In other words, successful, normal, perhaps unexciting, tranquil and economically successful. I think Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are well on their way to becoming boring Nordic countries in the best sense of the word.

What about democracy to the east? Given that, as you said, the Baltics have special experience and credibility that they can share, do they have perhaps a moral obligation to actively push for democracy to the east?

A moral obligation I must say I do not see. I do not believe in moral obligations. Politics, and especially international politics, is not about moral obligations except in a few specialized fields, like perhaps human rights or the right to religion. But, in normal day-to-day politics, especially international politics, I think we can only speak of interests, of enlightened interests. It certainly is in the enlightened and even the strategic interests of the Baltic States – in the interest of their survival – to have direct neighbors to their south and east – and I am referring here especially to Belarus, but also Ukraine – who are stable, well-governed, completely independent of Russia and free to engage in active and direct relations with the West.

In the event that Belarus or Ukraine were to fall back under Russian control, the entire balance of power in Europe would be changed to the detriment of the West and to the huge advantage of Russia. The independence of Ukraine was the single largest geopolitical windfall to the West that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine now forms an enormous barrier between a Russia that desires expansion and an enlarged NATO and EU to its West. If Ukraine falls on the wrong side of the fence, the strategic impact for Europe would be tremendous.

It is a matter of national interest for the Baltic States to encourage the development of democracy, pro-Western parties and pro-Western ways of thinking and political conduct in Ukraine and Belarus. It is not a matter of moral obligation, but a matter of enlightened self-interest.

We must at all cost avoid a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea that would leave Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova on the wrong side. They are part of Europe. They are necessary to Europe and Europe is necessary to them. They must be brought into Europe.

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