Sally Painter argues that European leaders should be more proactive in their embrace of reformers in the former USSR to hedge against Russian adventurism.
In the wake of the international furor over Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine, it has become clear that the West has fallen into a disturbing pattern when it comes to defending the European project. In Ukraine and now, once again, in Georgia, EU leaders have repeatedly taken half measures to support the very reformers struggling to implement political and economic progress.
Unfortunately, the persistent shortcomings in the Western approach have contributed to the very precarious geopolitical positions of their neighbors. When it comes to needed reforms, Western leaders have too often insisted on the perfect to the detriment of the good, weakening the leaders they should support in the process. To prevent the further unraveling of pro-Europe forces, policymakers must support the progress that has already been made—and the local leaders who are driving it.
This is a disconnect that we have seen repeatedly when it comes to the former Soviet Union. In 2004, the against-all-odds success of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution inspired the world and mobilized a young generation of reformers. Yet as then-President Yushchenko struggled mightily with the challenges facing Ukraine—economic crisis, corruption, and bitter political divisions—Western leaders steadily lost interest. And when they did engage, it was largely to criticize the slow pace of reforms.
Similarly, when Ukraine’s President Yanukovych took over in 2010, Europe regarded him with suspicion even as he made some important progress. He pushed forward with difficult—though certainly incomplete—reforms to the legal and criminal justice systems, reduced trade restrictions, and released a number of political prisoners (just not his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was for the West the symbol of the regime’s vengeful nature).
While Yanukovych was seen as coming from a more pro-Russia lineage in Ukranian politics, his turn toward Putin largely came because he felt backed into a corner: the EU and IMF were demanding reforms, like the abolition of all gas subsidies, which were politically impossible. And even his pro-Europe gestures—his judicial reforms, his interest in the EU Eastern Partnership, and his willingness to undertake politically difficult measures like reducing the gas subsidies in part—went largely ignored and unappreciated by European leaders.
Yanukovych was, in effect, asking for a better deal from Europe in exchange for undertaking politically risky and geopolitically dangerous reforms. But Europe barely showed up to the table. While Putin wrapped Yanukovych in a bear hug with promises of economic assistance, Europe offered only tiny and conditional loans. Critical leaders like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel or European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barrosso didn’t even bother to fly to Kiev for talks.
The result of such tepid Western engagement was as predictable as it was tragic. Given the lack of European support, Yanukovych found himself political unable to avoid making a deal with Russia to keep the economy afloat. The resultant civil conflict split the country and allowed Russia to follow its time-tested playbook of supporting separatist enclaves in rival countries in order to render whole swathes of their territory ungovernable.
Now, the West is treading a well worn path as crisis grips the pro-Western coalition government in Georgia. The popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has been forced from his post over internal political wrangling, and the pro-European “Georgian Dream” coalition to which he belongs may be falling apart. The faction loyal to former Minister Alasania has officially withdrawn from the coalition, and other party leaders, including Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, have also resigned their cabinet posts.
All of this comes just a few short years after the damaging conflict of 2008, in which Russian forces fought alongside the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unfortuantely, it seems many of the lessons of that bloodshed have not been learned. The Georgia war perfectly exemplified Russia’s divide and conquer strategy when it comes to nearby states who want closer ties to Europe—a strategy now being expertly deployed in eastern Ukraine.
But, as with Yushchenko and Yanukovych in Ukraine, Georgia’s reformist government—while not perfect—has consistently been held at arm’s length, even while it pushes energetically for domestic reforms and closer European ties.
Alarmingly, the West seems on track to passively accept a status quo of Russian interventionism. Despite promises to the contrary, Georgia has consistently been held back from NATO membership even though the country contributes more troops to NATO missions than any other non-member. Moreover, their contributions come despite the tough reforms undertaken to boost military performance while voluntarily accepting greater transparency and parliamentary oversight of the armed forces.
With the uncertainty in the ruling coalition, Georgia may now be more exposed than ever to Russia’s machinations. In short, Europe’s reticence to engage with reformers is once again undermining the larger geostrategic goal in favor of political forces more sympathetic to the Kremlin. If Georgia, and the rest of Eastern Europe, are to escape this fate, Western leaders must learn to embrace progress wherever they find it and advocate forcefully for those working to bring their countries out of Russia’s shadow.
Sally Painter is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Board of Directors and COO of Blue Star Strategies. Views expressed are her own.