Questions for Ukrainians and Georgians

The Washington Times

Six years ago, the government of Lithuania invited me to Vilnius for a summit meeting of Central and Eastern European states geographically dispersed from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria on the Black Sea. The audacious purpose of that meeting was to announce that they had decided to work cooperatively on their common goal of integration into Western institutions, especially NATO. Rather than compete with one another to see which, in the post-communist period, deserved to be first to cross the line into full membership in the West, they would form a mutual support structure in pursuit of the quickest integration of all.

The plan worked far better than most imagined possible at the time. In 2004, seven of what became 10 members of the Vilnius Group received invitations to join NATO, with the others on the way. This included the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the territory of the former Soviet Union. “Europe” was moving east.

But how far east? That’s the question that brought me to Georgia, three time zones ahead of most of Europe on the far shores of the Black Sea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me to a strategy session on how best to think about the Community of Democratic Choice (CDC), a nascent Vilnius Group-like coalition founded by the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine following their respective “Rose” and “Orange” democratic revolutions.

If the Baltic states presented a special challenge for Western integration because of the resistance of Moscow to the idea that NATO should extend into the territory of the former Soviet Union, the cases of Ukraine and Georgia are even trickier. Unlike the Baltic states, where the United States rejected the legitimacy of Soviet occupation, these independent states are on territory that used to be uncontestedly Russian controlled. Vladimir Putin’s increasingly autocratic Moscow shows every indication of wanting a dominant say in how these countries manage their affairs, and democracy and Western integration are not on his agenda.

Meanwhile, the issue of energy looms large, as Mr. Putin seeks to exploit the principal asset at Russia’s disposal in enhancing its clout in the neighborhood. In the long run, Russia without the territory of Ukraine and Georgia and without a monopoly on natural gas distribution is just an ordinary country. However desirable that may be for Western values, including within Russia, at present it’s something Mr. Putin’s government rejects.

The question for Georgia and Ukraine, therefore, is truly existential. As Alexander Rondeli, the head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, which hosted the meeting, told me, “It’s the ‘to be or not to be’ moment, and Russia knows this.”

The question, then, becomes whether Georgia, especially, is a bridge too far for the West. Though the EU’s “neighborhood policy” does hold the promise of a substantial upgrade in integration and cooperation, clearly, the EU is not currently of a mind to be taking in new members on the far side of the Turkish border. For the moment, therefore, the real action is NATO. There, and there alone, is the security guarantee that will ensure Georgian independence and a Russia that remains within its current borders.

A NATO review team was in Georgia last week to asses the country’s progress under an interim partnership program. By all accounts, the team members were hugely impressed with what Georgia has been able to achieve. On the strength of its performance, Georgia is ready to step up to the Membership Action Plan, the final stage before an invitation to join the alliance.

Ukraine, too, is far along. The big question there is public opinion, which suffers a lingering hangover of skepticism about NATO from the pre-Orange days. Following elections later this month, Ukrainian leaders will have to get serious about making the case to their people.

Georgians, meanwhile, overwhelmingly support joining NATO. That, along with compliance with the technical criteria, ought to settle the matter. But as Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told me, an important question is whether worries about Russian sensitivities and energy access allow politics to trump the process. That would be bad news not only for Ukraine and Georgia but also, in the long run, for Western policy toward Russia, which shouldn’t be rewarded with success in its efforts to lean on its “near abroad.”

The Community for Democratic Choice is, first and foremost, about shared Western values. Georgia and Ukraine need a climate of mutual self-support, as well as assistance and advocacy on their behalf from European and American friends, as they continue to press reforms to consolidate the gains of their democratic revolutions.

They know that the question they pose to members of the trans-atlantic community about the reach of its institutions is one that would have been all but unimaginable only a few years ago. But the challenge posed by the Vilnius Group was, in truth, no less daunting in its day, and we got the answer right. Hard work on the part of aspiring members is necessary. If they deliver, they will get where they want to be, even from the eastern shore of the Black Sea.