WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin has had some success recently using his support for the Assad regime in Syria to strengthen Moscow’s position in the Middle East. But his progress on this front is much less important than Moscow’s growing troubles in its “near abroad,” as it refers to the strategically vital area to its immediate west.
In a replay of the classic East-West rivalry of the Cold War, but with the United States conspicuously on the sidelines, Russia has used economic and security threats to draw post-communist countries into its Eurasian Customs Union and to block the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which seeks the reform and possible eventual integration of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine into European Union structures. Russian pressures have escalated with the approach of a November summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, at which several of the countries could sign association or free-trade agreements with the EU.
So far only Armenia has buckled under Russian pressure, agreeing to join the customs union after Moscow, which guarantees Armenia’s security against neighboring Azerbaijan, signed contracts to provide Azerbaijan with $4 billion worth of military hardware.
Elsewhere, Moscow’s bullying has backfired. Russia has banned Moldovan wine, threatened to cut off gas supplies to that republic and warned that the people of its Russian-occupied separatist enclave of Transnistria would resist any agreement with the EU. But Moldova remains committed to initialing a free-trade agreement with the EU in Vilnius, and it has responded to the threat of an energy boycott by quickly agreeing with Romania to build a pipeline linking the two countries.
Georgia, for years the target of Russian boycotts and security threats, is ruled by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was rumored to be less anti-Russian than outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Yet Georgia, too, is about to initial a free-trade agreement in Vilnius, signaling that European integration is a national aspiration, not the choice of any particular party.
Ukraine is the biggest prize, and there Russia’s bullying has been particularly counter-productive. In addition to the usual economic threats and trade sanctions, including a ban on the import of Ukrainian chocolates, Putin offended Ukrainians during a state visit in July, saying that they and the Russians were a “single people,” and that the Ukranians had flourished under Soviet rule — totally ignoring the famine of the early 1930s that Ukrainians call the Holodomor, or “extermination by hunger.”
In an Independence Day speech at the end of August, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called association with the European Union “an important stimulus for forming a modern European state.”
In short order, Ukraine’s parliament passed reforms required by the EU dealing with such issues as corruption, tariffs and prisons; and the daughter of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister whose release the EU has insisted on, has said that she hopes her mother’s freedom might be imminent.
The Russian online newspaper Gazeta.ru said recently that “Blackmail is the worst possible way of advertising economic cooperation.” But Russia’s problem is more than tactical. Its post-communist neighbors prefer the relative dynamism of Europe — with all its debt and growth problems — to Russia’s stagnant economy, and they have no interest in sharply raising tariffs, which joining the protectionist Eurasian Customs Union would require.
The process playing out in Europe has attracted little attention in the U.S. media or from the Obama administration, which has been mostly preoccupied with the Middle East and its pivot to Asia. But the opportunities are considerable, and there are important ways Washington could help.
The U.S. needs to engage with the governments and with civil society in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to ensure that the reform process underway not only promotes greater trade and development but also produces governments that are less corrupt and more accountable to their societies. An association agreement with the EU should be seen not as an end in itself but as a starting point that makes possible deeper reforms and more genuine democracy.
Russian democracy also can benefit from this process. Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents. There are signs of the emergence of a new Russian nationalism: the strong performance by opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow’s recent mayoral election and polls that show greater opposition to Putin in the Russian provinces, his traditional support base.
This nationalism is concerned not with the restoration of Russia’s imperial greatness, which would be inconceivable if Ukraine joined Europe, but with fighting corruption and addressing the severe economic and social problems of the Russian people.
Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.
Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.