The West Must Be Serious in Its Support for Georgia and Ukraine

The recent collapse of Ukraine’s post-Maidan Revolution government, a brief war in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh and an announcement earlier this week by South Ossetia’s Russian-backed rebel leaders that they plan to hold a referendum on formally joining Moscow are a stark reminder for the West’s leaders that all is not well in the post-Soviet space.

For more than 20 years, presidents and prime ministers from Washington to Vienna have struggled to formulate a coherent and lasting policy towards the Soviet Union’s 15 former republics.

The early euphoria that swept the region shortly after the Soviet Union ceased to exist gave way to economic chaos and bloody separatist wars that claimed thousands of lives and fundamentally sabotaged the goodwill of the West.

The West, ever eager but woefully inadequate in its understanding of the vast complexities of the newly independent states, has vacillated between catering to the wishes of Russia at the expense of the other 14 states and taking firm steps towards shoring up the smaller, but no less important, nations on Moscow’s flank.

Russia has pursued a policy of subverting the West’s attempts to gain headway in a region that it considers its ‘near abroad’ Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years bristled at the notion that either the US or Europe has a strategic interest in the region. His worldview remains unchanged from his days as a KGB officer in the old German Democratic Republic.

It is because of his unwavering worldview that Putin has been able to undermine the efforts, or lack thereof, of successive Western governments who hoped to promote and expand the rule of law and democratic values throughout the former Soviet space.

Since the Soviet collapse, Moscow’s realpolitik view of its former imperial possessions has allowed it to subvert and control the development of each country by promoting endemic corruption and oligarchical by providing cheap money and political support to the many anti-democratic governments that rule from Minsk to Dushanbe.

Western leaders were quick to embrace revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that brought down corrupt discredited governments and ushered in periods of reform and re-orientation towards a Euro-Atlantic alliance.

But as we saw in Russia in the early 1990s when a reformist minded government failed to deliver on its promise to capitalize and democratize society, the mood in the body politic shifted to such an extent that the rise of populist nationalists and e-KGB agents became acceptable to the average citizen.

Georgia’s experiment with post-Soviet democracy, independent of Moscow’s corrosive influence has been mixed. While deep reforms ended the chaotic failed state era of two decades ago, the country has yet to shed its habit of electing a personality rather than a policy that best suits the country’s interests.

The successive administrations of former President Mikheil Saakashvili and ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili were based less on the national will and rather focused on the individual merits of the personalities involved. In the case of both, each saw their administrations accused of forcing the country down the wrong path.

The West’s distaste for the bombastic demagoguery of Saakashvili and crude oligarch authoritarianism of Ivanishvili tried their patience to the point that neither Washington nor Brussels takes much time to consider their strategic interests in Georgia as seriously as they did 10 years ago.

By leaving Georgia adrift the West risks losing a key player in the post-Soviet zone. Georgia has been the most successful of the former republics – outside of the Baltics – in terms of rule of law, freedom of speech and ease of doing business. Though both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili have been guilty of authoritarianism, the democratic process remains robust and deeply ingrained in Georgians’ minds.

Western countries must come to the realization that support for Georgia and Ukraine must be at the center of their foreign policy agendas. Moscow’s ability to foment wars in the South Caucasus or separatism in the Donbass basin force leaders in London and Berlin to come to the realization that a strategic plan must come into focus before the local populations turn on the hard fought reforms and democratic paths that they’ve longed for since 1991.

A failure to do so will inevitably lead to the end of both Tbilisi’s and Kiev’s drive towards finding an independent voice, free from the will of Putin’s Russia.

Nicholas Waller

14 April 2016 19:46