World: NGO Forum Raises Tough Questions Ahead Of Vilnius Summit
By Jeremy Bransten
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
Leaders from the Baltic, Black Sea, and Caucasus regions will be meeting in Vilnius on May 4 for a conference entitled "Common Vision For A Common Neighborhood." The gathering brings together some of the EU's and NATO's newest members with their neighbors -- who remain outside the elite club. The goal is to try to chart a road map for stability and democracy for the entire region in the years ahead. Ahead of the summit, academics, economists and civil-society representatives met to discuss what the "common vision for a common neighborhood" should be.
VILNIUS, May 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Everyone at the NGO forum, as the event was dubbed, seems to agree that establishing stable, prospering democracies in places like Ukraine and the Caucasus will be much harder than the transformations that took place in Central Europe in the 1990s.
As Bruce Jackson, a former U.S. defense adviser in the Reagan administration and a leading thinker in U.S. neoconservative circles put it, countries like Georgia and Ukraine are not rebuilding democratic institutions -- they are constructing them from scratch.
And they are doing it, he argued, in the face of Russia's opposition. Moscow, he claimed, is doing its utmost to sabotage their efforts.
The Russia Question
Jackson, along with several other participants at today's forum argued for a wholesale re-evaluation of the West's relations with Moscow. He said Russia is using its energy policy and other tools to undermine democracy and Western reforms in neighbor states.
"The inherent threat that Russia poses to democracies on its borders should cause us to choose a competitive policy with Russia as the price we'll have to pay for solidarity with our values," Jackson said.
Istvan Gyarmati, head of Hungary's International Center for Democratic Transition, agreed, making the case for a more ambitious Western policy on Europe's eastern fringe.
Cooperation And Competition
Gyarmati invoked former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when he said today's Russia does not share the West's values. This means, he contended, that cooperation with Moscow is possible where interests are shared. But when they aren't, the West should not shy away from competition.
"We thought for a few years that we could establish with Russia a values-based cooperation," Gyarmati said. "I think we have to recognize -- politicians do not recognize they have made mistake -- but I think we have at least to recognize that at this point it's not possible, because our values differ. And therefore, our cooperation with Russia must be interest-based rather than values-based. This would be a fundamental change. I think it is in the process. But it will be a fundamental change, which leads to the conclusion that Bruce Jackson drew, that our relations with Russia [should be] both cooperative and competitive -- cooperative where our interests coincide and competitive where they don't. And in the democratization of Europe's East, they don't."
Where Does Europe Stand?
But if there is to be competition between the West and Russia, are Europe and the United States on the same team? Participants noted that Europe is worried about its energy supplies, meaning it remains wary of making any moves to alienate Moscow.
And when it comes to Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Moldova, how can these countries be encouraged to pursue democracy and tough market reforms without being offered the potential reward of EU membership?
There are, it seems, no easy answers.
European Commission official Hilde Hardeman acknowledged that there is now "enlargement fatigue" in the EU and that the organization will have to respond to that sentiment by halting its eastward expansion for now.
"We are forgetting about democracy within the European Union itself," Hardeman said. "The European Union is a union that has developed by the will of its member states, by the will of its population. And at this moment, I have to say, for reasons which I think we do not need to analyze here and now, there is no mood among the European citizens to continue the accession process."
A speaker from Azerbaijan came up with an apt metaphor. He said aligning the triple interests of security, energy, and democracy in the region was like solving a Rubik's cube -- you could get one or two of them lined up at the same time, but getting all three was almost impossible.
As noted, much of the discussion today centered on what approach to take toward Russia.
Moscow is not sending any high-level representatives to the Vilnius conference. But one Russian panelist at today's session accused the West of hypocrisy.
Boris Kuznetsov, director of the Moscow-based Center for International and Regional Policy, wondered why the West made a darling of former President Boris Yeltsin while demonizing current President Vladimir Putin.
"It's always difficult to hear harsh criticism of our country, of my country, when we are accused of being undemocratic, of having authoritarian tendencies," he said. "And this criticism comes from American and European colleagues. I'd like to ask them this question: where were you, esteemed colleagues, 10-15 years ago, when the trends in our country were not the most pleasant, when Mr. Yeltsin was violating election results, when IMF credits were being embezzled, when parliament was disbanded in Russia through force of arms. Why wasn't there sharp criticism of Russia and interference at that time? Because [the situation] suited everyone."
Kuznetsov said most ordinary Russians associated the word "democracy" with chaos and favored Putin's more authoritarian version of "managed democracy," which he argued had brought stability to the country.
As for spreading democracy eastward, Kuznetsov offered an analogy. He theorized that if Russia had supported the rise of leftwing leaders that are now cropping up across Latin America, Washington would be feeling very annoyed, even threatened. And that's how the Kremlin feels, he said.
All participants today agreed, however, that maintaining dialogue, despite the sharp exchange of views, was necessary.
The discussions set the tone for the May 4 leaders' summit, which will also include a keynote address by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney -- a figure likely to add to fuel to the controversy.