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A (short) Baltic history lesson for Georgia
By Edward Lucas
Russia’s mixture of economic, political and covert-action pressure on Georgia reminds me of another stormy and scary period, in the Baltic states in the 1990s, that changed history completely.
When I lived in the Baltics in the early 1990s, we used to pooh-pooh the prospect of NATO membership. The obstacles seemed insurmountable: Soviet occupation soldiers who wouldn’t go home; disputed borders with Russia; the expense; the gulf between NATO standards and those of the flimsy and ill-run Baltic home guards – and most of all the deafening lack of enthusiasm from the west.
But just as Russia’s economic sanctions shunted Baltic foreign trade westwards, its insistence that letting the Balts join NATO was “impermissible” (a favourite Kremlin word) was the strongest proof that membership of the alliance was not just desirable, but necessary. Russia neatly backed that up with footdragging on the withdrawal of the Russian military, refusal to recognise the Baltic states’ legal continuity from the pre-war period and endless huffing and puffing about the language and citizenship laws. It all made local support for NATO soar: when you scare people, they buy more insurance.
After a bit, the west came round, too. The Baltic states are still effectively indefensible; two of them (Estonia and Latvia) still lack border treaties with Russia. Yet, rather like the even less defensible West Berlin during the Cold War, they have gained a symbolic importance that means we cannot abandon them. Or so I hope.
As an illustration, just imagine how different history would have been if the Kremlin line in the 1990s had been: “Sure, go ahead and join NATO if you want. We wouldn’t dream of interfering and we want excellent relations with NATO ourselves anyway. Of course we will pull our troops out as soon as we can…and we will be delighted to sign border agreements as soon as possible, recognising your historical continuity.”
That message would have destroyed the case for NATO expansion overnight.
I doubt any of the ex-communist countries would have wanted to join and I doubt NATO would have wanted to have them anyway.
Now Russia is making the same mistake with Georgia. NATO’s appetite for expanding to the eastern shores of the Black Sea is mostly minimal. The alliance is dreadfully overstretched anyway and the last thing it needs militarily is another small poor country which needs a lot and (pipelines apart) offers little.
But Russia’s determination to see Georgia as part of a ‘near abroad’ over which it wields a geopolitical veto is creating the mood – already in Georgia and soon I hope in the west – in which the opposite will happen.
It is not just because bullying goes down badly. Russia has signally failed to show the benefits of being an ally. Every country that teams up with Russia ends up regretting it. Nobody in the Kremlin seems to have bothered to think about loyal little Armenia, savagely hit by the sanctions against Georgia. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko calls Putin “worse than Stalin” and is putting out feelers to the west. Cheap gas sounds nice initially – but it always comes at a high price.
The stubborn attractiveness of the ‘Euro-Atlantic orientation’ is striking given that it survives both the hideously botched occupation of Iraq and extraordinarily selfish agricultural protectionism. It must surely give the Kremlin foreign policy thinkers pause for thought that for all its faults NATO has a queue of real countries eager to join it, whereas only a handful of puppet states such as Transdniestria want to go in the other direction.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
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