Jul 30th 2009
The tough sell of soft power
FOREIGNERS visiting Moldova have plenty of people to talk to. Poverty and geopolitical woes mean that the country attracts an above-average bunch of outsiders. But local voices are even more impressive. One of them is Natalia Morar, a feisty 25-year-old investigative journalist. Finding Ms Morar at home in Moldova used to be rather difficult—she worked as an investigative reporter for New Times, an independent magazine based in Moscow. But in late 2007 she published an article called “The black cash of the Kremlin” about the way in which rake-offs from business were used to finance Russian politics. For that she was expelled from Russia (and even marrying a Russian colleague has been not enough to get her back into that country).
Now Ms Morar is in trouble in Moldova too. She was charged with sedition after the protests in April against election-rigging. Since then she has been unable to leave the country. That makes it easy to meet Ms Morar to discuss both authoritarian crony capitalism in Russia and its more diluted but still unpleasant local equivalent.
It is harder to meet another luminary of Chisinau life: Alex Grigorievs. A Latvian-born veteran of that country’s independence struggle, he runs the National Democratic Institute, an American-funded think-tank that has been trying to help Moldova’s fractious politicians to work together better—“coalition-building”, in NGO speak. That has gone down poorly with the authorities: Mr Grigorievs has been hounded out of the country and is now based in Odessa, in neighbouring Ukraine.
Other countries that are supposedly getting closer to the European Union have similar stories. In Belarus, the authorities are hassling an independent protestant church, New Life, (which just happens to be popular with the country’s downtrodden Roma minority). In Azerbaijan, two hapless bloggers have been jailed for producing an amusing and harmless video sketch in which a donkey holds a news conference in front of a respectful audience of journalists (any resemblance to the country’s politicians and their relationship with the pliant local media is entirely coincidental). And in Georgia Vasili Sulkhanishvili, the director of a London-based asset-management company, has been arrested and placed in solitary confinement until he pays $1m to settle a dispute about back taxes (there are doubtless two sides to the issue, but the story so far supports those who believe that the bad old ways of doing business in Georgia are not yet extinct).
An alarming aspect of all this is that western protests have been so minimal. The American embassy in Moldova, for example, has not exactly championed Mr Grigorievs’ case. Nor has anyone much been sticking up for Ms Morar. An official invitation to Brussels, Berlin or London, say, would signal opposition to the way she has been treated. It is the same story in Azerbaijan (where the West worries about pipelines, not bloggers) and in Belarus, where the regime’s relations with Moscow are pleasingly icy.
The assumption seems to be that by overlooking abuses of power, the West can persuade the rulers of the countries in Russia’s shadow to loosen their ties with the Kremlin. If so, that is a disastrous mistake. Geopolitical armwrestling favours the more ruthless partner: Europe will never beat the Kremlin there. The long-term hope for expanding the EU eastwards lies in its soft power: the idea that political freedom, the rule of law and an open economy work, whereas protectionism and cronyism do not. If the West doesn’t believe that, and promote it, why should anyone else?
Friday, September 04, 2009