Before I get into the thrust of today’s business, I’d like to preface my argument by stating unequivocally that nobody can find former Soviet peoples as occasionally frustrating as I do. I’m not just referring to the fact that Georgians have no idea what the concept of patience might be, or that Ukrainians are fine with corruption providing that it’s the pro-Western kind, or that Armenians believe everyone important who has ever lived was, in fact, Armenian.
I’m referring to the fact that there is something of a two steps forward, two miles back approach to post-Soviet politics. Because of this, I fully understand the European position that seems to be a wish for the whole place to just go away, whether it’s because Kyiv has decided that the best man to be president is someone who played one on TV, or because Georgia is ruled by a shadowy billionaire recluse who is about as subtle as the bombing of Hiroshima.
As critical as I am (and about to be) of European diplomacy, I will concede that it isn’t easy. When Georgia’s puppet master publicly declares for the third time that he’s done with politics, but then the prime minister resigns – again – and is replaced by a known lapdog to the billionaire – again – I can see why any EU diplomat in Tbilisi would sigh, examine their thinning hair in the mirror, and consider a transfer to the Congo.
After all, they know what’s coming: protests, violence, allegations of police brutality, followed by insistence from the authorities that the protestors were breaking the law; a collective course of events that I like to call the Former Soviet Government Shuffle. Or perhaps they look with equal exasperation at Alexander Lukahshenko sitting in Minsk, torturing his people, and deciding that he wants 80% of the vote, much in the same way that I once demanded of my parents that I wanted both chocolate cake and ice cream
Unfortunately, there isn’t anyone in Minsk who can threaten to force-feed him fruit if he doesn’t behave.
Not that matters are helped by the standard of opposition. This week, I interviewed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – the ‘little girl’ who has outraged King Lukashenka by winning at democracy, and who cheated because she actually played by the rules – for The Spectator. During the interview, I asked what position Belarus would adopt on the West. The media in the UK and elsewhere have seemed to think that (as in the case of Alexei Navalny) since she is anti-corruption and pro-democracy, she is automatically a natural friend of the West, and having her as president would put Belarus on the same theoretical pro-Western path as Georgia and Ukraine – admittedly, it is a path which Kyiv and Tbilisi are staggering on like men who have decided that adding vodka to their beer will only help matters.
This idea has certainly been reinforced by the favour she has been shown by Brussels, and although she has expressed disappointment in the lack of firm action, Europe is certainly in her corner.
And yet, when I stated that she had publicly indicated a pro-Western orientation, she was quick to correct me. “My position has not been pro-Western,” I was told quite directly. Now, if I was her PR person, at this point I’d be screaming into my hat and thinking about joining the Foreign Legion. While she has some justifiable complaints about the lack of a firm Western response against Lukashenko, I don’t see how she’s going to get Brussels to get up off of its substantial rump and be more assertive by stating that she’s probably not going to be a firm ally anyway.
Tikhanovskaya has, in my view, also missed her chance to completely redirect Belarus’ foreign policy away from the Kremlin, although, as she stated herself to me later in the interview, that isn’t what she’d want. Still, even with that being the case, I’m not sure it’s prudent to reject any suggestion of pro-Western sentiment so bluntly. As she conceded, Western help would be welcome, but it’s hardly likely to come if it doesn’t seem as though it will be appreciated.
Matters are not much better in Georgia. Of course, the government and its shadowy controller (a term which I don’t much like since it suggests he is capable of subtlety) are proving themselves to be more incompetent and petty every year. Despite the insistence of the authorities that they are pro-West and the repetitive accusations of the opposition that they are pro-Russia, so far they have only succeeded in angering and annoying both Brussels and the Kremlin. I suppose the capability to infuriate everyone simultaneously does take a special sort of talent, but I rather think it would be more suited to parties as opposed to international politics.
As useless, dishonest, and corrupt as the ruling party in Georgia might be, the opposition is hardly inspiring. Half still believe that for Georgia to be a truly successful democracy, it can only be ruled by one man – the increasingly unhinged ex-president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The other half say that it’s time for fresh faces, despite the fact that they themselves have been in politics for 20 years.
This, in fact, is the unifying factor. Like Hollywood actors continuing to air their political opinions, they simply do not understand that people have long since become tired of their nonsense, and would prefer not to see them again.
It could be that as the aspirations of membership in EU and NATO are never actually realized for Ukraine and Georgia, politicians no longer feel the need to try and conform to standards that are set in a place that is very far from the daily political social realities of Ukrainians and Georgians.
The carrot is dangled, but there is never any reward, and so politicians in the former Soviet space – most of whom who tend to be fairly mercurial, as a breed – might well abandon trying to keep up the pretence of being just like their smiling, patronising European partners.
They might also think that if corruption and backsliding are as demonstrably alive and well in the West as they are in the former Soviet Union, who are Europeans and Americans to criticize them for doing similar things.
To a Europe that has become overly focused on its internal affairs, it may not be immediately apparent what can be done about the failings of former Soviet peoples who do not always appear to be overly enthusiastic about the West anyway.
I would argue that the West needs them – there is something to be said for strategic asset denial, and while there may not be much interest or motivation to let them into NATO or the EU, if these places come under Russian control (or at least influence) once again, perhaps in a few decades the West will wish it had acted differently.
With regards to what to actually do, I would borrow a little from the books of those two great Europeans – Bismarck and Napoleon. Would they set vague criteria over how to achieve membership? Would they say to Kyiv and Tbilisi ‘Well, you’re doing great! Keep going! And we’ll talk about membership…ah…a little later – sorry, I really have to take this call’? Would they express ‘grave concern’ and talk about ‘deepening cooperation’ ad infinitum?
The answer to all of those questions, of course, is an emphatic ‘no’ – mostly because both of them had an invade-first, ask-questions-later style, but hopefully, the point is made. If one were to say to Georgia, ‘Right, we don’t care who’s in charge, whether it’s Georgian Dream, Saakashvili, or the United Alliance of Uncle Tom Cobleigh. If you don’t tick these boxes within six years, your European aspirations are dead in the water’. And perhaps to Belarus and Tikhanovskaya, ‘Not pro-Western are you? Right, well, shall we discuss your asylum case within our borders? Or would you like to discuss how Belarus has hardly profited from being a Russian client state?’.
It’s a blunt approach, no doubt, and hardly the way of European politics anymore. But it is the approach used by Europe’s rivals, and it’s effective. Perhaps that’s the point. The West should look to be effective rather than nice and should go back to trying to set an example.