Russia Must Not Be Allowed To Turn Back The Tide Of Democracy

LONDON, UK -- The presence of the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine at a mass rally in Tbilisi this week provides pointers both to the past and the future. All these countries were once part of the Soviet empire.

Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko takes part in a rally to support Georgia and it's President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia's capital Tbilisi.

As a result, all of them fear that the Russian annexation of a large part of Georgia, and the West's weak response, presages further trouble from a country still smarting from what it regards as national humiliation in the 1990s.

Their participation in Tuesday's rally in support of President Mikheil Saakashvili makes an appropriate starting-point for examining the probable hot spots in Moscow's revanchist drive.

• Ukraine. On his return from Tbilisi, President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree ordering Russia to give 72 hours' notice of any movement by its ships and aircraft based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

In an obvious reference to Georgia, a statement from the country's Security Council said that that military presence posed "a potential threat to Ukraine's national security, particularly if parts of Russia's Black Sea Fleet are used against third countries".

The Kremlin responded by accusing Kiev of taking "a serious new anti-Russian step".

Mr Yushchenko has said his country has no intention of extending the Russian lease on the base beyond 2017, the limit fixed by a 1997 agreement, and in the meantime would like to negotiate an orderly departure. Moscow wants the 20-year lease to be renewed.

The Kremlin's dealings with its southern neighbour are coloured by the fact that medieval Kiev was the source of Russian culture, a sense of identification loosened by Khrushchev's transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 and further weakened by independence in 1991.

Ukraine has already felt the force of Kremlin disapproval of its Orange Revolution. In 2006, a dispute with the Russian state-owned Gazprom resulted in a temporary suspension of gas exports.

An obvious way of trying to reassert Kremlin authority over Ukraine would be to play on the differences between the nationalistic west of the country and the parts of the east and south that are more sympathetic to Russia.

However, having freed themselves from old Soviet empire, Ukrainians are unlikely to accept submission to the new authoritarian order created by Vladimir Putin. Russian aggression will, rather, strengthen their sense of nationhood.

• The Baltic States. While Ukraine has merely been promised eventual membership of Nato, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are already anchored within it.

Unfortunately, that has not stopped Kremlin interference in their internal affairs, whether in "championing" the rights of Russian-speaking minorities by imposing economic sanctions or in apparently subjecting Estonia to cyber attack following the moving of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn.

With Lithuania, which has a smaller russophone population than its Baltic partners, the main bone of contention is Russian access to the exclave of Kaliningrad.

• Poland. The most rebellious of the old Soviet satellites, Poland is now a leading member of both Nato and the EU. But, like Estonia, it is concerned about Kaliningrad and, along with the Czech Republic, has been threatened with reprisals by Moscow if it hosts an American missile shield.

• Moldova. Less prominent than the other potential hot spots, this impoverished Romanian-speaking republic is the subject of both Western and Russian proposals for its forming a confederation with russophone Transdniestria. Economic pressure from Moscow is aimed at persuading Moldova to accept the Russian peace plan.

Events of the past week have their origins in Mr Putin's Millennium Manifesto, a 1999 blueprint for restoring Russia's status as a great power.

The Second Chechen War, which sealed his democratic legitimacy, his relentless buttressing of presidential authority, the rise in his anti-Western rhetoric and now the invasion of Georgia have given America and its allies ample a clear indication of the threat he poses to the newly-won freedoms of eastern Europe.

Nato's ambiguous response to Georgian and Ukrainian requests to join its Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit in April merely encouraged the Russians, who had already warned of repercussions following Kosovo's declaration of independence. The allies have an opportunity to remedy their timidity in December, when that request is due for review.

A thuggish Russian leadership is trying to banish a sense of victimhood occasioned by what it sees as Western triumphalism in the 1990s. The response of Nato and the EU should be a united reassertion of the principle of self-determination.

That applies, of course, to the Baltic States and Poland, but also to Ukraine, a pivotal factor in European security, and to Georgia, the brightest beacon of democracy in the Caucasus. Moscow should be isolated diplomatically, subjected to economic sanctions and given no occasion to pursue its usual tactic of undermining multilateral organisations by bilateral deals.

The attempt to bring Russia into a new concert of powers has failed. Forty years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Moscow has, in the words of David Miliband, given "a chilling reminder of times … we hoped had gone by". But Western leaders cannot claim that they were not warned.

Source: Telegraph UK