TCS Daily

Play It Again, Samovar

By Melana Zyla Vickers - June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

Play it again, Samovar. Recently, Russia for the third time since the fall of the Soviet Union began a "new level" of relations with the West, symbolized by its partnership with NATO in a NATO-Russia Council, by President Vladimir Putin's signing of a nuclear-arms reduction treaty with U.S. President George W. Bush, and by European countries welcoming Russia into the community of "market economies."

Such a "new level of mutual responsibility and trust," in President Bush's words, hasn't been reached since, well, 1997, when Russia and NATO formed a Permanent Joint Council, which subsequently fizzled. Or since the G7 meeting a decade ago when the quadriplegic Russian economy was welcomed into a new "G8." Or since last November, when Presidents Bush and Putin agreed in Crawford, Texas to reduce their nuclear arsenals - a move that in practice cuts U.S. warheads to the levels which Russia's rusting arsenal is quickly decaying.

The repetitive gushing and welcoming doesn't seem to bother Western diplomats, happy to continue expressing relief that Russia has not, since its defeat in the Cold War, acted as chauvinistically, violently or irresponsibly as its most truculent politicians vowed it would. Russia's resulting foreign-policy coup is that it has entered the Western circle not through any positive action, but through inaction. Ironically, that inaction was motivated as much by economic poverty and depleted military power as by actual political restraint.

The gushing certainly does frustrate Russia's neighbors in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, though. Many of those states have been busting their gut for a decade to get their economies and domestic and foreign policies into Western-style shape.

  • Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have instituted painful economic reforms, as a result clocking levels of investment and economic growth that Western Europeans might well envy.

  • Most countries in the region have made great progress in democratization, tolerating free elections and a free press.

  • Uzbekistan during the current Afghan war supplied the U.S. with bases, a move that put it at risk of retaliation by Muslim extremists and some of its neighbors.

  • Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons unilaterally.

  • Hungary during the Balkan conflicts permitted NATO to base there, a brave move given its proximity to Serbia. Numerous countries in the region have participated in NATO-led peacekeeping, none of them issuing the special conditions and complaints issued by Moscow.

  • Poland and the Czech Republic delegations to the U.N. have voted with the U.S. on several censures of Cuba and China, bold stands that are not matched by many West Europeans and for which the countries haven't been rewarded.

  • Bulgaria allowed its bases to be used for refueling in the Afghan war.

  • Georgia is deepening its military ties with the U.S.

These efforts to join the Western community and strengthen its economic and military security go with nary a mention in diplomatic circles, relegated to the occasional feature article in the mainstream press. After a few of the countries joined NATO, the other acts were all but forgotten. Central Europe's economies remain to this day locked out of Western European markets, as do the economies farther east. The Baltic countries are only this year being welcomed in NATO. And states east of Poland such as Ukraine or the Central Asians have no hope of joining the alliance as long as Russia grumbles that it doesn't want them to. The longer some of these states suffer isolation and neglect by Europe and the U.S., the greater the risk that they will implode. That risk makes the repetitive embrace of Russia all the more frustrating.

To be sure, Russia has done a few things right. Its military procurement has dropped 80% since 1992 and hundreds of thousands of troops have been cut. Economic improvements such as tax reforms have been implemented. And Russia is reportedly sharing with the U.S. intelligence on counter-terrorism. But that list needs to be supplemented. Among the needed improvements, Russia needs to end:

  • state domination of sectors of the economy, such as the heavily subsidize energy sector.

  • nuclear proliferation to such rogue regimes as Iran.

  • military abuses in Chechnya, where Russia's war violates the rules of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

  • persecution of the free press as well as religious minorities such as Catholics and Protestants.

  • covert meddling in the politics of Russia's now-independent neighbors - something about which politicians in several countries including Georgia and Ukraine have recently complained.

With the Cold War now a decade behind us, expectations for Russia should be raised. And the open arms directed at that giant state should be turned toward the new, smaller countries of the formerly Communist East, whether through trade-liberalizing agreements, improved military ties, or membership in cooperative organizations.

It is the rarely noticed little guys who have proven their friendliness and as a result bolstered the security of the trans-Atlantic community. They deserve to be rewarded for it.



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