Washington Post on September 27, 2013, published a commentary by Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gershman wrote, has had some success recently using his support for the Assad regime in Syria to strengthen Moscow’s position in the Middle East. But his progress on this front is much less important than Moscow’s growing troubles in its “near abroad,” as it refers to the strategically vital area to its immediate west. Excerpts below:

In a replay of the classic East-West rivalry of the Cold War, but with the United States conspicuously on the sidelines, Russia has used economic and security threats to draw post-communist countries into its Eurasian Customs Union and to block the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which seeks the reform and possible eventual integration of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine into E.U. structures. Russian pressures have escalated with the approach of a November summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, at which several of the countries could sign association or free-trade agreements with the E.U.

So far only Armenia has buckled under Russian pressure, agreeing to join the customs union after Moscow, which guarantees Armenia’s security against neighboring Azerbaijan, signed contracts to provide Azerbaijan with $4 billion worth of military hardware.

Elsewhere, Moscow’s bullying has backfired.Russia has banned Moldovan wine, threatened to cut off gas supplies to that republic and warned that the people of its Russian-occupied separatist enclave of Transnistria would resist any agreement with the E.U. But Moldova remains committed to initialing a free-trade agreement with the European Union in Vilnius, and it has responded to the threat of an energy boycott by quickly agreeing with Romania to build a pipeline linking the two countries.

Georgia, for years the target of Russian boycotts and security threats, is ruled by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was rumored to be less anti-Russian than outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili. Yet Georgia, too, is about to initial a free-trade agreement in Vilnius, signaling that European integration is a national aspiration, not the choice of any particular party.

Ukraine is the biggest prize, and there Russia’s bullying has been particularly counter-productive. In addition to the usual economic threats and trade sanctions, including a ban on the import of Ukrainian chocolates, Putin offended Ukrainians during a state visit in July, saying that they and the Russians were a “single people,” and that the Ukranians had flourished under Soviet rule — totally ignoring the famine of the early 1930s that Ukrainians call the Holodomor, or “extermination by hunger.”

In short order, Ukraine’s parliament has passed reforms required by the E.U. dealing with such issues as corruption, tariffs and prisons; and the daughter of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former prime minister whose release the E.U. has insisted on, has said that she hopes her mother’s freedom might be imminent.

The Russian online newspaper said recently that “Blackmail is the worst possible way of advertising economic cooperation.”

The process playing out in Europe has attracted little attention in the U.S. media or from the Obama administration, which has been mostly preoccupied with the Middle East and its pivot to Asia. But the opportunities are considerable, and there are important ways Washington could help.

The United States needs to engage with the governments and with civil society in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to ensure that the reform process under way not only promotes greater trade and development but also produces governments that are less corrupt and more accountable to their societies.

Russian democracy also can benefit from this process. Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.

Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.


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