Compromise With Russia, Compromise on Democracy?

By not accepting certain countries into the EU or NATO, the West would not be condemning their democratic aspirations to Russian predation.

What is playing out in Ukraine is the culmination of a decades-old argument between the West and Russia about post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The Washington-Brussels argument is that countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have the right to join the EU and NATO and that their accession to these blocs promotes security, prosperity and democracy in Eastern Europe. Moscow’s argument is that these countries’ joining exclusive Western alliances would harm Russia’s own security and economic interests and is therefore unacceptable. While the West rejects Russia’s position as unfounded, insincere and imperialist, it is likely to concede to Moscow and halt further expansion. Western leaders have shown a willingness to accept these countries’ neutrality and little appetite for prolonged, serious conflict with Russia. President Barack Obama recently said that neither Ukraine or Georgia are on a path to NATO membership and expanding the EU further east is very unpopular in Western Europe.

But what will make accepting this neutrality hard for many in the West, and therefore drag the conflict out, is the fear that, in compromising with Russia, we are compromising on our commitment to democracy in post-communist Europe. This fear stems from two beliefs: first, that NATO and EU expansion are the best guarantees of democracy in that region; second, that in opposing this expansion, Russia is really opposed to democracy in its neighborhood. As John McCain put it, “Vladimir Putin does not want a democracy on his borders. That would be a very bad example, from his point of view, to be set for the Russian people.”

The good news is that, despite these fears, Russia has shown no particular concern with democratization in its near abroad. To be sure, Moscow has bullied its neighbors and, in so doing, often hurt governments that were seeking democratic reforms. But a review of Russia’s recent relations with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine—three countries that have seen significant improvements in democratic governance and that have found themselves in conflict with Moscow—shows no evidence that Putin intervenes to quash democracy. However, what Russia has consistently reacted badly to is these countries seeking NATO and EU membership.

We can conclude from this that, by not bringing countries into the EU or NATO, the West would not be condemning their democratic aspirations to Russian predation. We can further conclude that by pushing for expansion, we are only increasing the likelihood of Russia taking action against its neighbors, thereby undermining democratic reform. Seeing EU and NATO expansion as tools for promoting democracy may have made sense for that last round of East European entrants into these clubs. But as recent events have shown, this model cannot be replicated for the non-Baltic post-Soviet states, at least not now. Simply put, the West has shown itself far less willing and able to push this expansion than Russia has shown itself willing and able to block it. Therefore, it is time for the West to develop other approaches for promoting our values and interests in this part of the world.

Russia, its Neighbors and Democracy

Democratization is hard to measure, but researchers try. Groups such as Freedom House track indicators, like free elections and human-rights observance, and periodically assign countries democracy scores. This gives us at least a rough picture of how countries are (or aren’t) democratizing. Hans-Joachim Lauth at the University of Wurzburg produces a database that, once every two years, merges all the major democracy-rating studies into a Combined Democracy Index. This provides a basic measuring stick for changes in democratization in the former Soviet Union.

If Russia’s true aim in its near abroad is to suppress democracy, we would expect to see it punish countries when they democratize. At first glance, the misconception that Russia opposes democratization may make sense. Starting in 2002, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine saw significant improvements in their democracy index, followed by a period of tension with Russia. A closer look at this picture, though, shows no real correlation between a country democratizing and Russia taking action against it.     

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