Communism’s fall gave the nations of the former Soviet bloc a chance to turn towards democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law. Some countries cut ties decisively with the communist past; others were less successful; a few failed catastrophically.
Moldova and Georgia were in the last category until recently. Their economic and political failures were in large part due to secessionist movements — actively supported by Russia — that aimed at keeping both countries in the Kremlin’s “sphere of influence.” When bloody conflicts erupted in Transdnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, Russia turned its military presence into “peacekeeping” forces as a means of maintaining control.
It has long been feared that these so-called “frozen conflicts” could suddenly turn hot. Not only has this not happened, but we can now talk of solutions, as both Georgia and Moldova have begun to achieve breakthroughs to a market economy and democracy. The European Union’s “neighborhood policy” has also helped.
The starting point for these developments was Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” three years ago. From coming perilously close to being a failed state, Georgia has turned towards the West. The success of the various “color revolutions” in former Soviet-bloc countries also ignited change in Moldova, where President Vladimir Voronin launched reforms aimed at moving closer to the EU. These changes sparked new initiatives in Georgia and in Moldova to restore, peacefully, their territorial integrity.
Estonia’s experience suggests how Georgia and Moldova should shape their policies vis-a-vis Russia. When Estonia gained independence in 1991, Moscow sought to portray Estonia as a land with huge economic problems, unsuitable for investment. Estonia was indeed poor, and its main exports were scrap metal and timber, but its economy was growing.
Russia supported a so-called “autonomy-movement” in northeast Estonia, which is populated mostly by ethnic Russians who settled there during Soviet times. When Estonia resisted, Russia imposed sanctions and cut off gas supplies. The few Estonian products allowed into Russia were heavily taxed, and Russia even threatened military intervention.
But Estonia kept its nerve. Russian sanctions actually helped Estonia redirect its economy westward. Meanwhile, Western Europe did its utmost to integrate the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — while seeking to avoid conflict with Russia. A 1994 free-trade treaty with the EU enabled Estonian products to find new markets, and Estonia eventually became one of the most successful postcommunist transition countries, joining the EU and NATO in 2004.
When Georgia gained independence in 1991, it did not receive the same sort of help from Western Europe. True, Georgia seemed a less appealing partner than the Baltic states. The 1990′s were marked by coups, countercoups, and civil wars, with two regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — essentially breaking away with Russian support.
The country has done its best to live down it dismal past. Since the Rose Revolution, the economy has been reformed, the army has been strengthened, and the country’s leadership is young, dynamic, and eager to move the country forward.
Georgia’s 12 percent flat-rate income tax — probably the lowest in the world — has boosted the national budget. The government has raised pensions and increased social support. Corruption is decreasing and judicial reform has started. The economy grew by 8 percent in 2005 and more than 10 percent in 2006.
Georgia has tried to defuse tensions over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Russia accuses Georgia of aggression and ethnic cleansing. Its main goal is to inhibit Western support for Georgia, and to prevent reconciliation with the breakaway regions.
Russia, and to some extent the United States, are the powers that matter in Georgia. Europe must show that it matters, too. Estonia demonstrated — at independence and again during the recent crisis over the movement of a Soviet-era memorial — that with determination and strong support, Russian pressure can be resisted.
Europe must understand that Georgia does not need humanitarian aid, but trade. Just as a free-trade deal with Europe allowed Estonia to find new markets, it can be the means through which Georgians are able to help themselves.
Georgia can reasonably hope that it will achieve real independence, but what about Moldova, Europe’s poorest country and one threatened by Russia more than the Estonians — or, indeed, the Georgians — ever were?
Moldova’s lack of success at reform was partly the result of Russian-supported secessionist movements. It made a wretched start at independence when the industrial region of Transdnistria — populated by Russian and Ukrainian speakers who feared that the majority of Moldovans, who are of Romanian descent, planned closer ties with Romania — declared independence. Civil war followed, and in 1992 Russian troops entered Transdnistria, where they remain. Transdnistria’s independence has never been recognized, either by Moldova or internationally. It is said to be lawless and corrupt.
Moldova is deeply in debt, unemployment is high, and its once well-regarded wine industry is in decline. Russia occasionally cuts off its gas, and many of its four million people have left the country.
Only Russia can solve the problem. Moldovan officials have made five fruitless visits to Moscow to plead with President Vladimir Putin to explore a solution and withdraw Russian troops. A desperate Voronin has turned for help to the EU’s “border assistance mission,” but an EU initiative would need Russian cooperation.
Unfortunately, the West appears to lack up-to-date knowledge about the situation in Moldova. In April, for example, the EU and the US too learned of a proposed peace deal only from a leaked report in Germany. That deal would appear to favor Russia, with Moldova recognizing Transdnistria as a legitimate entity. If Russia has trumped the West, the precedent for Georgia and other weak post-Soviet states would be a dire one.