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Frozen conflicts 2: Handling Moscow: Tips from Estonia for Georgia and Moldova

Conflicts in Georgia and other parts of the South Caucasus region owe much to Russia's "peace-keeping" policies in the region, says Mart Laar, a former Estonian prime minister. He tells how his country's experience is relevant to the resolution of these conflicts

The fall of communism gave all the nations of the former Soviet bloc a chance to turn towards democracy, a market economy and the rule of law. But their transitions turned out to be very different. Some countries moved decisively forward, cutting their ties with the communist past, others were less successful and a few failed catastrophically. Moldova and Georgia were until very recently, in this latter category. The failure of their economic and political reform efforts was in large part due to secessionist movements actively supported by Russia, that were aimed at keeping both countries in Moscow's "sphere of influence". And then, when bloody conflicts erupted in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, Russia turned its military presences there into "peace-keeping" forces as a means of maintaining control over the region.

Of course, it's long been feared that the "frozen conflicts" of the South Caucasus region could at any moment turn hot. Not only has this not happened, but we can even talk now of possible solutions to these conflicts. And we can mainly do so because of the changes that in recent years have seen Georgia and Moldova both begin to achieve breakthroughs to a market economy and democracy. The European Union's role in helping them find solutions to their problems as part of its new neighbourhood strategy has also been very positive.

The starting point for these positive developments was Georgia's "Rose revolution" three years ago. From being perilously close to a failed state, Georgia has since enjoyed rapid progress towards democracy and has made a decisive turn towards the West and western values. The success of the various "coloured revolutions" in former Soviet-bloc countries also ignited change in Moldova, where President Vladimir Voronin launched a significant reform process and declared his aim of moving closer to the European Union. All these changes, meanwhile, sparked new initiatives in Georgia and in Moldova to find solutions to the frozen conflicts and to restore by peaceful means their countries' territorial integrity.

Estonia's experience may be of interest in assessing how best Georgia and Moldova should shape their policies vis-à-vis Russia. When Estonia gained independence in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow was understandably angry. It sought to create a picture in the western media of 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 north-east Estonia, which is populated mostly by people who settled there during Soviet times. When Estonia stood firm against this, Russia started sanctions and cut off gas supplies. The few Estonian products allowed into Russia were heavily taxed and even military intervention was threatened. But Estonia kept its nerve. Russia's sanctions actually helped Estonia to re-direct its economy from east to west. Meanwhile western Europe was doing its utmost to integrate the Baltic states − Lithuania and Latvia as well as Estonia − while at the same time seeking to avoid possible conflict with Russia. Economically, with European help, Estonia eventually became one of the most successful transition countries in central and eastern Europe, joining the European Union and NATO in 2004.

Georgia, too, gained its independence in 1991. But did not receive the sort of help from western Europe that Estonia got. A 1994 free-trade treaty with the European Union enabled Estonian products to find new markets, but unfortunately the same was not the case for Georgia. The European Union's neighbourhood policy has been weak and passive, and so created no real opportunities for Georgia.

It is true that Georgia has seemed a less appealing partner than the Baltic states. Georgia's first president after independence, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was soon deposed in a coup. During the ensuing civil war, former Soviet foreign minister and native Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze joined the leaders of the coup. In 1995 he was elected president, and then re-elected in 2000. During his presidency two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, broke away. Supported by Russia, they claimed independence. In 2003, Shevardnadze was deposed in what came to be called the "Rose revolution" after opposition politicians backed by international monitors charged that parliamentary elections had been fraudulent.

The country has done its best to live down it dismal past. A democratic Georgia has made a decisive turn to the West and western values. The economy was reformed and has grown, and the army has been strengthened. The new leadership of the country is young and dynamic and keen to move the country forward. Georgia's 12% flat rate income tax – probably the lowest in the world – has been very successful in boosting the national budget. The government has raised pensions and increased social support. Corruption is decreasing and reform of the judiciary has started. The economy grew by 8% in 2005 and more than 10% in 2006. The United States showed its approval in 2005 with a visit to Georgia by George W. Bush, the first American president to visit the country while in office. But despite all this, the European Union seems to be taking a more considerate attitude to Georgia's breakaway regions than to Georgia itself.

Georgia has tried many times to defuse tensions over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Russia accuses Georgia of aggression and of ethnic cleansing in the regions. Its main goal is to inhibit western political support for Georgia and prevent Ossetian and Abkhaz reconciliation with Georgians. Russia, and to some extent the United States, are the powers that count in Georgia. Europe must show that it counts too, as it did in the Baltic. Estonia demonstrated that with determination and strong support from Europe, Russian pressure can be resisted, so Georgia should take heart. For a start, Europe must understand that Georgia does not need humanitarian aid but trade. Just as a trade deal with Europe allowed Estonia to find new markets, it would be the means through which Georgians are able to help themselves.

Georgia can reasonably hope that it will achieve real independence, but what is one to say about Moldova, Europe's poorest country and one threatened by Russia more than the Estonians, or indeed the Georgians, ever were?

As with Georgia, Moldova's lack of success in reforming its economy and its political system was partly the result of secessionist movements supported by Russia. It made a wretched start as a formally independent country when its industrial region of Transdniestria declared independence. Transdniestria is mostly populated by Russian and Ukrainian speakers who feared that the majority of Moldovans, who are of Romanian descent, planned closer ties with Romania. Civil war followed and in 1992 Russian peacekeepers, or occupiers, moved into Transdnistria and are still there. Transdniestria's independence has never been recognised, 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 trade is in decline. Russia cuts off its gas supply from time to time, demanding more money. Many of its 4m or so people have left the country. The country's president, Vladimir Voronin, was a Moldovan government minister in Soviet times. Although still a communist, he looks longingly towards the European Union. However, only Russia, it seems, can solve the problem of Transdnistria. Moldovan officials have made five apparently fruitless visits to Moscow to plead with President Putin to explore a possible solution and withdraw the Russian "peacekeepers". An increasingly desperate Voronin has turned for help to the European Union's "border assistance mission", but an EU initiative would presumably need Russian cooperation.

The lack of up-to-date knowledge of Moldova in both the European Union and the United States became evident this April, when the two only learnt of a proposed peace deal as a result of a leaked report in Germany. "Now officials in Washington DC, and Brussels are urgently seeking clarification," reported British newsweekly The Economist. The deal would appear to be in Russia's favour, with Moldova recognising Transdnistria as a legitimate entity for the first time, and Transdnistria keeping its Supreme Soviet. "Russia has, for once, trumped the West," commented The Economist.

Sourse: Europe's World


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