2013’s Year of Upheaval

2013 was the year so many assumptions about the former Soviet Union either died or went on life support. Almost all of the bad news revolved around the European Union.

The Eastern Partnership crumbled this year.

Ukraine was expected to sign an Association Agreement to bring it into closer diplomatic ties with the EU and to open a free trade agreement that would open both economies to each other at long last. Instead, Russian pressure and European cluelessness and naivete combined to leave Ukraine caught between an aggressive former imperial master and an indifferent trading partner. Ukraine rejected the Association Agreement for the time being, leading to head-scratching in European capitals where national interest is a thing of the past, and a smug grin in Moscow where national interest rules all.

Today, Europeans can be heard griping that the $15 billion bailout that Ukraine received from Russia is identical to what it would have received from the IMF. Yet this merely shows the depths of European negligence: The IMF set as one of its critical conditions that Kiev allow many of its citizens to freeze to death, and Europe as a whole pretended that a Russian trade embargo was a mere triviality. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s promises to keep the door open to Europe are once again treated as a foregone conclusion, rather than a dangerous gamble of his political base to keep alive a dream the rationale for which grows dimmer by the day.

This complete misreading of geopolitics not only cost Brussels its entree to the second-most-populous country in Europe, it also cost it Armenia, lost to Russian maneuvering in the lead-up to the disastrous Vilnius summit. Moldova will soon lose Transnistria to Russian adventurism, and Georgia is sliding into status as a Russian client-state even as it goes through the motions with Brussels, and Azerbaijan is increasingly an island surrounded by Russian advances.

The balance of power in Central Asia tilted East.

No one should mistake Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan — or even Kazakhstan — as on the same democratic par as Ukraine, but while Europe was fixated on bumbling its chance to open a new eastern frontier, its near abroad was once again falling more and more prey to Russian empire-building. Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s growing alliance is within striking distance of creating a new regional power center even as the two slowly cede more and more strength to Moscow. China has become a regional player as well, and while Moscow and Beijing are not fast allies, they are the only players in the game right now. The region’s huge natural gas and oil reserves are fast becoming an Eastern, rather than a Western, asset, and the imprisoned peoples of these states are falling farther into an ongoing night of despotism.

The Baltics are trouble.

Not “in trouble,” though Latvia and Lithuania arguably are. As our own Rich Seibert has noted, the Baltics are both exemplars to Europe of what it could be, and painful reminders of the Soviet legacy writ large. Their economies suffer from dysfunctional regulatory frameworks and dependence on Russia, their politics are clouded by Russian minorities (transplants from the Soviet era), and their governing classes are blithely uninterested in their populaces’ wishes as euro accession approaches and passes in the rearview mirror.

Actually, that last is a very European attitude.

Nevertheless, these countries also show both the perils and profits of austerity, as Estonia and Latvia in particular have both profited from and seen their economies held back by hard cuts to services and government spending. This is the example Germany wishes the South would internalize, less all the messy bits about anemic growth that follows.

The European project for the former Soviet Union is in danger.

2014 will be the year that Europe’s mettle is truly tested. The challenge of regaining Ukraine cannot be left to hoping for a government willing to freeze its people to death; the Orange government in 2009 rejected precisely this option in rejecting NATO and illegally signing a horrible natural gas deal with Russia. Instead, Brussels must recognize that Kiev’s first duty is to its people, and offer help to effect a Westward transition. Moldova and Georgia must be brought more directly into the fold, and importantly, their territory protected. Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh must end peacefully or else war becomes more likely.

The European project began as an effort to make certain that another continent-wide war would never erupt. It morphed into a shared market and political alliance; but at its root, it is about peace, prosperity, and security in Europe. If Brussels holds to these key goals, all will be well. If not, 2014 will be worse by far than 2013.

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