October 29, 2008

Western Values and a More Suitable World for Russia

Following recent events in Georgia, the West is once again faced with a conflict between interests and values in its relationship with Russia. The question is how flexible are Western values this time around so as to make it possible to continue business as usual with Russia.

29.10.2008, Indrek Elling
Postimees (October 11, 2008)
Following recent events in Georgia, the West is once again faced with a conflict between interests and values in its relationship with Russia. The question is how flexible are Western values this time around so as to make it possible to continue business as usual with Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has lived with the hope and belief that Russia wants to become a Western country that respects certain key values including the readiness to put the interests of its citizens first. Yet Russia’s behaviour – especially over the last years – has indicated the opposite. Russia clearly does not want to be part of the West.
Rather than put the Russian people first, the Kremlin gives priority to strengthening the country’s political, military and economic power. Indeed, Russia is not moving closer to European values, such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and market economy.
The fact that Russia is distancing itself from European values does not mean that there cannot nor should not be any cooperation with Russia from now on. Dialogue between Russia and the West is possible despite the fundamental differences and contrasts that underpin the two societies. Dialogue between Russia and the West is also desirable. The West is definitely interested in having dialogue with Russia. And the same seems to apply to Russia.
The key question is what should be the nature of this dialogue. One principle should be that Moscow should not be allowed to unilaterally dictate the agenda. Another should be that the European Union and NATO should not give in to Russia’s demands simply for the sake of having dialogue and cooperation with Russia.
Unless we stock to these principles, we will eventually find ourselves living in a world we do not like. The emergence of this new world could be as unexpected and shocking for us as Russia’s aggression against Georgia. Negotiations with Moscow should not mean giving up our values just because we want to get along with Russia.
Some people in Estonia have concluded that a military conflict erupted in Georgia due to its strained relations with Russia, as if good relations with Russia were dependent on Georgia. In accordance with this line of thinking, they have reached the conclusion that in order to avoid a fate similar to Georgia, Estonia must have good relations with Russia. They believe that this would not only be politically beneficial for Estonia, but also economically profitable.
Unfortunately, good relations with Russia can only be achieved on Moscow’s terms. For Estonia and Georgia there is no middle ground. The list of concessions that the Kremlin would want both countries to make is in effect endless. By giving in to Moscow’s demands, Estonia would lose, first, its economic independence and then its political independence.
Estonia retains an Estonia-centred world view, but Russia does not. Moscow can, once again, think and act globally. In the eyes of the Kremlin, Estonia is merely a piece in a larger puzzle. Only parts of this picture have been publicly revealed to us over the recent years. It is, however, already obvious that the post-Cold War world is not to the Kremlin’s liking.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin has expressed his attitude towards the post-Cold War era. For Russia, this has been a humiliating era. His famous sentence describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century has been repeated ad nauseam. Russia’s current objective is to create a situation where its global standing would be similar to what it was during the Cold War.
Today Moscow has enough money and self-assurance to act purposefully – in Estonia and beyond. The re-establishment of the Republic of Estonia and our express wish to belong to the West have not suited Russia. Much to Moscow’s grief, there has not been a single pro-Kremlin government on Toompea Hill – this has reflected the will of the electorate in Estonia and nobody has acted against it.
Last year during the Bronze Soldier crisis, Nikolai Kovalyov, the head of a delegation of the Russian State Duma visiting Estonia, demanded that the Estonian government be replaced. Luckily governments in Estonia are replaced when power relations in our democratically elected parliament change, not as a result of direct or indirect pressure from the Kremlin.
The Kremlin – like a child – takes offence at everything from the preamble of the border treaty to the Bronze Soldier. People get offended. States, however, should act in accordance with their national interests. Russia wants to convey the impression that it is offended.
Russia pressures us very calmly and purposefully. Today Russia does not like our interpretation of history; tomorrow it will express concern over the treatment of their semi-mythological compatriots in Estonia. The key message is always the same: you have to get on with Russia and you must not anger Russia. If the Kremlin chooses to be displeased with something, we must, of course, rectify the situation immediately. However, if we keep playing this game, we will soon slip down the rabbit hole – on our way to a very different land!
In Russia’s power games it does not so much matter what is said, but rather who says it. When Estonia, owing to its good fortune, does not yield to the demands of the Russian State Duma, Russia directs its efforts elsewhere, trying to make us replace the Estonian government ourselves. The global economic crisis has created a more favourable, nervous climate for doing so.
The fear of losing risky investments made to Russia and personal bankruptcy seem to motivate some well-known businessmen to talking about ‘Estonia’s interests’ in the context of Russia. Their economic demise would probably bring about the loss of many jobs in Estonia. And yet it is well-know that doing business in Russia is a high-risk activity. The peculiarity of Russia’s business climate is that really profitable projects can be undertaken only in political agreement with the Kremlin.
Those who are in favour of so-called political pragmatism argue that Estonia’s foreign policy should not be oriented strictly towards the EU and NATO. They criticize the government for not being interested in a good relationship with Russia and for not appreciating the importance of having business relations with Russia. Indeed, some businessmen seem to know everything about foreign policy. They insist that we must avoid angering Moscow at the cost of our values, principles, national security and national interests. The implication is that Estonia should have silently condoned the attack against Georgia and its partial occupation.
The practice of using ‘Estonian nationalism’ and ‘pragmatism’ as antonyms has become recently more prevalent in the public mind. Suddenly, defending Estonia’s interests has turned into an ultra-nationalistic activity, although it should be our ultimate goal. Of course, Estonia’s interests can be defined in many ways, but we should be cautious when ‘Estonia’s interests’ start to resemble Russia’s interests in Estonia.
European countries, including Estonia, ask themselves constantly whether they should cooperate with Russia and what limits this cooperation should have. Whether to talk with Russia or not is a non-existent dilemma. As a rule, it goes against the values and nature of the Westerners not to talk. The West cannot say no to dialogue with Russia, because any kind of talking is always better than no talking at all.
So – the key question is not whether we should or should not communicate with Russia. Instead, we should ask ourselves whether we want or do not want to contribute to the creation of a new, more suitable world order for Russia. When planning our future actions, we should consider our every step from the perspective of whether it would strengthen our world together with our values or profit Russia in creating a more suitable world for itself.
At the moment, we cannot have it both ways. That is why we should use the above approach to tackle every single issue between Russia and the West, be it the provision of help to Georgia or something else.
In Estonia, we tend to get too enthusiastic about some states or topics, basing our attitudes towards them on the sole criterion of likeability. However, being a fan of something usually means that one day you get bored with it. Georgia provides a good example of this kind of enthusiasm. Even if we were aware of the developments that could have occurred there, we did not pay enough attention to them.
Only as recently as two or three years ago, some wise men who now talk about the emergence of a new security paradigm did not even consider Georgia an important security political issue for Estonia.
Estonians pull themselves together during crises – we can cooperate, break taboos and even cross some red lines that we have drawn for ourselves. It easier for us to make choices during crises, because the world becomes more black-and-white and, in a way, more value-based than it was before. But when an acute crisis is over, we sink back into self-complacency and our usual routines.
The West and Russia are inherently different from each other. We should aim to cooperate and to conclude agreements, avoiding at the same time the adoption of decisions that would undermine our values and principles. If we want to communicate with Moscow, we should respect it insofar as to listen to what it is saying. Sometimes it even looks like we are listening, but the policies of the West are not based on what has been heard.
Admittedly, the above is reminiscent of a paragraph from The Lord of the Rings, but alas this is what Russia has been doing lately – it is publicly and persistently engaged in creating an alternative, anti-Western world. In a situation like this, the main security guarantee for Estonia is the fact that we belong to the Western value-based world.
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