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We have a Duty to Protect our Eastern Allies

The biggest political dividing-line in the world at the moment is between those who continue to believe in and defend Western values and those who do not. This competition of ideas is visible in many places worldwide – from the universities of Hong Kong to the streets of Venezuela. Sadly, these struggles are also fought on the European continent, with the most evident frontline in our Eastern neighbourhood. The people of Ukraine and Georgia, as well as many individuals in other countries of the region, have proved that they are ready to transform their countries into open, democratic, inclusive, free market, and rules-based societies.

Understandably, they don’t want to live in a grey zone anymore, with corrupt Soviet-rooted elites, inefficient institutions and oligarch driven economies. This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, a project which was designed to assist our neighbours in this transformation. It is a perfect occasion to develop a new strategic approach in the future of our relationship. The European Parliament is working on its positions. I am rather optimistic that we will be able to present an ambitious strategy for further and closer partnership and I am also certain that such steps will be counteracted by those, who in the past, used to deprive the nations of Eastern Europe of their freedoms.

Undoubtedly, Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians are geographically, historically and culturally part of Europe and the process of integrating them with Western institutions is of key importance for the stability, prosperity, and security of the continent as a whole.  Such processes cannot exclude merit-based perspectives of fully-fledged EU membership in accordance with Article 49 of the Treaty of the European Union and as stated in Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

It is the sovereign right of Eastern Partners to freely choose their individual level of cooperation or integration and we must reject any external pressure on their strategic choice. That’s why we should encourage future European Council Presidencies to prepare detailed and ambitious agendas of cooperation with Eastern Partnership countries, which would help to shape our relations in a mutually desired direction in the decades to come. The upcoming 2020 Eastern Partnership Summit should inject new dynamism in the relationship between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries.

The successful transformation of just one of these countries will yield a positive example for all others.  It is a standard that supports neighbouring countries to build prosperous economies, strengthen institutions, and foster open societies.  However, for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his acolytes, such a transformation would bring an end to their post-Soviet kleptocratic system.

Not accidentally, Putin has deployed all of his assets to destabilise Ukraine, and continues to meddle in Georgia and Moldova, whilst pressuring Belarus, and fueling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin’s desire to thwart freedom of choice is why a majority of conflicts in Eastern Europe continue to see Russia play an active role as either an aggressor or occupying force.

The Kremlin continues to see the decisions of the Georgian, Ukrainian, or Montenegrin societies to unify themselves with the Western world as a threat to its power and influence. However, it cannot continue to undermine the sovereign decisions of countries to choose their own directions. We, Poles, would never agree to discuss our future above our heads. Eastern Europe can never go back to being an arena of Russian power.

Those of us who believe in the Western values of democracy, free speech, individual freedoms, social cohesion, and free trade must recognise our partners and friends globally and support them whenever we can. In Europe’s neighbourhood, Georgia is the one country that stands out as a consistent and vocal supporter of Western values. A three-thousand-year-old culture based on the same Christian roots as much of today’s European Union members, modern Georgia aspires openly to join the EU and NATO, an aspiration that has the support of over 80% of the population.

We all know that young democracies are not perfect; they evolve differently and all have a unique cultural and geographical context to consider. That is why they need our assistance and friendship. First, we should support their efforts to exercise full sovereignty, territorial integrity and effective control over each country’s internationally recognised borders. At the same time, it is very important to offer deeper sectoral integration with the EU, allow their participation in selected EU agencies, intra-EU programmes and initiatives.

We should abolish artificial tariffs for communications with the EU, including roaming or money transfer fees and support of better connectivity. Projects such as the Anaklia Deep Sea Port are crucial for increasing trade and accessibility within the region and even further to Central Asia.  What’s even more important, is that EU assistance and programmes should reach the local level, including in the remotest parts of the partner countries, especially rural areas, which are more vulnerable to post-Soviet sentiments and Russian manipulations, so that they can push for positive changes in their communities.

The Russian bear won’t stop its predatory behaviour. Our sanctions do work, no matter what the   Russian disinformation machine says. We are faced right now by an increased number of calls for rolling back Western sanctions against Russia in order to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.  There is not a single reason to lift them. We cannot overlook the facts. We cannot make our vigilance sleep and adopt a wishful thinking approach.

Indeed, how should we approach all pro-Western, pro-European governments in the wider European neighbourhood? Put simply, we are engaged in a regional and global battle of ideas. Freedom and the independence of the nation-state are at risk and like-minded nations must bond together in this battle.

EU enlargement and especially NATO enlargement has succeeded in large part because it has anchored young democracies in the free, Western world. The counterfactual is not difficult to imagine – it can be seen today on the streets of Crimea and Lugansk, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That success, for Poland and others, gives us a roadmap for how we can further expand the brotherhood of free Western nations through our institutions. European prosperity and security are closely linked to the situation of our neighbours. Eastern Partnership countries in particular.