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Twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reassertion of their independence, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been well-described as a “belt of freedom and democracy,” buffering the rest of Europe from Russia.
While each country is different, they share a strong commitment to maintaining their hard-fought independence. The process of developing democracy and building a free-market economic system after 50 years of communist subjugation is hard enough. But having to deal with a large and menacing neighbor bent on sabotaging their efforts makes it all the more difficult.
Despite its size and military might, Russia’s actions continue to manifest a lack of confidence in its own system. The increasing success of neighboring states previously part of the Soviet Union highlights the dichotomy.
Regardless of the motivation, Russia’s actions are being resisted, and the governments of Georgia and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) seek help from the United States. More than any transactional process of concession-based “reset” between the U.S. and Russia, what is most likely to improve Russia’s behavior and relationship with the West is the success of these countries (in part because it would also serve as a powerful and inspiring example to the Russian people).
So, what can we do to help? Even though each of these countries faces unique challenges and offers distinct opportunities, all five eagerly seek closer ties and cooperation with the U.S.
Unfortunately, there is a significant Russian influence in Ukraine, so it is not making as much progress as it could either politically or economically. Members of the opposition party helped see Ukraine through the Orange Revolution, but they were unable to live up to expectations. Ukraine needs foreign investment, but until it can successfully implement lasting reforms, investors will be cautious about exposing themselves to a business climate with extensive corruption.
Despite the 2008 Russian invasion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian prospects are more hopeful. The dynamic leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili is modeled on the economic principles of Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. With Russian troops still occupying one-fifth of this country and nearly 1,000 Georgian troops fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Georgia has requested and should be allowed to buy defensive weapons from the United States. Likewise, Georgia, as a future NATO member, is an excellent site to support missile defense of the U.S. and Europe. Economic cooperation in the form of a free-trade agreement with the U.S. and admission into the European Union would also help ensure Georgia’s long-term success.
The Baltic States have fared better. However, in its continued efforts to keep major parts of Europe dependent on Russian energy, Russia has frustrated Lithuania’s attempt to secure financing and commitments for a nuclear power plant (to replace a Soviet-era plant required to shut down as a condition of EU membership). This could represent an investment opportunity for U.S. companies.