United States Must Stand Firm Against Russian Bullying in Europe | Commentary

Posted November 20, 2013 at 3:00am

While Washington was preoccupied by the recent political crisis and turmoil in the Middle East, another drama has been playing out in the eastern reaches of Europe.

The nations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are poised to take a potentially historic step forward on the path to democracy by significantly strengthening their ties to the European Union. Specifically, Ukraine may sign an EU Association Agreement, and Moldova and Georgia may initial their own Association Agreements at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit Nov. 28-29 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

These agreements are important because they contain free trade and other provisions that will spur economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions and norms, and bolster the rule of law in signatory states. As such, they will greatly benefit the populations of those states and indeed of the wider region.

Unfortunately, Russia appears to view these agreements as threatening to its economic and political interests, and has sought to dissuade Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia from deepening ties with Europe. Over the past several months, Moscow has impeded Ukrainian and Moldovan imports, and has hinted at additional punitive measures should these states proceed with their EU agreements.

I believe that Russia’s approach is unwarranted and ill-advised. In the first place, participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership is voluntary, and sovereign states have the right to enter into voluntary associations of their choosing. Moreover, the Eastern Partnership and its Association Agreements do not threaten Russia. Quite the contrary — Russia will gain from the economic growth and increased stability on its borders resulting from its neighbors’ closer links with Europe.

And as the Eastern Partnership states seek to integrate their economies with the EU, and as the United States and EU begin talks on their own comprehensive trade agreement (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), it is a shame that Russia appears intent on erecting barriers rather than supporting more open markets. I sincerely hope that Russia reconsiders its position, as we will all benefit from increased trans-Atlantic economic ties and investment.

From the perspective of the United States, a democratic, prosperous and stable Eastern Europe and Caucasus region is clearly in our national interest. It also is in the interests of our allies the EU and NATO, in the interests of all the Eastern Partnership states, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in the interests of other countries in the region — including Russia. It therefore is imperative that we support the nations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as they seek to integrate with the EU and build strong democracies within Europe.

At the same time, our support for these states should not be unqualified. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia must continue to adopt and implement democratic norms and standards. These are essential to strengthen institutions and democratic processes, promote economic competitiveness and growth, and improve peoples’ lives. In fact, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have made laudable progress to date in enacting difficult but necessary reforms.

But there is still more to be done. In particular, I urge the Ukrainian authorities to meet the remaining clear and essential EU conditions for signing an Association Agreement. In addition to electoral and rule of law reforms, Ukraine needs to put to rest legitimate concerns about selective justice by releasing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Here I support fully the efforts of former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former EU Parliament President Pat Cox to find a mutually acceptable solution to this question.

As the clock ticks down to the Vilnius summit, decisions made in the coming days will have far-reaching consequences. That is why on Nov. 12, as ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I introduced a resolution co-sponsored by Chairman Ed Royce, D-Calif., and Reps. William Keating, D-Mass., and Ted Poe, R-Texas, that calls on the United States to speak out in support of the European aspirations of the peoples of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. At the same time, the resolution urges aspirant states to continue to adopt democratic norms and standards and, particularly in the case of Ukraine, to meet essential conditions for further integration with the EU.

By clearly expressing our support as well as our expectations, we will help to make the region more democratic, prosperous and secure, and move one step closer to realizing the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.