Political Reform Is Critical as Ukraine, Georgia Face Russian Offensive | Commentary
Recent news accounts have sounded the alarm: If the United States and Europe falter in their support for Ukraine and Georgia, Russia is poised to fill the gap — not just with military aggression in Eastern Ukraine, but with strong economic and political offensives. Reportedly, some political elements in Georgia as well as Ukraine are displaying openness to such efforts.
As leaders of the House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan congressional commission that has been engaged in parliamentary support efforts in both countries for a decade, we have a somewhat different perspective.
We led a congressional delegation to Ukraine and Georgia recently, visiting, as we always do, with the presidents and prime ministers, but also with dozens of parliamentarians of all ranks and persuasions. We have never seen a stronger desire in either country to become part of Europe, nor a stronger realization that national success depends on continued domestic reform. We return convinced that the U.S. and our European allies must find credible, calibrated ways of showing support, even as larger questions of European Union and, especially, NATO accession are deferred.
The mantra of the HDP since its creation in 2005 has been that while free and fair elections are critical to emerging democracies, what happens between elections is even more important — namely the development of effective institutions of governance. In Georgia and Ukraine, we witnessed two countries embodying that spirit, with lawmakers working hard to overcome a history of instability and corruption.
In the period following the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian Parliament, or Rada, was frequently swamped by the country’s larger divisions and difficulties. The new Rada is a markedly different institution, with young, reform-minded leaders working to end parliamentary immunity, strengthen local government and civil service, and improve judicial procedures. To be sure, great challenges remain, including partisan fragmentation, the inclusion of alienated constituencies, pervasive corruption, and, most fundamentally, the need to balance populist political appeals with essential economic and political reforms.
The Georgian Parliament, as our outgoing ambassador, Richard Norland, notes, has benefited greatly from having “two Davids” at the helm: former Speaker David Bakradze, who now leads the opposition, and David Usupashvili of the small Republican Party, chosen as speaker by the post-2012 governing coalition. Despite these leaders’ moderating styles, partisan divisions have sometimes been disabling. But the desire to strengthen economic and political ties with the West remains a powerful unifying force.
Historian Paul Johnson famously identified “the quality of the people in charge” as a determinative force in national success. We have no doubt this will prove true in Ukraine and Georgia, and we are encouraged by the leadership we see, for example, in the economic ministries of Ukraine. We are also committed — along with the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and other partners — to constructive colleagueship and capacity-building with both parliaments.
Ongoing conflicts with Russia — “frozen” for the moment in Georgia (we paid a sobering visit to the South Ossetian frontier) and simmering in Ukraine, with almost daily violations of the Minsk Accords — are profoundly threatening to these nascent democracies. The United States and our European allies can and must find measured, effective ways of countering these threats and supporting positive leadership in both nations. The provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine remains a possibility, and the provision of other equipment, joint exercises, and training missions are both substantively and symbolically significant. Economic measures are equally important: holding fast to the sanctions regime, pressing hard for relief from the holders of Ukrainian debt, encouraging private investment in and enhanced trade with both countries, and providing targeted economic assistance.
We are bullish on Ukraine’s and Georgia’s democratic prospects, and impressed by the levels of leadership and commitment in both countries. Russia’s policies, informed by a zero-sum geopolitical view, represent a mortal threat to these prospects and demand a proactive U.S. and international response. Ultimately, however, both countries’ viability will depend on the economic and political reforms they have underway and the sense of legitimacy, determination, and national unity they achieve.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., chairs the House Democracy Partnership. Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., is ranking member and former chairman.