Michael Totten

A Warning from Eastern Europe

In August, while covering the Russian-Georgian war in the South Caucasus, I sat down with Dr. Mátyás Eörsi, Deputy Floor Leader of the Hungarian Liberal Party and President of the Liberal Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He has been particularly concerned with Georgia’s troubles for some time now, and he flew from his native Hungary to Tbilisi as quickly as he could as soon as the fighting broke out.
His view of Russia’s great game is a dark one, informed as it is by having lived much of his own life under the boot heel of Moscow in Eastern Europe.
EU Minister Tbilisi.jpg
Dr. Mátyás Eörsi, Member of Parliament in Hungary, President of the Liberal Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
MJT: What is the Council of Europe’s role in this particular crisis?
Dr. Eörsi: The Council of Europe is a pan-European organization. It’s most important mission is to protect human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in its member countries. This is the first time since the Turkish-Greek war, which was quite long ago, that two member countries were at war. When we speak about human rights, and when we speak about democracy and the rule of law, all of our principles are breached when one of our member countries occupies another one.
The Council of Europe has three organizations. One is the small diplomatic committee of ministers, the secretariat, which is at an inter-governmental level. It has the most important legal instrument, which is the European Court of Human Rights. This is important because every country that joins the Council of Europe accepts the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The third is the parliamentary assembly. They meet four times a year. In between we have some committee meetings where we discuss the most important European issues. The next meeting will be the first week in October, and I’m sure this war in Georgia will be eclipsing everything else.
MJT: What is the Council of Europe able to do about this?
Dr. Eörsi: The weakness of the Council of Europe compared with NATO is that we have no military. The weakness compared with the European Union is that we have no money. But all of those weaknesses, in my opinion, can be our strength because then we can speak up honestly. We can be more straightforward in our messages and to keep a more united European standpoint on what is right and what is wrong.
So what we can do is speak up very clearly that what is happening here in Georgia is fully unacceptable from a European democracy viewpoint. And Russia should be aware that though they have certain tools to divide Europe, when it comes to war, Europe cannot be divided. Our goal is to work on this to maintain or create a united European position on this war.
MJT: Do you have any leverage over Russia?
Dr. Eörsi: Not at all. We can sanction them in the parliamentary assembly, we can decide not to recognize the credentials of the Russian delegation if the Duma doesn’t put enough pressure on the Russian state to stop this war. And, of course, we can also make a recommendation to the Committee of Ministers to expel Russia if it totally disobeys. That’s all we can do. But if you keep in mind that the Council of Europe is the only pan-European human rights democracy organization to which Russia acceded, and I think it will result in quite a serious loss of confidence in Russia.
MJT: Do you think that because Russia is a member of the Council of Europe that the human rights situation there, while bad, is better than it might otherwise be if Russia had been shut out entirely all along?
Dr. Eörsi: There are many opinions within our assembly. Some say Russia should not have acceded to the Council of Europe. I’m not sure it is a good argument because you need to maintain dialogue, and as much as Russia would like to be a democratic state, then through this dialogue we can help them come to solutions which prevail in all of our member countries. It’s a gradual process. You cannot expect a country to change in a fortnight. Russia acceded to the Council of Europe during Yeltsin, and at that time there was hope that Russia would like to be a part of the European political family. As long as it decides not to, then we can be expected to make a very tough decision.
MJT: Do you think it would be better, in your personal opinion, if Russia were thrown out, or if Russia stays in?
Dr. Eörsi: I think they should not yet be thrown out. Because from the moment Russia is thrown out, then we can no longer put pressure on them. We will have no more remaining leverage. We should give them a very serious warning.
Here’s how I see this Russian problem. There is the imminent need for Russian troops to be withdrawn immediately. After they withdraw, we need to change the peacekeeping structure because this war is very clear evidence that a country that is part of the conflict cannot, at the same time, be a peace keeper. This will be maybe more difficult. And we will need a decision from the member countries like France, Germany, United Kingdom, the most important ones. Maybe we will pay a price if we send a very strong signal to Russia, but it will be a smaller price compared to not signaling anything and making Russia believe they can return to the Cold War.
I hesitate to draw a parallel with 1939 and 2008, but this is a lesson for Europe…
MJT: You mean Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia?
Dr. Eörsi: Yes. And, by the way, if you look at the arguments they are very similar. Germany was calling for protection of the Germans in Sudetenland. It is very similar. It’s not an exact parallel, but I see some parallels. Protection of minorities is a legitimate goal, but a country must be very careful in choosing the proper tools. I think there are many more Russian living in Brooklyn than in South Ossetia.
MJT: Certainly.
Dr. Eörsi: If something is wrong, if there is a pogrom, an ethnic conflict, Russia will, what, attack the United States? You know what I mean. They should be more careful.
MJT: Have you been here during most of this conflict, or in Europe?
Dr. Eörsi: I am a member of parliament in Hungary, so I cannot afford to stay away for too long. But any time there is conflict in Georgia, I show up immediately. I came here last November when Saakashvili called for a state of emergency, now I am here trying to speak very clearly about the European position. And I think as a member of parliament I enjoy more freedom in speaking up than many heads of states or governments.
MJT: Because you don’t speak for the whole government.
Dr. Eörsi: I don’t speak for the whole government. I speak for myself. I speak from my beliefs and my convictions.
MJT: Can you tell me about the mood in Europe right now, or at least in Hungary?
Dr. Eörsi: The European public mood, in general, is to avoid any conflict and try to reconcile. It could be different in countries that were earlier under control of the Soviet Union. When I hear, for example, that Saakashvili was provoking Russia, immediately it occurs to me that Soviet troops came to Budapest in 1956 and it was claimed that Hungarians were provoking Russia. The same thing happened in 1968 with Czechoslovakia. So, again, I see this parallel.
MJT: It has been argued recently that Georgia may not have started this conflict, that Russia was moving its troops into Georgia before Saakashvili supposedly provoked the Russians. But you’re telling me that you instinctively assumed Russia started it.
Dr. Eörsi: It was not clear to me when I was in Budapest because of what the international media was reporting. It was not very clear to me. Now I understand more facts. It is very important for European public opinion to understand more about what happened here, and also what is at stake. Yes, Georgia was provoking Russia. I agree. Georgia was provoking Russia by deciding its future, by deciding its alliances, by deciding its democratic structure, deciding for its leaders. Russia perceived all this as a provocation. If so, then Georgia provoked Russia. But I fully disapprove that a country can be provoked by democratic decisions about where a country would like to go.
What is at stake in Russia…Russia lost the Baltic countries that were part of the Soviet Union. There was a huge fight in Ukraine and in Georgia whether the leaders of these countries will remain under the umbrella of Russia. Russia punished them for their decision not to remain under their sphere of influence but to run an independent foreign policy. Russia doesn’t want to approve this, and I find it totally unacceptable.
MJT: Russia has behaved this way toward its neighbors for a very long time.
Dr. Eörsi: I think it is true for this present Russia. It is true for the current Russia. During the first NATO enlargement, when lots of European leaders were running to Moscow and saying “we don’t want to harass you or provoke you,” [President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski said there is some democratic progress in Russia in terms of internal politics, but Russia’s external politics are not democratic at all. You can see that Russia is opposing the Baltic countries, Central European countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. This is not a democratic foreign policy. Brzezinski concluded that, because of this resistance by Russia, if NATO is not enlarged it will not calm down Russia. It would be the other way around. It would feed the radicals in Russia who say “this is the language we have to use toward the West” because then they will shut up and stand back.
Brzezinski concluded that if you want to have a more democratic Russian foreign policy, then a sovereign country that wants to join NATO and meets the criteria should have access to NATO. It may result in the short run a radicalization of Russian foreign policy, but the mainstream Russian approach says it’s better to avoid conflict, otherwise more and more countries in Russia’s neighborhood would increase their desire to join NATO because of their fear of Russia.
MJT: Why do you suppose Russians care if nations on the border belong to NATO? Are they worried that NATO is moving on Russia to take Russia over? Do they actually feel threatened?
Dr. Eörsi: I think their psychology is different. They used to be a world power. Countries they used to control they cannot control any more. There are millions of Russians who lived in poverty in the Soviet Union who said yeah, but we are a superpower. They lost this feeling. And Vladimir Putin is delivering this feeling to them that Russia is again becoming a superpower.
MJT: There’s a lot of talk here — and I was just in Azerbaijan and there’s a lot of talk there…
Dr. Eörsi: About energy.
MJT: Yes, about energy. About the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.
MJT: Do you think that’s…
Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.
MJT: It sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it also really is the only way oil can get from the Caspian region to Europe without passing through Russia.
Dr. Eörsi: If Georgia falls, Azerbaijan falls. It would be totally cut off from the Western markets. All the energy which Azerbaijan can produce can only go to Russia. And Russia will become the sole distributor of energy for all of Europe. This is one point. I think it is very important. And Russia is very vulnerable. This Baku pipeline enables Europe to buy from sources other than Russia.
A third item here — it can be controversial, but I think it is not — this is an internal Russian political fight between [President Dmitri] Medvedev and Putin. Putin became president of Russia twice, accompanied by two wars in the Caucasus, Chechen War One and Chechen War Two. And I would also like to remind you that when the first Chechen War started, a terrorist attack in Moscow, when a housing block was destroyed, it was supposedly done by Chechen terrorists. A war was started against Chechnya. But since then, not one person was taken to court. Nobody was caught. It was allegedly Chechen terrorists, but not one single person was caught.
So what I feel, but it’s my feeling, that when Putin became president he needed another war in the Caucasus.
What I see today is that [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy is negotiating with Medvedev about a peace plan, Medvedev agrees, it is very favorable to Russia, and yet it is not implemented. So what I feel is that the message Putin wants to send to Russia, and also to the world is, I’m the boss. Medvedev is the president, but you had better negotiate with me.
MJT: In the U.S., at least among foreign policy professionals, it was already understood that Putin was still the real power. Was this less obvious in Russia?
Dr. Eörsi: I don’t know. It was under discussion everywhere. If my theory is true, this war was needed to demonstrate where the real power is. Until then, it was only speculation. And we have lots of Kremlin stories about the different branches that fight one another, but this war made it absolutely obvious where the power lies. Medvedev was humiliated. Medvedev told Sarkozy they would withdraw. And they didn’t.
If they didn’t have this experience with the two Chechen wars, I would hesitate to go public with this analysis. But I find it extremely alarming.
MJT: We’re all going to be thinking about Ukraine differently after this.
Dr. Eörsi: Absolutely.
MJT: What do you suppose Europe can do to shore up the defense of Ukraine in advance?
Dr. Eörsi: I think a Membership Action Plan for NATO should be given to them immediately. I also think it’s time to say that the 2014 Winter Olympic Games should not be held in [the Southern Russian city of] Sochi.
MJT: Let’s say for the sake of discussion that a Membership Action Plan were given to Ukraine tomorrow. How long would it take for Ukraine to be formally inside NATO and under its military protection?
Dr. Eörsi: Any short amount of time.
MJT: Two days? One day?
Dr. Eörsi: One day.
MJT: So Ukraine could, theoretically, be in NATO by the end of the week.
Dr. Eörsi: You remember how Turkey became a member of NATO? It took one day. Greece? One day. It was a different geopolitical situation, with a big Soviet Union and Greece having gotten rid of the [military dictatorship]. It was just like letting them into the European Union. Greece never met the criteria of the European Union. It can be done at any time.
MJT: Do you think there is any chance that Georgia could be admitted to NATO after this?
Dr. Eörsi: I hope.
MJT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but when this was discussed earlier some European countries were worried about exactly this scenario and didn’t want to get involved in case it did happen.
Dr. Eörsi: That is true, but somewhat more complicated. When [former French President Jacques] Chirac visited Beijing, Martin Lee of Hong Kong said something very nice. He said he has always admired the great French principles of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, and that he was sad to see that they were all gone for the sake of Airbus.
These countries would like to maintain a very good business relationship with Russia. And I think many European countries — and, by the way, sometimes also America — will say they will do something in order to have this or that business transaction. This is another worry, losing markets in Russia.
I think, however, if Europe could be more united, Europe would not lose any markets. On the other hand, that was a worry for, especially, France and Germany. And NATO expansion is never, of course, about importing possible conflicts into NATO. That’s an understandable worry. However, because Georgia was not given the Membership Action Plan, I think it encouraged Russia to be more aggressive.
MJT: Do you suspect that if Russia actually gets what they want here, that Azerbaijan would be next or Ukraine would be next?
Dr. Eörsi: My very sad conclusion is that there would be no need for a second one. Because everything will fall automatically.
MJT: In this region, you mean?
Dr. Eörsi: Yes. And even Ukraine. If Russia wins, then the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine will win because of the fear that it could be done to them at any time. And the same applies to Azerbaijan. Aliyev tries to find the room to maneuver for himself, but if Georgia falls there is no more room to maneuver. It’s finished. There’s no need for any other military action. Look at Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and all those countries. Totally finished. They’ll lose access to Europe.
MJT: Do you have a sense of what percentage of the population in Ukraine currently would be willing to go along with being in the Russia orbit?
Dr. Eörsi: That is a big problem. The population is divided almost 50 percent.
MJT: But ethnic Russians are a much smaller percentage of the population.
Dr. Eörsi: Yes, but politically Ukraine is divided almost 50/50 whether to follow a pro-Russian or independent foreign policy. Georgia had a referendum on NATO membership, and it was over 80 percent. Ukraine is different, and it’s a specific problem for Ukraine to join NATO when almost half the population opposes such a step. And what would happen if someone were elected who doesn’t share the basic principles of NATO? That would be a problem.
MJT: Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t ask you about?
Dr. Eörsi: No.
MJT: Well, if you could speak in front of a thousand foreign policy professionals in the United States, what would you say to them?
Dr. Eörsi: America today is pre-occupied with the presidential elections. So when John McCain is writing an article about Georgia, it’s all bullshit. It means nothing. Everything is embedded in the campaign.
I don’t want to criticize Saakashvili by saying that now it’s about American values, because I think even more is at stake. This is a new world order. And under this new world order, Russia feels it is entitled to make any aggressive military actions without fear. George W. Bush says the United States is fully in favor of Georgia’s territorial integrity, but the next day [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates said American troops will not be needed. This was a very clear message to Russia. I wouldn’t have expected Washington to say they wanted to intervene, but I certainly don’t think they should have said that they won’t.
I think it’s very important to have some American forces here, not to get involved, but to have a presence.
MJT: There are some US soldiers here for humanitarian…
Dr. Eörsi: Not enough. Not enough. There should be more.
I heard a very sarcastic comment yesterday, that the Americans were training Georgians how to check homes, which is typical in Iraq. [Laughs.] It’s not very useful here.
You have my mobile number. Call me anytime.
MJT: Thank you. Can I take your picture?
Dr. Eörsi: Sure, sure. Do you want me to smile or be serious?
MJT: Look serious.
Dr. Eörsi: Yes, this is serious.
MJT: I’ve noticed that not many Georgians are smiling. Is that normal?
Dr. Eörsi: Why would they? They have no reason to smile.
MJT: You mean because of the war.
Dr. Eörsi: Well, it’s also a national trait. In America when someone says how are you, you say I am fine. In Hungary, in Eastern Europe, the best you can say is I am surviving. That’s the most optimistic response possible.
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