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Summits about nothing? The trick with Austrian neutrality

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I was there. It all seemed to be sincere…

by Genc Pollo. Tirana, March 21, 2022

Today I studied the not-so-new proposal for peace in Ukraine. Kyiv would declare permanent neutrality, like Austria, meaning the country would become a buffer zone between blocs, as in the Cold War.

Pollo – determined pro-European

Replaying that Soviet sleight-of-hand of 1955, could it really be enough for Putin to leave his self-made disaster without losing too much face? Maybe.

Then again, what price international agreements now?

As an historian and aspirant young politician almost 30 years ago, I was in Budapest on December 5, 1994 as part of the Albanian delegation to the

Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) .

A “Budapest Memorandum” was signed by the summiteers, then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, British premier Major, and US President Clinton. (One of the guards trod hard on my foot as he pushed us unimportant people out of the way for the entrance of Clinton’s cinematically huge entourage).

The latter two signed as guarantors of compliance with the agreement; France and China offered guarantees in separate documents.

The essence of the Memorandum was that Ukraine would hand over to Russia the nuclear weapons that were mainly on its territory, while Russia guaranteed that it would “respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence within its current borders” and that it would “never use force and weapons. or economic pressure against Ukraine “ (Articles 1, 2 and 3, respectively.).

Bill, Boris, and Leonid Kravchuk  1994

Even if the Russians in Budapest seemed a bit bored by the show, the solemn documents were also serious. Or so it seemed to me. And in the post-Communist Europe of the 1990s, similar principles were written into successive CSSE and Council of Europe papers.

Then came the bloodthirsty Balkan tyrant and war-criminal Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade, and now, in 2022, an openly murderous president of a large, nuclear-armed state is busy dismembering a neighbouring state.

Pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be respected) is a cornerstone of international law. Wasn’t it? Isn’t it still?

The first sign that that era might be over came with the dismal EU summit in Vilnius on November 28, 2013. Viktor Yanukovych, the soon-to-be-ousted President of Ukraine, shocked EU leaders by announcing he would not be signing any EU Association Agreement.

Putin 'Has No Time' to Watch Coverage of Ukraine Turmoil: Aide
Viktor Yanukovych with Putin, Dec 2013. But back soon if Putin gets his way?

It had been negotiated for six years, and was scheduled to be solemnly signed, with much ceremony and clicking of cameras, that very day. “Russia has been pushing me around for three years while you left me in the mud,” Yanukovych told the 28 assembled presidents and prime ministers. A few weeks earlier, in September, Armenia had also suspended negotiations about an association agreement; Moscow had openly threatened it with armed violence if they did any such thing.

Instead, both countries had to promise to join the “Eurasian Customs Union” established (and run) by Russia in 2010 . Essentially make-believe, it is currently called the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU association agreement had made more political and economic sense.

Rejecting the overtures from Brussels sparked serious protests and what became known as the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Yanukovych fled and remains in exile in Russia, the Ukrainian parliament and president were democratically elected. Putin retaliated almost immediately, invading Donbas and annexing Crimea. Only after that trauma did NATO membership become a real priority for Ukraine as a nasty war involving “little green men”  (Russian soldiers but not in proper uniform) rumbled on in  Donbas.

Heavyweight Kyiv mayor Klitschko

Courageous men like the Kyiv mayor (and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and thousands of others braved the freezing weather on Maidan for weeks.

If they had not, Ukraine would surely have become another Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. The inner will of a strong and unyielding society determined Ukraine’s direction of travel. It is a valuable lesson for the peoples of the Balkans, who currently still endure their own vicious Lukashenkos.

Eurocrats are often accused of “dreaming with their eyes open.” But in truth most of the West European political elite did not register the real dangers of a revanchist Russia. Not even when Putin invaded two Georgian provinces in 2008, nor when he forced Ukraine and Armenia off the road to EU membership. Nor a year later when his “little green men” invaded Donbas and annexed the Crimea.

Appeals by leaders and intellectuals from Eastern Europe about the Putin threat were ignored. An easy-going Ostpolitik continued for two more decades. Will the price for these slumbers be Communist-Russian Rule II for the former Soviet states, a cementing-in of their unfreedom. A “cold peace”, Russian diplomats call it.

The aggression that began in February 2022 at least woke everyone up. Even the most pacifist and neutral (for the moment) states are doing what was unimaginable until a few days ago: supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons. 

Lethal weapons from peace-loving Canada en route Ukraine

There are those, including here in Tirana, who philosophize that NATO is to blame for expanding to the east, threatening Russia’s security. And that, goes such reasoning, made Putin as aggressive as a rat pushed into a corner, as in the Russian president’s memories of his harsh childhood.

There are those, including here in Tirana, who philosophize, as argued in this link,  that NATO is to blame for expanding to the east, threatening Russia’s security. And that, goes such reasoning, made Putin as aggressive as a rat pushed into a corner, as in the Russian president’s memories of his harsh childhood.

But in truth not one of the new NATO members was under Moscow’s influence until the post-war. And Ukraine, as noted above, tried seriously but in vain to secure NATO membership only after losing the Donbas and Crimea.

A Ukraine close to Europe, as now, could maintain perfectly good neighbourly relations with Russia, in the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum. That remained possible until 2013. Today it is out of place unless – “kismet” – someone else takes in the Kremlin.

It’s time, including in my own corner of Europe, to revive the spirit and the letter of that solemn agreement in Budapest, not so very long ago, on mutual respect between sovereign nations, non-violence, on normal cooperation.

For that to happen, prayers and fasting are good and hopefully helpful. But supporting Ukraine with money, materiel, guns and ammunition is also a very effective help. Brute force can’t be stop by moralizing. A resolute force is needed to suppress it. Only Ukraine’s victory can restore the much celebrated values of the ’90s 

♦ Genc Pollo MP, 58, co-founded the Albanian Democratic Party and served as a government minister. He trained as an historian in Tirana and Vienna.

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