Lessons which I’m sure they will learn.
The world justifiably feels for Ukraine and finds itself scrambling to come up with an appropriate response to the Russian incursion. Yet even as a whole host of new democracies race to forget their pasts, one could see this Ukraine mess coming. If you are running any of the new democracies with difficult histories—Poland, any of the Baltic republics, Croatia, Hungary and others—what are you to make of the developments in Ukraine? What lessons are there for you and for your people? Here are three:
• Weapons trump agreements. Ukraine now looks incredibly naïve to have agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Ukraine, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which Russia, the U.K and the U.S. promised to respect Ukraine’s borders. They also agreed to abstain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine; to support Ukraine where an attempt is made to place pressure on it by economic coercion; and to bring any incident of aggression by a nuclear power before the U.N. Security Council. In return, Ukraine agreed to give up what was then the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The treaty clearly uses the term “assurances” in reference to the other signatories’ pledges, but Ukraine has always interpreted the assurances as “guarantees.”
It is arguable whether Ukraine had the wherewithal to maintain the weapons and even whether nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against a conventional attack. But in hindsight, you can bet that Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov and his transition team rue the day Ukraine gave up its rusty but powerful nuclear deterrent in return for paper assurances.
Other states beware: Treaties of cooperation, partnership, mutual defense and even union work wonderfully in times of peace and plenty—when you don’t need them. All too often, though, such undertakings leave the weaker partners holding the empty bag in times of war or economic hardship.
As expensive as such advice is to follow, and as politically incorrect as it may seem, new democracies would be wise to look back to early last century for guidance and follow the admonition of President Theodore Roosevelt to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that new democracies need to go on a weapons-buying spree, but they do need to think twice before giving up their military capabilities or letting them degrade. In short, if you are a new democracy living in a historically dangerous neighborhood, speak softly—but don’t give up your stick.
• Make hay while the sun shines. Ukraine was handicapped by the remnants of a heavy and long-term Russian colonization policy. However, like many of the new democracies, it had 20 years to get its act together politically and economically—and chose not to. This assessment may sound rough but it is true, and not just for Ukraine. The citizens and politicians of Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia and a host of other countries have allowed inept leadership to squander the first two decades of their newly attained independence.
Instead of building on the national goodwill they inherited, which was ready to forgive many rookie leadership mistakes, the various leaders of Ukraine couldn’t get over their adolescent self-absorption and allowed graft, corruption, greed and legal mayhem to eat away at an already fragile state, weakening it financially and militarily to such a degree that its ultimate survival has been thrown in doubt.
It is difficult to build a prosperous new democracy on the foundations of a harsh and oppressive past. Yet it is exactly that harsh past which should make its new leaders more responsible, not less; more honest, not less; and more statesmanlike, not less. The crisis in Ukraine today is a crisis of leadership—in Ukraine, the EU, U.S. and Russia. While Ukraine cannot influence the leadership elsewhere, it can control the leaders it produces and lets run the country.
Nation-building is messy, and democracy can seem further away with each new “free” election, and good leadership further away with each new political party. Ukrainians (and people in some other countries with similar backgrounds and choices) need to ask themselves:
What have we done for 20 years to ensure that we are economically and militarily as strong as possible? Did we pick leaders because they told us the truth or because they told us what we wanted to hear? Did we hold leaders accountable, or did we blindly follow the party line? Did we always blame Russia for our problems, even when we were our own worst enemies? Did we see corruption in what others did, but not in what we did, which we classified as merely helping our families? Did we get involved, or did we sit idly by and complain?
None of the foregoing absolves Russia of its responsibility for its military aggression or us from our responsibility to help. It does highlight that Ukraine is weaker because of its own choices.
• We are all potentially Ukraine. The “we” refers to any of the 20-plus new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe with a tumultuous past and an immature political present. We are not very different, and it can happen here. Many of us have frittered away the national dreams of generations, the goodwill of our countrymen and the good intentions of our friends and neighbors. That is nobody’s fault but ours. Let the sad example of Ukraine be a wake-up call.
Mr. Račić is the CEO of Indium, a Croatia-based management-consulting and business-development company.