Wednesday, May 22, 2024
 
 

The Budapest-Vilnius segment and the Kyiv-Tirana-Pristina triangle

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28 years ago in Budapest, I participated as a member of the Albanian delegation at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This summit decided to turn the Conference into an Organization (OSCE) with permanent institutions. But the most important event was the signing of the Budapest Memorandum by then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Britain’s ex-Prime Minister John Major and former US President Bill Clinton.

The latter two signed as guarantors of the agreement (France and China also offered guarantees in separate documents). The essence of the memorandum was that Ukraine would hand over to Russia the nuclear weapons that had been left within its after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In return, Russia guaranteed that it would “respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence within its current borders” and that it would never use force, weapons or economic pressure against Ukraine.

In light of the ongoing events, when Russian missiles are hitting apartments and killing Ukrainian civilians, these quotes may seem like an exercise in dark sarcasm. But in the halcyon days of post-Cold War Europe in the 1990s, interstate principles such as sovereignty, the avoidance of violence and the freedom to choose alliances were not only written into successive statements by the CSCE and the Council of Europe, and with the one tragic exception of Slobodan Milosevic’s actions in the former Yugoslavia, they were truly and seriously believed. 

But a decade and a half after Budapest, these principles began to be violated not by a bloody dictator in the Balkans, but by a large, nuclear-armed state. Pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be respected) as a cornerstone of international law, was violated along with others.

The principle of force in Vilnius

The European Union summit that convened in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius on November 28, 2013 failed miserably when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declared to European leaders that he refused to sign the association agreement with the EU. The agreement, which had been negotiated for six years, was scheduled to be solemnly signed that day.

“Russia has been pushing me for three years, while you left me in the mud,” Yanukovych told the 28 presidents and prime ministers, according to witnesses present. Armenia, in September of that year, also suspended negotiations on an association agreement with the EU after being openly threatened with armed intervention by Moscow.

The Armenian and Ukrainian presidents were forced to promise to join the Eurasian Customs Union established by Russia in 2010 (currently called the Eurasian Economic Union). Although the European agreement was for them more profitable.

The surprise for those disappointed by Yanukovych came from the Ukrainian people. The rejection of Brussels sparked major protests and what is known as the Maidan Revolution. Yanukovych fled to Russia and a new parliament and president were elected by democratic vote. But Putin reacted by invading Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and annexing Crimea. Only after this trauma did NATO membership become a real priority for Kyiv.

Two or three thoughts on the principles of strength

If it were not for courageous personalities like Vitaliy Klitschko and Volodymyr Zelensky. and if there were not thousands of citizens, who on Maidan challenged the frost for weeks, Ukraine would have remained alongside Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in terms of development. It was the will of society, strong and unyielding, that determined the major orientation of the state. This is a valuable lesson for the peoples of the Balkans who are currently enduring their own versions of totalitarians like Alexander Lukashenko.

Not only the Brussels bureaucrats, who are said to often dream with open eyes, but almost the entire political elite of Western Europe did not understand the real danger of a revanchist Russia: not even when Putin invaded two Georgian provinces in 2008; when he was left without opening bottles of champagne in Vilnius in 2013; when he invaded Donbass and annexed Crimea. Appeals by leaders and intellectuals from Eastern Europe about the Putinist threat were ignored. Those blind views were part of a peace and prosperity period in Europe whose ideologies clashed with those of the people who suffered under Communist rule.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thankfully woke the sleeping beauties from their slumber. Even the most pacifist and neutral states are doing what was unimaginable just a few weeks ago – they are supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons.

There are people in Europe, but also in Tirana, who philosophize that NATO is to blame for the fact that it expanded to the east and inadvertently provoked Russia. In fact, none of the new NATO members were under Moscow’s traditional influence until before the end of World War II. And Ukraine, as we noted above, tried seriously (but to no avail) for NATO membership only after losing the Donbass and Crimea. A Ukraine close to Europe could maintain good neighborly relations with Russia and in the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum; much like Finland and Austria. This was possible until 2013, but was derailed Putin’s own behavior. Today it is out of the question to openly discuss the topic. 

Tirana and Pristina: Chances and opportunities

Albania is showing diplomatic unity with the West through resolutions it is proposing alongside the US to the United Nations Security Council. This is positive but not very effective as resolutions condemning Russia are routinely blocked by Moscow’s veto. The effect ultimately ends up as political signaling.

 Unfortunately, Tirana did not follow the example of the Baltic states and Poland, which for weeks have been supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, bulletproof vests, etc. The Kyiv government has begged for such assistance. Not that our shipments would turn the situation around, but at least they would show us as serious and determined allies. The announcement of aid on February 27 by the government when, even the most pacifist and pro-Russian government have handed over anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian Army, seems simply inadequate.

Likewise, when Poland, Romania and Slovenia announced on the same day the blockade of airspace for Russian aircraft, Tirana could have done the same. The government’s statement only after this initiative was formalized by the EU sounds like a slow catch-up measure.

Unfortunately, Rama still does not have the will to remove Albania from the Mini-Schengen/Open Balkans initiative. Now that its main sponsor, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, refuses to side with the West against Putin, this initiative appears much more ominous than before.

 A new debate is needed on the protection of national security, which now faces the most obvious threats. The argument that NATO protects us in any case, as we hear mostly from the government, is good but not enough. Undoubtedly NATO membership in 2009 was a historic achievement, but the US is focusing on China and the North Atlantic Alliance prefers to have security contributing members rather than just security “consumers.”  

The biggest investment in the Armed Forces was the purchase by the Berisha government of 6 helicopters with dual civil-military use. The current government, with its corrupt motives, has broken up the country’s navy bases, seriously undermining its defense capabilities. This trend must be reversed.

 Pristina has a great chance: Vucic refused to condemn Putin’s aggression and apply EU and Western sanctions. If Brussels and others had so far closed one or two eyes to Belgrade’s attacks on Europe’s unfriendly rivals since February 24 we live in a different time. Conflict is open, violent and the dominant rule is “with us or against us.” Therefore, at this moment when the paradigm is changing, the most useful and realistic objective for Pristina is to receive diplomatic recognition from the five EU (or four NATO) countries that are still hesitant, inclduing nearby Greece to seemingly stubborn Spain. 

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