Address by Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly [abriged and edited]:
Mr President, Your Excellencies, distinguished Delegates,
The optimism of the early 1990s — when the spread of liberal and democratic values seemed natural — has been crushed by a wave of pessimism and cynicism. The world is not at peace. Humankind has not reconciled with itself.
Western civilization, once triumphant, is now trying to tackle a deep economic, social, and mental crisis. In Eastern Europe, the “color revolutions” are challenged by the forces they had defeated a few years ago. In the Middle East, the glorious images of the cheering crowds in Cairo and Tunis have been replaced by the horrendous videos of the gassed children in Damascus.
But should the dogmatic optimism of the 1990s be replaced by an equally dogmatic pessimism — by a sense of resignation that suffocates hope? Should the fact that the expansion of democracy and freedom turns out to require profound struggle — should this lead us to renounce our beliefs and our principles?
If the West is outdated, then why do millions of Poles, Czech, Estonians, Romanians, and others cherish so much the day when they entered NATO? Why are millions of Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, and others desperately knocking on the doors of the European Union? If freedom is no longer fashionable, how do we explain that the suicide of an unknown citizen in a remote Tunisian town has changed the map of the world?
No. History did not come to an end in 1989 or 1991, and it never will. Freedom is still its motor and its horizon. Everywhere, men and women who want to live in freedom are confronted by the forces of tyranny. The question is: are we going to be actors or spectators in this confrontation?
As I speak, the Eastern European countries aspiring to join the European family of free and democratic nations are facing constant pressures and threats. Armenia has been cornered, Moldova is being blockaded, Ukraine is under attack, Azerbaijan faces extraordinary pressure, and Georgia is occupied.
Why? Because an old Empire is trying to reclaim its bygone borders. However, “borders” is actually not the right word, since this Empire – be it the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, or the Eurasian Union – never had borders. It only had margins. I came today to speak in the name of these margins.
The efforts to roll back the advances of the EU and NATO in our region – progress based on the will of our people – are becoming ever more intense. These efforts have a name: the Eurasian Union. The Eurasian Union has been shaped as an alternative to the European Union and unveiled by Vladimir Putin as the main project of his new presidency – the new Russian Empire.
It makes me sick when the KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, lectures the world about the values of freedom and democracy. This is the least of the things that he can do, being the dictatorial leader of one of the last empires left. But his new project is much more dangerous than his lectures. The Eurasian Union is both our recent past and the future shaped for us by some ex-KGB officers in Moscow.
Because European and Euro-Atlantic integration take a lot of time and require tremendous efforts; because there are moments when you might think you are pursuing a mirage; because the threats are becoming so strong, the pressures so direct, while the promises seem so far away — some people in our region might fall victim to fatigue and ask themselves: why not? Today, I want precisely to explore this “why not?”
Much more than with a choice of foreign policy or of international alliances, our nations are confronted with a choice of society, a choice of life. Our people have to decide whether they accept to live in a world of fear and crime; a world in which differences are perceived as threats and minorities as punching bags; a world in which opponents are facing selective justice or beatings; a world that we all know very well in our region since this is the world from which we are coming.
On the opposite side, our revived traditions and our centuries-old aspirations lead us towards another world called Europe. European societies are far from perfect, and there, too, you can have fears, doubts, angers, hatreds even. But there, meritocracy prevails over nepotism, tolerance is a fundament of public life, current opponents are the future ministers and not the prisoners to be or the enemies to beat.
The choice is so obvious for the peoples of Eastern Europe that some Kremlin strategists have decided to cancel the truth and have shaped lies that they are spreading throughout Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and many other places. Their mouthpieces in our respective countries – this conscious or unconscious fifth column – identify the European Union with the destruction of family values, the erosion of national traditions, and the promotion of gays and lesbians.
Strangely, in recent years and even more in recent months, we hear in Tbilisi, Kiev, or Chisinau the same ugly music that was first orchestrated in Moscow: we hear that our traditions are collapsing under the influence of the West, that Christian holidays will be replaced by gay pride events, and Churches by multicultural Disneylands; we hear that our Orthodox identity is under threat. And we hear that we share with our former masters a common respect for decency and traditions.
Are we so naïve as to believe these lies, like other generations did, allowing our sovereignty to be kidnapped? Are we so unfair to our ancestors to think that their memory would be honored by attacks on mosques or some pogroms? Are we so unaware of our own history that we allow it to repeat itself endlessly?
We need to know our history. And our history teaches us that tolerance is the basis for sovereignty in our region. It is not only a moral duty: it is an issue of national security. We need to know our history and understand that the same old imperialistic principle – divide and rule – is applied today as it was two centuries ago.
The European Union – the greatest political success of recent decades – has been built on three pillars, which also could be characterized as three rejections: the rejection of the extreme nationalism that had led Europe to the collective suicide of two world wars and the horrors of Nazism; the rejection of communism that was threatening to spread throughout the continent; and, finally, the rejection of colonialism and imperialism.
The Eurasian Union is based on the exact opposite premises. It is fuelled by intolerance, it is lead by old KGB structures, and it is shaped to revive an old Empire. Of course, joining the Eurasian Union is very easy. There are no social, economic, or political criteria to be met: becoming a colony, in fact, requires no effort at all. Passivity and mediocrity, willingness to be enslaved, are the only requirements.
On the other hand, to get into a real Union, there is no alternative to making a Herculean effort and meeting exact criteria — because such principles are precisely what create the Union. So, to those who doubt, I tell that it is precisely because the EU demands effort and imposes criteria — it is precisely because it does not seek to absorb us that the choice should be obvious.
But there is an even better reason for saying that the choice is obvious. The choice is obvious because the Russian project is doomed to fail. No empire is sustainable today, and certainly not the Russian one. If we look at history, France and UK have lost their colonies not only because these colonies fought for their independence, but also because people in Paris and London ultimately did not believe anymore in their Empire. Exactly the same is happening in Russia nowadays.
The imperial dream is being rejected first at its margins as we have seen. But, most crucially perhaps, the idea of the Empire is rejected at its very center. Such a rejection does not manifest itself only in public protests or in the rising polls of the opposition in the main cities of Russia. It expresses itself in the universal cynicism of Russian elites towards Putin’s Eurasian vision. The very people who are supposed to serve it do not believe in the viability of this project.
Rejected at its margins, rejected at its center, the imperialistic path will come to a dead end, the Eurasian Union will fail and Russia will – after all – become a nation state with borders instead of margins. Then, it will start to seek stable relations with stable neighbors. Then, cooperation will replace confrontation.
It will happen, and much sooner than people think, to the benefit of the margins, but most of all to the benefit of the Russian people themselves. It will happen because the imperial project is absurd for a generation of Russian citizens who are among the most enthusiastic users of Internet in the world.
It will happen because ethnic discrimination Russia is using inside its territory is not going to consolidate and make Russia stronger and a united state. It will happen because gas alone does not replace economic modernization. It will happen because of the corruption and the absence of justice.
It will happen because entire regions have been alienated by discrimination and violence; because the peoples of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and many other places have been so much persecuted that they do not feel part of any common project with Moscow.
It will happen because frustrations, angers, hatreds are too strong and the unifying ideal too absent. It will happen. Not in the coming decades, but in the coming years. We need to prepare for the times when the Empire collapses. So that its legacy of hatreds is swiftly overcome.
Few years from now, Vladimir Putin will have left the Kremlin and vanished from Russian politics even if he says that he will be there for another twenty years. Russian citizens will remember him as a ghost from the old times, the times of the Empire, the times of corruption and oppression.
Nobody knows whether this process will be calm or violent, whether his successor will be nationalistic or liberal, or both at the same time, but what matters is something else: Russia will no longer be an Empire, it will finally become a normal nation state. This is the horizon we should prepare for, all together.
Meanwhile, as our region remains an area of confrontation, the formerly captive nations should unite their strengths instead of cultivating their divisions. Some leaders, some countries in the past had understood that the freedom of one depended on the freedom of all subjugated nations – like the Poland of Pilsudski that invited all the oppressed peoples to unite under the flag of Polish independence.
Unity should be our rule in Eastern Europe, including in the divided Caucasus. Never had our ancestors benefited from a vast and powerful enough force that had understood its strategic interest was to preserve the sovereignty of each of our nation. Today, this force exists: it is the European Union.
We are and should remain a nation united in our historical destiny to join the European family of democratic nations, the family we should never have been separated from, our family. The path of the Georgian people towards freedom, regional unity and European integration is far from over and I will continue to dedicate every day of my life to its success, as a proud citizen of a proud nation.