June 10, 2009, 2:30pm
Washington, D.C. – “Thank you for granting me the opportunity to address the Central and East European Coalition, and for hosting this conference. At a time when the headlines seem to be dominated by our domestic economic woes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instability in Pakistan and the latest threats from North Korea, the Coalition helps to keep policymakers focused on the critical issues related to security in Central and Eastern Europe.
“Your advocacy of strong U.S. ties with these nations is of vital importance. I share your deep affection for those special countries of Central and Eastern Europe. As a child, I remember watching as men and women demonstrated their support of the Captive Nations, marching in the annual parades. I’ve had the great privilege of traveling repeatedly to this region – indeed, I’ve visited each of the countries that make up your coalition, with the exception of Belarus – and I hope to correct that omission this year. Like yours, however, my focus on the Central and Eastern European countries stems from far more than warm ties and deep affection. It derives from the recognition that the political and economic trajectories of this region are of direct importance to the United States.
“The history of these lands, though replete with inspiration, has nevertheless been wrought with tragedy. From the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s to Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, from the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries to the establishment of martial law in Poland, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have felt the painful weight of oppression in a way that is scarcely imaginable to many of us. And so it is all the more inspiring to see the majority of these countries establish stable and increasingly prosperous democracies, open to the west and destined for a bright future.
“It is, I believe, incumbent on the United States to help ensure that they retain the freedom to continue on this path. The Cold War is over, the Soviet empire is gone, and neither one is missed. The brave young democracies that make up this region have joined the free world, and they are not going back.
“That is why I have long supported the expansion of transatlantic institutions, including NATO, to the emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. It is why we must work closely with these countries in fields as varied as trade, energy, and defense. And it is why, while we cannot close off opportunities for Russia to reengage in a productive way, we must not yield any hint that we will cede this region to a reestablished, Moscow-centered sphere of influence.
“It has been less than ten months since the world’s attention was riveted by such questions, and I speak of course of the Russian invasion of Georgia. Though the stories may have faded from the headlines, we should recall that Moscow today remains in violation of the ceasefire terms to which it agreed last year. Russian troops continue to be stationed on sovereign Georgian territory, including thousands in South Ossetia and Abkhazia – in excess of the pre-conflict levels. Rather than abide by the ceasefire’s requirement to engage in international talks on the future of the two provinces, Russia has recognized their independence, signed friendship agreements with them that effectively render them Russian dependencies, and taken over their border controls.
“This disturbing pattern is both concerning because of what it may portend for the future of Georgia, a fast and firm partner of the United States, but also because of what it means for the rest of the region. The invasion of Georgia presents the most dramatic example of a troubling tendency evident in Russian foreign policy today: Moscow’s desire to maintain a sphere of influence in neighboring countries, dominate their politics, and circumscribe their freedom of action in international affairs. Whether in Estonia, which suffered a serious cyber attack some time ago; or in the territory of Transdniestra, where Russian troops remained stationed; or Ukraine, where Russian politicians speak of maintaining the Black Sea Fleet beyond its scheduled departure, Moscow ambitions appear clear.
“Yet a move to establish a Moscow-based sphere of influence that would encompass neighboring countries is in direct contravention to the free and open, rules-based international system that the United States and its partners have spent so many decades to uphold. The majority of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe have embraced this system and are, with us and our other global partners, bulwarks in supporting its furtherance. We must not revert to an era in which the countries on Russia’s periphery were not permitted to make their own decisions, control their own political futures, or decide their own alliances. And so we must stand by our partners and friends throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
“This does not mean reigniting the Cold War with Russia. On the contrary, there are areas in which our interests overlap and in which we can cooperate with Russia. It does mean, however, that we must reject the idea that the independent nations near Russia’s borders constitute any form of bargaining chip, to be traded away in pursuit of better ties with Moscow. It means not abandoning our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic in an effort to achieve a new arms reduction treaty with Russia. And it means holding the President and his administration to the pledge they made during their first days in office – that the United States will not recognize a Russian sphere of influence, that its neighbors have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances, and that cooperation with like-minded neighbors should increase, not diminish.
“It also entails standing up for the core values – of democracy, freedom and human rights – that have animated our country since its founding and which constitute the firmest foundation of the transatlantic alliance. I hope that members of your coalition will join me in making clear that any new focus on ‘re-setting’ relations with Moscow or any other country cannot exclude a strong public defense of the rights of oppressed people, wherever they reside. An attempt to improve relations with other countries, particularly those with regimes that oppress their people or seek to restrict the freedom of others, cannot exclude strong American advocacy for the rights of everyone, everywhere, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is, after all, the responsibility of the leading nations of the world to ensure that history continues to be a record of humanity’s progress toward respecting the values and security of free people, and as Americans, nothing can relieve us of the responsibility to speak out for those whose most fundamental rights have been abridged.
“The members of this coalition, whose heritage is intertwined so deeply with the many tragic events that have befallen the oppressed, know this better than most. As believers in the cause of human rights, whether in Central and Eastern Europe or anywhere else around the globe, we must stand up firmly for the cause, one that accords so deeply with the American character. I thank you for your efforts to do just that, and I look forward to your comments and questions.”
U.S. Senator John McCain’s address to the Central and East European Coalition Conference