With the exception of Ukraine and, of course, the Baltic states, none of the republics of the former Soviet Union has vigorously protested Russia's recent aggression in Georgia and its subsequent recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Most remained mute; the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan in particular, even sought to justify Moscow's actions. That is because, from Moldova to Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan, these "independent" states are scared, and justifiably so. Their silence indicates that Russia is surrounded by weak states whose governments are the products of personal alliances, rigged elections, and political coercion, and therefore lack popular legitimacy.
When the time came for robust action, the leaders of most of these countries "chickened out." It was unthinkable that Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov or Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka, both dictators whose power has nothing to do with the will of the people, would support the democratically elected government of Georgia.
What happened to GUAM, the regional security alliance uniting Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova? Today that organization has been reduced to GU, because neither Azerbaijan nor Moldova fulfilled its obligations to protect a fellow member state. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, despite his country's energy wealth and strategic geopolitical position, said nothing in support of Georgia. He spent the first week of the war in Beijing, and the rest of the time with his head in the proverbial sand, conducting "ostrich diplomacy." And what happened to Azerbaijan's "strategic partnership" with Georgia? The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members have many reasons to fear Russia, but the biggest reason is that they are aware how vulnerable they would be should they take a political risk.
Regardless of whether or not they approved of President Mikheil Saakashvili's judgment on August 7-8 in precipitating the conflict with Russia, the Georgian people supported him, and continue to support him, because they participated in building Georgian democracy and believe they have a stake in the system. Looking beyond the immediate crisis, Georgians also understand that democracy guarantees them the possibility of changing their leadership should they wish to do so. Leaders who lack this popular legitimacy also lack the popular will to stand up to external aggression, since they don't have a "contract" or mutual obligations vis-a-vis the state. Power is not legally theirs: it was inherited, stolen, or bought.
And while in Georgia, independence was used to build a state with sovereign, representative institutions, independence in other countries in the region was squandered, exploited by ruling cliques to enrich themselves, while producing none of the human, institutional, or moral capital necessary to defend it.
The West came to Georgia's aid because Saakashvili was popularly elected and undertook to enact democratic reforms and take his country into NATO. By contrast, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and the Central Asian states, having failed to embrace reform, can't call upon the West for aid, neither can they look to their own citizens for support in the event of armed aggression.
The Russian military intervention in South Ossetia also showed that oil and gas don't guarantee these countries' security; on the contrary, they endanger them, because Russia wants to control all energy resources in its neighborhood and their export.
The West should send a message to the countries of the CIS that it will support those leaders who demonstrate their pro-Western orientation by enacting reforms and aspiring to membership in Western alliances. Oil and gas don't give states a carte blanche. For Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, this means that his country's chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 must be exemplary; for Ilham Aliyev, this means that the West will expect fair and competitive presidential elections in October; for Armenia, this means satisfying benchmarks for good governance to qualify for further Millennium Challenge funds; for Moldova, it means meaningful economic reform.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to the South Caucasus this week is good opportunity to send this message.
Kenan Aliyev is the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL