The conference brought together some of the EU’s and NATO’s newest members with their neighbors. The United States and the European Union also sent top-level officials.
There is no better example of the region's post-Soviet transformation than host country Lithuania, which over the past decade-and-a-half has gone from subjugated Soviet republic to a prospering EU and NATO member.
Dick Cheney (left) with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in Vlinius today (courtesy photo)
Conference participants debated ways of transfering such experience further east and ensuring that the democratic momentum continues. “Democracy is like riding a bicycle," said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. "If you don’t keep pedaling forward, you fall down.”
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who delivered the keynote address in Vilnius today, did not mince words. He said Russia, whose officials were conspicuously absent from today’s gathering, poses one of the greatest potential threats to the advance of democracy in the region.
Cheney warned that if Moscow continued its current policies, relations with the West could suffer.
"In Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade," Cheney said. "In many areas of civil society, from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people. Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries."
Cheney rebuked Russia for what he said was Moscow’s use of its oil and gas resources to subvert democracy in neighboring states.
"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation, and no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor or interfere with democratic movements," Cheney said.
Carrot And Stick
But Cheney tempered his criticism with an offer of cooperation, which he said will be made to Russia at the upcoming Group of Eight (G8) summit in July.
“Democracy is like riding a bicycle. If you don’t keep pedaling forward, you fall down.” -- Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus
"None of us believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy," Cheney said. "A Russia that increasingly shares the values of this community can be a strategic partner and a trusted friend as we work toward common goals. In that spirit, the leading industrialized nations will engage Russia at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg this summer."
Cheney said the United States would make the case to Moscow that it has “nothing to fear and everything to gain” from having strong, democratic neighbors and from aligning its interests with the West.
Lashing Out At Lukashenka
For the government of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Cheney had no such offer.
"The world knows what is happening in Belarus," Cheney said. "Peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished, and a climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections and bans your own country's flag. There is no place in Europe, whole and free, for a regime of this kind."
Constructive Engagement Or Appeasment?
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today emphasized the threat posed to newly democratic states by what he said were influential circles in Moscow.
Mikheil Saakashvili speaking at an NGO forum in Vilnius forum on May 3 (epa)
"The changes that we once thought were universal and irreversible in Tbilisi and Kyiv, here in the Baltics, in other places, like also in Russia, are now confronted by very serious forces intent on promoting very different outcomes," Saakashvili said. "And these forces are increasingly well organized, well financed, promoted, and tolerated."
Saakashvili called on EU politicians to “wake up” to the threat and to stop what he called a policy of "appeasement" vis-a-vis Russia:
"In the discourse of today's European debates, we often hear of 'informed pragmatism,' or 'cautious realism,' even 'gradualism,' and some forms of 'constructive engagement,'" he said. "[The way] I see it, these are just sometimes and quite often -- these are just code words for defeat and appeasement on the battlefield for democracy."
For his part, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Brussels had helped and would continue to help countries in Europe that sought to democratize and join European institutions.
He said a particular obstacle in regions like the Caucasus and the Black Sea are the so-called frozen conflicts. Solana renewed the EU’s offer to assist in finding a resolution to problems like Nagorno-Karabakh. But he said Brussels could only act as a facilitator. The real work of democracy and solving conflicts had to be performed by the countries themselves.
Seeking Local Initiative
"My message today is really simple," Solana said. "When it comes to the future of the new democracies, the need to address frozen conflicts, or the efforts of building a meaningful partnership [with] the European Union, the mantra is always the same: success starts at home. The lead must come from the new democracies."
Just how difficult that will be was demonstrated by a tense exchange at today’s meeting between Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and Armenian Foreign Minister Oskar Vartanian.
Rasizade accused Armenia of occupying part of his country for more than two decades. A visibly shaken Oskanian accused Azerbaijan of planning to use its newly acquired oil wealth to purchase weapons to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. He called on the EU to tell Azerbaijan that force could not resolve the issue.
Solana’s sigh was almost audible.