Be that as it may, the key question is: what can we in the West do to strengthen the democratic camp in Russia and to encourage those who, all over the country, have embarked on building a civil society?
Some in the West will feel confirmed in their deep belief that Russia was never, and can never become, a consolidated democracy, and that it was therefore in vain from the outset to try to support its democrats. But others, like ourselves, are convinced that this is the time to support Russian democrats. Russian fascists try to create and then exploit conspiracy theories much like those that contaminated the political atmosphere in the defeated Germany after the First World War. But Russia has not been defeated. The end of the Cold War - and the end of the Soviet Union - was a triumph for the universal values of human and civil rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The 12 December vote in Russia has intensified the debate over the inclusion in Nato of the Eastern and Central European democracies. It has been argued that the West should keep clear of such plans because they could provoke a bitter reaction in Russia, which in turn would weaken its democratic, pro-Western camp. Yet the uncertainties over Russia's future make the nervousness of its neighbours entirely understandable. In fact it is Russian democrats themselves who warn against these uncertainties.
Could the inclusion of Eastern and Central European democracies be misunderstood as an exclusion or even isolation of Russia? No, provided that such an inclusion is combined with a convincing effort towards a special security partnership with Russia. And it is Russian democrats themselves who say this most clearly. On 10 December, the 45th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said that his country aspired to partnership with Nato, not Nato membership. He also said that it was the sovereign decision of the Eastern and Central Europeans as to which community or alliance they should join. So Western leaders should finally drop the bad old habit of nervously wondering how the 'hawks' in Moscow might react, and try to show a little more of the clarity and courage of those who represent democratic Russia.
Legitimate Russian interests do not extend to a right of veto over the security arrangements of the Soviet Union's former satellites - nor indeed, of the Baltic states or Ukraine. A democratic Russia will distinguish itself from the Communist Soviet Union precisely by recognising this truth. In addition, the inclusion of Eastern and Central Europe into Nato is in Russia's own enlightened self-interest. A reinforced Alliance for stability and democracy in Europe will also help the democratic and peaceful forces in Russia. Russia needs stability on its western border, just as we do on our eastern borders.
Before the Russian elections it seemed clear that at the next Nato summit, in Rome on 10 January, no former member state of the Warsaw Pact, however democratic, however close to us, however reformed its military, however co-operative its political leaders, would, for the time being, get anything more from the West than a 'partnership for peace'. There are encouraging signs that Nato has begun to reconsider.
Now a 'partnership for peace' should be proposed to Russia's democrats as part of the West's renewed support for them. As for the Eastern and Central European states, substantially more should be offered to them in the form of an 'engagement contract' with Nato. Such a contract would mean explicitly that a proper marriage lies ahead. The 'engagement' could proceed in three steps.
First, Eastern and Central European countries would participate in the political consultation mechanisms as well as the parliamentary assembly of Nato. Second, their forces would participate in Nato peace-keeping and peace-making operations, under the aegis of the United Nations and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). In a third and final step they would enter the full mutual security guarantee contained in Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty.
Many Russian democrats already understand that the strengthening of stability and democracy in Eastern and Central Europe is in their best interests too. This will be all the better understood if it is accompanied by a clearer commitment by the West to support Russian democrats. Nothing would be more dangerous for the West than a combination of pessimism and passivity.
Timothy Garton Ash is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and the author, most recently, of 'In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 25). Michael Mertes is a senior policy advisor in the Federal Chancellery in Bonn, who writes here in a personal capacity. Dominique Mosi is deputy director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, and editor of 'Politique Etrangere'.
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