by NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at the Zero Corruption: Democracy in Action Conference
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE [Chief of the Ukrainian Service, Voice of America]: I would like to then turn to Mircea Geoană. Thank you so much for waiting patiently for half an hour. And I would probably ask you about the challenges. The United States said that China is the main challenge and main national security threat for United States, what, how do you see the main security threats for NATO countries today and do you agree that China is the main threat?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: OK, thank you Myroslava. Thank you for having me. And it’s not a matter of speaking after President Maia Sandu, and also to listen, like always, very carefully to what Věra Jourová, my dear colleague and friend from the European Commission, had to say. I was really impressed by Maia Sandu’s very, very direct and engaging approach to the challenges that her country is facing in this very important topic. Listen, before answering your question, let me say a little bit where we are coming from in NATO, when it comes to the very topic of this very important conference. And I really congratulate President Zelenskyy and all of you for organizing such an important event. I will start with Russia, because that’s something which is so actual and so persistent. And Russia’s pattern of aggressive actions, including its military activity in and around Ukraine, in the broader region, are deeply concerning. And NATO Allies have repeatedly called on Russia to end its military build-up and stop fuelling conflict in eastern Ukraine. We do not and will not recognise Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. Also, Allied ministers discussed these challenges posed by Russia when they met virtually last week. This will also be on the agenda of the summit of NATO leaders one week from now, next Monday. And we’ll continue as NATO to provide significant practical support to Ukraine so that it can better provide for its own security. So, of course, we are speaking about strengthening capabilities, training Ukrainian armed forces, stepping up our cooperation in the greater Black Sea Region, exercises, port visits and, of course, supporting – and that’s coming closer to the topic of today’s conference – supporting Ukraine’s wide-ranging reform agenda, which will make Ukraine more resilient and help advance this country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. I just personally met, I think a few days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister Reznikov, Foreign Minister Kuleba was with us just two weeks ago, just three weeks ago. Secretary General Stoltenberg is in regular contact with President Zelenskyy. So our dialogue is very robust and our close partnership and cooperation are more vibrant and getting vibrant, more vibrant every day. But let me tell you something closer to this, to this topic. I have a personal commitment and interest in this topic, because I am coming from Romania and I know very well and I remember vividly the dark days of communism. So cherishing freedom and the right of nations to choose their own destiny is something which is very much embedded in what I believe and I believe all of us believe in our region. I also know that freedom cannot be taken for granted. That’s a struggle that continues every day. Democracy is a perfectible endeavour. And this is why we are determined not to allow anyone, under any disguise, to disrupt or weaken our democracies and our way of life. And here, with Věra Jourová and the European Commission, we are doing a lot of work on fighting disinformation together. Our professional colleagues are working together. I know that there is also talk and active cooperation also with the Strategic Communication Group of the G7. By the way, this will be the first big event of the series of high-level engagements that President Biden will be having in the next few days. So we are ready to work with like-minded organisations – the EU is our strategic partner – to really work on this, on this very important matter. But let me also say something about not only . . . OK, President Maia Sandu referred to something which is exceptionally important. How can we really build good governance, professional civil servants, well-trained and performant members of our judiciaries? Mainly for countries that do not have a great tradition into this. There is a certain embedded weakness, a certain . . . also history and geography were not very, you know, generous with the countries in this region, so this is a challenge that sometimes we have to really understand and help these countries much, much better, because there is no way in which any nation in this world would be ever able to thrive unless we have a good public service, transparent, accountable, you know, public service; until we have credible, effective and accountable judiciary; until we build – not easy – checks and balances just to make sure that there is mutual control amongst the powers of the state; and more importantly than anything else, that we gain or regain, or don’t lose, the trust of our own citizens. This is why this topic of corruption, of good governance, is such a critically important conversation. In NATO jargon we call this ‘building integrity’. We have a massive programme: Ukraine, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova are all part in this conversation. And it’s because we say, as NATO, that if we build integrity at the core, at the hard core of a country’s system, which is national defence, national security and related hard core institutions, at that moment, the foundation of a broader effort to fight corruption, to have good governance, to have accountable public service will become much easier. This is something that we are interested in continuing to engage. We are welcoming the interest of your countries in doing more with us. And I’m convinced that, speaking of the Republic of Moldova, the Republic of Moldova is a joint partner of both NATO and the EU. So I think we have so many things we can do, we can do together. As some of you have mentioned before, this is also . . . poor governance is not only a major obstacle towards prosperity, democracy and a better future for our people, but it’s also, in a way, a huge strategic and national security vulnerability. Because this is something that, on the one side, domestically, internally, is corroding the public trust of people, thus making the reforms of the leaders more difficult to be obtained, but it is also used and abused by malign actors from the outside – and I mentioned Russia already, it could be others – that are trying to make sure that this kind of discontent, this kind of dysfunction is amplified, becomes a political issue, thus discrediting in their mind the desire of these countries to join the West. So this is, at the same time, a massively important domestic issue. There’s no way forward, there is no prosperity, there’s no real democracy, there is no real future, there’s no real future for our kids and grandkids without a properly run state. That’s a domestic issue. And at the other side, this is a massive strategic weakness. It’s also a reputational weakness, speaking of foreign investment, speaking of attracting private capital, allowing your domestic SMEs to thrive – it’s very difficult to thrive when the reputation of one place is not attractive enough for capital and foreign investments. So this is where we are coming as an organisation. We are fully behind the efforts of President Zelenskyy and his government in taking this issue. I remember visiting Kiev with Secretary General Stoltenberg and the North Atlantic Council – and Odessa, by the way – how the President was telling us, before the pandemic, about the ‘turbo’ reforms. And I really heartened, and I can only encourage from here, from the NATO Headquarters, we are preparing outside of the studio for the NATO Summit next Monday, for you to persevere, for you to have faith, for you to really continue to fight corruption and thus maximise the chances of Euro-Atlantic integration. This is not about benchmarking or checking boxes in something that some people from Brussels or elsewhere are telling you what to do. This is fundamentally important for your own progress, for your own destiny, and at the same time minimising a significant strategic and security risk to all of you. So persevere. We are here to be of support. And I’m absolutely convinced that when you have political leadership that is credible, determined and relentlessly pushing forward this agenda, results would come and the dreams of your people will become a reality.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you so much. Since you brought the issue of integration, it’s a logical question: when Ukraine, Georgia and those who are aspiring to be in NATO would receive the Membership Action Plan? This was the issue of 2008 when Ukraine was denied that plan, or were not ready to do that. Unfortunately, we have 2021 today and we are still on the path to . . . Ukraine’s still on the path to receive the plan. Do we have any timeline for this? And is NATO ready to welcome Ukraine and Georgia?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: OK, I’ll give you the official answer, which is the same we have been given to President Zelenskyy, to the leadership of Ukraine. This is something we are talking [about] to our Georgian partners. This is basically standard policy here in NATO. The Open Door policy is solid, it’s here and it’s real. And our leaders at the summit in one week from now will reconfirm the Open Door policy. I’m also saying that we are an organisation of 30 nations working by consensus, so before moving to one decision, we need to have consensus and today we don’t have consensus on this one. Thirdly, it is my strong plea that I make every single time, I’m doing this again today. I mentioned my country, Romania. When we were basically trying to find our way as a nation after the fall of communism in the mid and late 90s, we decided, with all of us, to join the West, to join NATO, to join the European Union. And I have to say that initially not that many people gave Romania a significant chance to be eventually there. I remember I was ambassador in Washington in 1999. We failed to get an invitation to join the first round of enlargement, and we played, in a way, if you want, or overplayed or misplayed also public opinion expectations. We built so much expectation for that summit, then when it didn’t happen, we had to manage, domestically, a massive public communication problem. So what . . . and then look at, look at my country, Romania, look at where I’m speaking to you now, from what position I’m speaking to you now – the first leader from the new NATO members to have such a big position in NATO. I’m just saying that if you stay the course, if you do your domestic reforms – not for the sake of getting into one or another organisation, but for the sake of your own people – and you really continue to invest in your Western destiny, what I call the Western Boulevard, this is the only way to move forward, this is something that will bring results. Timetable now, tomorrow, I don’t know. But I know that when a nation is really believing in its destiny and when NATO will never accept the old European curse of spheres of influence and some power denying another European country which destiny one country should choose, this is something that NATO will never accept, will never agree upon. Because that’s the difference between NATO – I believe it’s true for the European Union, I know it’s true for the European Union – and the kind of realpolitik and zero sum game and spheres of influence that others are playing. So stay the course, continue to reform domestically, continue to push for your people, continue to push for Western integration. So if you look to the example of my home country, Romania. Keep fighting. Keep moving forward.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you. Thank you so much. Obviously, Ukraine . . . and Ukraine and other countries have to do their homework. Georgia has reformed, already reformed its military and much closer in that, a reform agenda, much closer to that, to getting that Membership Action Plan. So it’s a call for Ukrainian leadership to do their job today. I would like to address one more [pressing] issue of today. It’s Belarus. We saw what President Lukashenko . . . what . . . we him President at this point? Lukashenko did to its citizens who are standing up for . . . for the right to choose their leaders. The EU is reluctant to put stronger sanctions on Lukashenko regime. And still, yes, they closed airspace after this hijacking of the plane and capturing the . . . one of the activists and . . . and her . . . his partner. However, what is EU and NATO prepared to do to stop these horrible, horrible events happening in our neighbouring country? Actually, this is a question to all of you, and maybe Maia Sandu would have her idea of what has to be done. Is . . [inaudible] …maybe you will start? I’m not sure they’re hearing my question.
MAIA SANDU [President of the Republic of Moldova]: OK, I do hear your question. It was not clear who was expected to answer first, because the questions were about the EU. I can tell you . . . I can tell you that, of course, we’re very concerned with what happens in Belarus. And we really hope that the international partners will find a way to get the innocent people released and to stop the actions, the illegal actions that happen. I mean, with the people who are trying to defend their freedom and democracy and to us, this is a lesson. This is a lesson that we should work very hard not to allow an authoritarian regime to get deep roots, because then it’s very difficult to fight it. And I see as my main task, actually, to continue to strengthen the democratic institutions and to strengthen the democratic processes so that the country does never get into such issues. Of course, we don’t have full-fledged democracy. We are very far from the Western democratic standards. But the little democracy we have managed to . . . to build, we value it, we cherish it and we have to build those independent and strong institutions and have the proper processes to make sure that human rights will never be attacked and that people will have their rights and freedoms ensured. And again, we very much share the concerns and we very much hope that the people will be released and that these bad things won’t continue.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Věra, do you have something to say?
VĚRA JOUROVÁ: Of course. Thank you very much. Well, what the President has just said, yes, we have to hope, but we have to push. And you could see a very strong reaction of the leaders, which . . . who had the summit just, just one day after Alexander Lukashenko’s regime hijacking the plane. And all the leaders used very strong language, Ursula von der Leyen, said that this is the attack against European sovereignty and against the European people and against the freedoms, including the freedom of media, because Raman Pratasevich belonged to the courageous Belarussian journalists who were writing critical articles and using the social media to open the eyes of everyone to understand better what kind of regime is Lukashenko’s regime. And now we all saw Raman Pratasevich speaking to Belarussian public TV. In my view, he must have been tortured. His declarations are obviously pushed and forced. This is something my country remembers from the 50s – in Czechoslovakia we had the political prisoners and political executions. So for me this is . . . this is really horrible to see a such outrageous behaviour of the obviously authoritarian regime, which, which is nowadays Belarus. What can we do? We cannot invade. We cannot use military forces. We can use diplomatic measures and instruments. We can increase the pressures through the sanctions. We can enlarge the sanctions list. We should put on the sanction list everyone influential who is supporting Lukashenko’s regime. In my view, we have not exhausted yet the possibility of using economic sanctions. But at the same time, of course, we have to be mindful of not making the life of Belarussian citizens more difficult than it is now by, or through, the economic sanctions. So this is still the process. I think that EU showed very clearly that the behaviour of Lukashenko’s regime is intolerable and that we will use the tools we have in hand and continue to push, continue the funding, which is so difficult to get to the people who need the funding and financial support. We already deployed several tens of millions euro to help the families of the . . . of the imprisoned Belarussian citizens. We are now pushing on releasing not only those who are the political prisoners, but especially the . . . the young people, because there are children also in Belarussian prisons. So, I mean, back to the money, we try to find the best ways and safe ways how to send the money to those who need it. But it’s not easy. And I would really like us to do more to help Belarussian people to sustain in their protest and to be strong under very difficult circumstances.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you Věra, thank you. Mircea Geoană?
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: Listen, NATO is a military defensive Alliance, and you have seen, I’m convinced, the very unequivocal statements from the Secretary General, the statement of the North Atlantic Council, and the fact that we are very vigilant to the situation in this country. Also, I have to say that one . . . when one is looking for reactions and actions, I think we should look at the Political West, not as NATO-EU, but also as what all of us are doing. The statement’s very clear from the US administration, the very strong statements and gestures from neighbours of Belarus in Poland or Lithuania in the region. Anticipating the same strong language when it comes to G7 or the NATO meetings or the EU, and so on and so forth. But if we are looking to this issue with condemnation, these are intolerable actions, we’re also looking to a smaller portion of the bigger struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes, that’s in fact what’s going on right now. And the fact that it’s on the very border of both NATO and the EU is also something which is very significant to all of us. We are also looking to the way in which the independent sovereignty of Belarus could be undermined because of the situation that we are now witnessing in Russia and the Union State. So that’s a very complex issue that has, on the one side, a moral dimension that is democracy, the right of people to peacefully protest, the right of people to speak up their minds, the right of civil aviation to fly in open and safe skies all over the world and all over Europe. But it’s also something bigger, which is both strategic and, if you want, ideological: the struggle between our democratic countries and authoritarian regimes. So that’s a very important topic for us here at NATO. Of course, we know the division of labour, we are a defensive military Alliance, but I know that together, as the Political West, we’ll be able to really do the right thing and persevere.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you so much. Thank you for these words and thank you, our panellists. We are summarising this panel today. It was very important to hear your positions on many topics. We did not touch every topic, obviously, it’s almost impossible. Maybe one more, we have, like, two minutes to . . . for the finish line, to the finish line. So the Biden/Putin meeting in Geneva on 16th, what do you expect and what would you like to hear from both leaders?
VĚRA JOUROVÁ: If I may start?
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Yes, yes, we have three minutes.
VĚRA JOUROVÁ: I will be short. It’s important they will speak to each other, but I will speak just from my personal point of view. I don’t have big expectations.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Thank you.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: President Sandu, I think?
MAIA SANDU: Yes, well, I mentioned what a challenging agenda we have in Moldova, and what we want is to have peace and a non-conflictual environment around ourselves so that we could focus on our internal reforms, that we could build our strong institutions, which would make the state less vulnerable, including to the external threats. So we live in a very complex and difficult region and this is very concerning. But what we want: we want peace and we hope not to have any conflicts around, so that we could focus on building democracy in Moldova.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ: As you can imagine, I’m looking at this meeting in Geneva from a strategic standpoint. I’m convinced that President Biden will be very direct in naming the destabilising and aggressive actions of Russia in so many directions, in so many geographies and in so many domains. At the same time, I know – and this is good for strategic stability, if you want – to also discuss and engage with Russia on arms control, on nuclear strategic balance, on climate change, things that we need to fight together around the world. So I do believe there will be a meeting that will be straightforward. At the same time, trying to find the ways in which we can engage Russia more constructively – if they want to engage with us more constructively.
MYROSLAVA GONGADZE: Fantastic. Thank you so much, all of you, and we will move on for the . . . our next guest, very, very special guest.