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Putin’s bullying can’t deter young democracies

For a decade and more after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republic of Moldova was widely regarded in the West as a basket case. So the transformation of the small nation of 3.5 million, tucked between Romania and Ukraine, has been one of Europe’s more remarkable success stories.

Now a liberal democracy with a growing economy, Moldova stands on the brink of initialing an association agreement with the European Union. Its foreign minister, Natalia Gherman, said during a visit to Washington last month that countries such as Burma and Vietnam are seeking its advice “as a case study of a country that has embraced democracy whole-heartedly.”

You’d think that Russia might welcome the escape of its near neighbor from failed-state status. Instead, a furious Vladimir Putin is doing his best to sabotage the EU-Moldovan accord. Last month, Russia abruptly banned the import of Moldovan wine – one of its main exports – on a bureaucratic pretext. It is threatening to cut off supplies of gas, for which it is Moldova’s exclusive supplier. Moldovan guest workers in Russia are being deported.

Putin’s bullying is not limited to Moldova. Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine also have been the target of a mix of punitive measures and bribes in the last several months. The Kremlin’s zero-sum aim is to block those countries from completing association agreements with the European Union and compel them to join a Moscow-led customs union that would be an EU rival – and a means of realizing Putin’s dream of re-creating something like the Soviet Union.

Putin scored a victory when Armenia, a small country dependent on Russia for both energy and security, capitulated and said it would join the would-be Eurasian Union, which so far includes only dictatorships Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have been holding firm, saying they will proceed with their EU agreements, which fall well short of EU membership.

The choice is a courageous one for all three governments. To qualify for EU association and the free-trade benefits that come with it, the countries have to enact far-reaching reforms, not just in economic regulation, but also on matters such as independence of the judiciary and the penal code. There are clear political tests: Georgia’s presidential election this month must be free and fair. Ukraine must resolve the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and opponent of the current government who is imprisoned. Putin, in contrast, asks nothing more other than tariff harmonization – and implicit acceptance of Russian suzerainty.

Some EU countries, such as Lithuania and Poland, are pressing EU governments to ease the political conditions in response to Russia’s pressure. That probably would be a mistake: if respect for the rule of law is not linked to the economic benefits of EU association, backsliding is likely.

But EU leaders should work hard in the next two months to persuade the Eurasian countries to embrace those Western values – and they could use some help from the United States.