The Decisive Factor
In 1956, Lord Ismay, Secretary General of NATO, formulated a task to “keep Russians out of Europe.” Today, such exclusion continues to be the main strategy of NATO countries. Many people who follow the state of affairs in post-Soviet countries may believe that residents’ perceptions of NATO are polarized, with Georgia and Ukraine—two countries where Western leaders came to power through “velvet revolutions”—on one side, and Russia and Belarus on the other. It is not a secret that Russia has reacted negatively to NATO missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, as well as to the idea of admitting the Ukraine and Georgia to the NATO alliance.
Gallup World Polls conducted in 2008 and 2009 revealed that the situation is somewhat different. Gallup asked the following question in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region, which includes 10 CIS countries, associate CIS member country Turkmenistan, and former CIS member Georgia: “Do you associate NATO with the protection of your country, with a threat to your country, or do you see it as neither protection nor threat?”
Attitudes Toward NATO in the CIS Region
Among all countries surveyed, Georgia, on average, has the highest percentage of residents (54 percent) who associate NATO with the protection of their country. Georgians’ views of NATO are nearly the mirror opposite of the views of Russians and Belarusians, among whom roughly one-half associate NATO with a threat to their countries. These differences largely reflect the overall weakening of Russian-Georgian relations that has occurred as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili pursued NATO membership and closer ties with the West. Relations, of course, reached their breaking point in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Notably, Georgians’ opinions about NATO in 2009 are relatively unchanged from what they were in the months before the war and the country’s subsequent withdrawal from the CIS.
Ukrainians’ perceptions of NATO, on the other hand, align far more closely with Russians’ and Belarusians’ opinions than they do with Georgians’ views. More than half of Ukraine’s population lives in the eastern and southern regions, where residents are traditionally oriented toward Russia. This orientation, in addition to their dissatisfaction with Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko’s pro-NATO efforts, helps explain the sizable 41 percent of residents who perceive NATO as a threat to their country. Ukrainians’ views, like Georgians’, remained relatively the same between 2008 and 2009.
As with Ukraine and Georgia, views about NATO across the rest of the CIS region are largely defined in terms of a country’s relations with Russia and its citizens’ sociocultural ties. Historically, Tajikistan has been oriented both toward its neighboring countries that share the Persian language (Iran and Afghanistan) and toward Russia, on which it depends for security and labor migration. The wars in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Russia’s constant hidden or open opposition to the United States, may influence Tajikistanis’ views of NATO—and hence the organization’s relatively low average protection rating of 9 percent. It is interesting to note, however, that the percentage of Tajikistanis who associate NATO with protection rose significantly between 2008 and 2009—from 5 percent to 18 percent—and potentially reflects their increased level of approval of the new US leadership (30 percent in 2008 versus 42 percent in 2009).
In Azerbaijan, a move toward modernization and integration into the world economy helps explain the relatively high 36 percent of residents who associate NATO with the protection of their country and the 9 percent who perceive it as a threat. Baku is moving toward closer ties with Turkey, an important and strong NATO member with which Azerbaijan has cultural and linguistic connections. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s economy is growing quickly because of energy projects that are in opposition to Moscow’s interests—for example, the Baku-Jeykhan oil pipeline. The North-Atlantic Alliance’s activity in the Middle East to constrain political Islam may also contribute to the stability of nearby secular Azerbaijan.
Similar to Azerbaijanis, more than one-third of Turkmen (36 percent) associate NATO with the protection of their country, while 7 percent say it is a threat. Long-isolated Turkmenistan has traditionally had a close relationship with Russia but in recent years has reached out to the West and NATO. A few months before Gallup’s survey, Turkmen-Russian relations suffered when a pipeline connecting the two countries exploded and each side pointed fingers at the other. The fallout between the two allies may help explain the relatively high protection rating.
In most countries surveyed, opinions about NATO did not change as dramatically as they did in Tajikistan between 2008 and 2009. Gallup, however, observed meaningful changes in seven out of 11 countries, which suggests that opinions in each country are somewhat soft.
In Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, citizens grew more likely to associate NATO with the protection of their countries in 2009. And while the percentages of residents associating NATO with protection did not change, residents in Armenia and Belarus became somewhat less likely to perceive NATO as a threat. Only in Kazakhstan did the percentage of respondents saying that NATO is a threat increase, from 19 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2009.