Editorial: America is distracted by Trump’s trials and campus encampments as Eastern Europe turns into a powder keg

As America focuses on Donald Trump’s dalliances with a former adult entertainer and its most illustrious universities make deals with Ivy League undergraduates aligning themselves with Hamas, it would do this nation good to pay some attention to what is happening this week in Ukraine, Georgia and the Slovak Republic, all nations that have been plunged into crisis.

Over the last 48 hours, the brave people of Georgia have filled the streets of Tbilisi in the tens of thousands to register their objections to a new law introduced by the ruling Georgia Dream Party, an Orwellian name if ever there was one. The legislation, which passed parliament on Tuesday and is likely to survive an expected presidential veto, would force nongovernmental organizations and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

What a lesson their courage is for Americans, many of whom take independent media for granted and would struggle to even define an NGO, let alone take to the streets and risk their lives to defend its freedom to operate. These are not small events in Tbilisi but massive and intensifying demonstrations taking over the city. Only in the last day or so has the Western media woken up to what is happening.

Why is this seemingly benign law sparking such fervor? It’s a proxy fight over Russian influence. The Georgian people, who overwhelmingly support a democratic future ideally within the fold of the European Union, see the proposed law as a Soviet-style rule designed to clamp down on their democratic aspirations. They don’t need long memories to worry about the danger of clampdowns: Russian tanks rolled into Georgia as recently as 2008. Most Georgians now see the ruling party as doing too much of the bidding of the Kremlin, even in the face of the opposition of a Georgian people who already have many Russians in their midst. In response, the party’s billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has defended this and other similar moves as pragmatism designed to prevent a dangerous conflict with Russia.

Meanwhile on Wednesday morning, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times in an apparent assassination attempt in the central Slovak town of Handlova. As we write, he is said to be in “a life-threatening condition.”

Fico is the political leader of the Slovak Republic. Americans hardly need reminding of the destabilizing effect of attempted assassinations, regardless of motivation.

Fico is seen by many in his landlocked nation of about 5.5 million people as too close to the Kremlin and insufficiently supportive of Ukraine. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky still rightly (and impressively) assailed the assault, posting on the social platform X, “We strongly condemn this act of violence against our neighboring partner state’s head of government.”

Other Western leaders, including President Joe Biden, put out statements of concern as they tried to assess the why and wherefore. One thing was immediately clear, though: Shooting at political leaders does not harbinger good things for still nascent Eastern European democracies living adjacent to Russia.

If the events over the last 48 hours in Georgia and Slovakia were not enough, Ukrainian officials also sounded the alarm about the state of its depleted army in the face of a new, deeply troubling Russian troop buildup and offensive in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, surely the most significant border incursion since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in 2022.

Kyiv said that Russian troops were moving through settlements on the northeastern border of Ukraine, and it evacuated citizens there. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin made a visit to his friends in Beijing to discuss what Russia and China like to call shared global concerns or various matters of mutual interest — most likely an attempt by Putin to get Chinese support for Russian military campaigns in service of undermining the current, U.S.-led world order. The danger is both real and present.

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The situations in the three countries are distinct and yet they have Putin’s aggression as a common theme.

The proud citizens of these nations are trying to hold onto their freedom in the face of serious threats of a reconstituted Soviet-style clampdown, coming either through troops on the ground or through laws pushed through parliament. As we’ve seen in staggeringly rapid succession, this part of the world is now a tinderbox. It needs the U.S. to stand up for freedom.

The war in Gaza might dominate news cycles and be a locus of useful domestic division for this nation’s enemies, but it is far from the only global problem. And history teaches us that nothing better serves an aggressor than a distracted or complacent enemy.

Chicago has as many as 100,000 Ukrainians in its metropolitan area. Perhaps one-third of those recently arrived as refugees and moved quietly into communities of support. Garfield Ridge on the Southwest Side is known for its Slovak population, although some 50,000 Slovaks live throughout the region. Georgians might be fewer in number and less prominent, but they gather in restaurants, bakeries and community centers. Those we know are deeply proud of what their country has accomplished and determined to move forward.

The Chicagoans with roots in these countries are our neighbors. We worry on their behalf, and on behalf of their families at home, and we fear today for the longevity of hard-won democratic freedoms throughout Eastern Europe.

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