From political and economic viewpoints, the contact areal of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia expanded first of all in geopolitical terms, but also in political and economic terms. The more aggressive was the involution of the Russian factor, the more intense was the determination of the three countries to develop (geo)political partnerships with other players.
Two reasons dictate the change of the parameters of the Russian factor. On the one hand, the capacity and openness of the EU to offer more political support and access to its financial resources, with which the budget gaps in the three countries can be filled, it is what matters. On the other hand, the variations of the Russian factor correlate with the availability of appropriate internal political benchmarks in the form of loyal political forces and favorable political conjuncture. In Ukraine, the pro-Russian political parties cannot recover as long as Russia maintains a warlike policy in Donbass. The advancing of nationalist ideas inside the Georgian political narrative, even in the absence of robust pro-Russian parties, benefits Russia as this inhibits or can even reverse the liberal reforms. The Russian factor is most favorable positioned in Moldova, where it has a variety of friendly local players at political, social and ethnical levels.
The engagement of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia in structural reforms distorts Russia’s capacity to influence their decision-making mechanisms. The consolidation of state institutions, the enhancement of transparency in governance or the fortification of the courts against corrupt rulers imposes those rules of the game that drastically diminish the maneuvering space of the Russian factor. Evidently, Russia can practice at home the rule of law or human rights and, respectively, can respect them outside, but namely their non-use is an essential resource for fueling its geopolitical power. From this point of view, the political regime in Moscow is ready to invest in the extension, restoration or amplification of the dependences that others have toward it. That’s why the Russian support is directed to local political elements that prefer to govern to the detriment of the rule of law rather than within its limits.
Three areas where Russia’s influence has diminished
The substantiation of the dialogue with the EU inevitably led to the diminishing of the Russian influence in three important areas that earlier could easily generate major political and socioeconomic costs for the political class in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. After the Association Agreements with the EU were signed and the mobility conditions were liberalized, the three dimensions of dependence on Russia decreased, but didn’t fully disappear.
First of all, the migration flows to Russia entered into a competition with the human flows moving to Europe. The rapprochement of the three countries with the EU accelerated inter-human interaction and the European business community from the proximity became a magnet for the economically active population of Moldova and Ukraine. Owing to the geographical distance, the Georgians are yet powerfully connected to Russia, despite the war of 2008. The EU’s enlargement to the East emphasized Moldovans‘ interest in the Romanian nationality and contributed to the growth of the economy of Poland that regards Ukraine as the closest pool of cheap labor force. Unofficial data for Moldova show that about 1 million Moldovans are involved in seasonal or permanent migration, as opposed to 4.6 million Ukrainians and under 1 million Georgians. The Russian military aggression against Ukraine stimulated internal migration in Ukraine from the Eastern regions to the West and also external migration in favor of the EU states. The extension of the geography of migration flows from the three countries reduced Russia’s possibility of using migrants as an instrument of political pressure. On the one hand, the restoring of this leverage by the Russian authorities depends on the performance of the Russian economy. On the other hand, this aspect is determined by the demographic and economic coefficients of the given states and by the political participation level of their diaspora situated in the West.
Foreign trade is the second element that represented the strong point of Russian influence in Moldova prior to the liberalization of trade with the EU. Currently, the supplies to the EU are larger than 65% of the total exports, while those to Russia decreased to fewer than 15% in 2017 (3DCFTA, 2018). The modification of the balance in the Russian-Ukrainian trade is due both to Ukraine’s integration into the European market and to the reciprocal commercial restrictions imposed as a result of the Russian military aggression in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea. The figures for 2017 indicate that Ukraine’s flows of goods to the EU strengthened at the level of 40%, while trade with Russia fell to under 10% (3DCFTA, 2018). After a period of intense liberalization of trade and the overcoming of the bans imposed by Russia after 2000, Georgia’s exports to Russia doubled in 2017 compared with 2013, while those to the EU rose from about 20% in 2013 to 24% in the same period (3DCFTA, 2018). The diversification of export markets enabled the three countries to reduce Russia’s temptation to use trade as a political weapon, at least temporarily.
The energy sector is another important artery by which the dependence of Russia was manifested, mainly in Moldova and Ukraine. This way, Moldova remains for now under the monopoly of Gazprom, which controls over 50% of the actions of the Moldovan gas supplier Moldovagaz. At the same time, the extended Moldovan-Russian contract for the supply of gas expires in 2019, while the building of interconnections with Romania is planned for not earlier than in 2020. Even if Ukraine purchases natural gas, including Russian one, from Europe, there is a risk of losing the role of transiting country if Nord Stream 2 is built. Georgia is different from the other two countries as it buys natural gas from Azerbaijan and cover its electricity needs from the domestic production. The status of member of the Energy Community helps the three countries to systematize their energy sectors and to liberalize them. This way the dominating position of the Russian energy companies is endangered.
Moldova is the most vulnerable to the reviving of the Russian factor
Russia’s interference in Moldovan politics is most probable compared to Georgia or Ukraine cases, which, besides the European integration, are attracted into strategic dialogues with the U.S. and have political classes and populations inclined to support the entry into NATO. Russia’s minimum goal in Moldova is to create a precedent of reversing or at least of reviewing the pro-European geopolitical course.
The Party of Socialists already became engaged in regular and profound political discussions with Moscow. The President of Moldova negotiates diverse agreements with the regime of Vladimir Putin as regards migration and bilateral trade. All these arrangements have a temporary character and are synchronized with the parliamentary elections of February 2019. Thus, the Moldovan migrants are seduced to return to Moldova until February 23, before the elections, so as to be able to go back to Russia in March. At the same time, several categories of Moldovan products (fruit, vegetables and wines) can enter again the Russian market, duty-free, but only during the first half of this year. It is evident that Russia offers President Igor Dodon and the Party of Socialists electoral support so as to increase their chances to hold a victory in the parliamentary elections.
Namely the ease with which the pro-Russian rhetoric can expand from the Presidential Office to Parliament by democratic ways, even if in a powerfully distorted manner, makes Moldova the most vulnerable to Russian factor’s reviving. Neither in Georgia in 2018 nor in Ukraine in 2019, Russia has felt so confortable as in the case of the parliamentary elections in Moldova.
Instead of conclusions...
Russia’s influence in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia diminished after the European integration has been internalized in the political processes of these countries. As the rapprochement with the EU could not be stopped, the Russian factor learned to adjust itself, waiting for a suitable moment to reenter the game.
Owing to the existence of pro-Russian parties that are ready to reach agreements with for now unknown concessions, Russia’s prospects in Moldova are clearly superior to those it can pursue in Georgia or Ukraine.
The Moldovan case reminds once again of the danger that results from the instrumentalization of the European integration by oligarchic regimes for the purpose of preventing reforms.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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