Enlargements "in between" the EU and the Eurasian Union: Serbia and Moldova as showcase, Op-Ed

 


The strict fulfillment of the European agenda and the promotion of ambitious relations with the EU can remedy and diminish the Eurasian inclinations, inspired by President Igor Dodon. The sustainability of the European vector in Moldova, but also throughout the region, has a strong reversible composition, especially if the EU distances itself from the Western Balkans, and Russia, on the contrary, advances the Eurasian integration to the West ...

Dionis Cenuşa

 

 

 

 

 

The intersections between the European integration project and the Eurasian one are accentuating. In this context, the European institutions are developing hybrid agreements with the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), such as the one signed with Armenia in 2017 - Comprehensive and Consolidated Partnership Agreement. At the same time, under the guidance of Russia, the Eurasian institutions are developing new formulas for intertwining with the neighboring EU countries, whose European perspectives have a political-legal confirmation or a rather abstract recognition. In the Western Balkans, Serbia has signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU (October 25, 2019), even though for 5 years it fulfills the necessary conditions for accession to the EU, opening by now 17 out of 35 chapters in the accession negotiations. At the same time, within the Eastern Partnership, as a result of the consolidation of the pro-Russian political forces (IPN, May 22, 2018), Moldova navigates between the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU and the participation, for the time being sterile, in the EEU, based on the observer status obtained in 2018.

Eurasian Union’s mobilization in the region is due to the greater focus placed on flexibility in the relationship with third countries. Politically and economically dominated by Moscow and with a special geopolitical purpose, the EEU tends to raise its authority over the EU, still unconvinced by the seriousness of the Eurasian project. The reluctance showed by Brussels derives essentially from its net superior position as the unequaled negotiator of international (semi-) trade agreements, appreciated worldwide for the emphasis on the uniform application of European law and the dedication to fair competition. Although strongly underestimated in the West, the EEU does not give up its attempts to forge free trade agreements, including in the geographical area exposed to the "Europeanization" process.

Western Balkans and Serbia in particular differ from the Armenian precedent. To the detriment of the fourth hypothetical Association Agreement, run by the EU in the Eastern Partnership, Armenia abandoned deeper European integration in 2013 and later joined the Eurasian. For purely strategic reasons, the leader of the Armenian pro-reform forces, consolidated in power in 2018, Nikol Pashinyan reiterated the "attractiveness" of the Eurasian integration (Armenianweekly, October 2, 2019). The "multi-vectorial policy of Armenia" is invoked in the resolutions of the European Parliament (July 4, 2018), and the East-West oscillation does not generate dissensions between Yerevan and Moscow (Kommersant, October 29, 2019). Both cases - both Serbian and Armenian - fuel the idea of ​​a "Wider Europe", extended from Lisbon to Vladivostok, insistently promoted by Moldovan President Igor Dodon, including at the EEU’s summit in Yerevan (President.md, October 1, 2019).

Russia and its “Eurasian game” in the Western Balkans.

The coexistence of two geopolitical vectors could become imminent in the next 5 to 10 years if current trends intensify. Seemingly, the EU is about to start a deep process of self-reflection and "functional reparation", indispensable for the efforts to prevent and counter the propagation of authoritarian "illiberalism" within European borders. Eventually, the regress "in the chain" of the rule of law can have lethal consequences for the whole European project. Therefore, ensuring the primordial character of the primary and secondary European legislation over the national one, based on proportionality and subsidiarity, requires maximum protection from the European leaders with illiberal features. At the same time, previously issued by the Eurosceptic forces, the demand for tightening the parameters of European enlargement, targeting the Western Balkans, is becoming increasingly common among all players of the political spectrum in the Member States. Focused on solving internal emergencies, the EU could be drawn into a geopolitical concert with Russia, via the Eurasian Union, especially if and after Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky normalizes the dialogue with Vladimir Putin (IPN, October 7, 2019). However, the approximation of the East and the West requires an overlap of various circumstances.

Firstly, the movement of the Eurasian Union towards the liberalization of the hydrocarbon market, with the creation of common market for gas, oil and petroleum products, is planned until 2025, strengthens a pragmatic attitude towards it (Eurasian Commission, 26 September 2019). The energy sensitivity of the national economies trapped geographically between the EU and Russia - the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership - may enhance their natural interest in approaching closer to the Eurasian Union. Such decisions may be made voluntarily or under the impact of the electoral populism.

The second aspect that favors a convergence between the two geopolitical poles depends on Eurasian organization’s capacity to expand – by adding new members or signing new international arrangements. Discussions about the possible accession of Turkmenistan or the future liberalization of trade with advanced economies, similar to the agreement with Singapore, may force a re-evaluation of the reluctance expressed by the EU.

The third reason could be the result of a hypothetical multiplication of trade liberalization agreements between the EEU and the Western Balkan countries, following the Serbian model. Such a scenario is unlikely in the case of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, which are dominated by severe anti-Russian sentiments. The chances of getting Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Northern Macedonia into play are more realistic, although that hugely depends on EU's hesitations concerning its Balkan enlargement.

Of all the elements mentioned above, the popularization of Eurasian integration in the region could benefit the most from the blockage of the enlargement process in the Western Balkans. The non-launching of the accession negotiations with the Albanian and North-Macedonia’s governments, contrary to the arrangement agreed for October 2019, is a "strategic mistake" even in the vision of the European institutions (European Parliament, October 24, 2019). The postponement of the decision to May 2020 (European Council, 17-18 October 2019) coincides with the Croatian presidency within the EU. The 6-month interval gives too little time to project a just reform of the enlargement process in the Balkans, demanded mainly by France. Instead, that can create enough room for maneuver for Russia and other competing geopolitical projects.

The invitation of the governments of Tirana and Skopje to turn towards the Eurasian Union, formulated by the Russian representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov (Balkan, October 29, 2019), shows Moscow's clear intention to spread geopolitical confusion in the region. On the one hand, the Eurasian project is opposed to the European one as an alternative for the skepticism of various segments of Balkan populations regarding the coherence of EU’s promises. On the other hand, the continuity of such geopolitical gestures can further weaken the opposition within the EU against the normalization of relations with Russia. The geopolitical offensive in the Western Balkans can be converted into an effective pressure lever, used by Moscow to determine EU’s actions.

Moldova and Serbia - both European integration and Eurasian links

The binary character of the foreign policy places Moldova and Serbia in a common category. The deepening of European integration differs in intensity in the two cases. Serbia is a candidate country and is undergoing a complicated process of alignment with EU membership requirements. The Association Agreement acquired by Moldova in 2014 contains ambitious commitments, accepted by the Moldovan side in the attempt of showing dedication to European perspective, momently only hypothetical. Both countries receive European assistance, but incomparable in case of Serbia, given the access to the European structural funds offered for the candidate states. The economic links with the European market reach maximum shares, although the EU is an insignificantly more important destination for Moldovan exports than for those of Serbian origin. Another difference can be seen in the popularity towards the EU, which is higher in Serbia, mainly due to the accession negotiations and the influx of European funds. (See the Table).

The focus on the relationship with Russia and the EEU in case of Serbia stems from political solidarity (non-recognition of Kosovo's independence), but also from the specificity of the not yet integrated in the WTO Serbian economy. Therefore, establishing bilateral or regional free trade agreements, in particular with the Eurasian Union (Eurasian Commission, October 25, 2019), seems to be a pragmatic necessity.

 

Table. Distribution of exports and geopolitical preferences in Serbia and Moldova,%, 2018-2019

#

EU

Euroasian Union/Russia

Export

Geopolitical orientation

Export (Russia)

Geopolitical orientation (EEU)

Serbia

63

45,5

10

17,6

Moldova

70

47

10

37

Source: IRI, RFERL

The presence of Russia and the EEU in the equation is more visible in Moldova given the geopolitical preferences of the population. The negative effects of corrupt governments under the pro-European slogans between 2009 and 2019, as well as the lack of a clear European perspective, provide fertile ground for multi-vector foreign policies. The observer status in the Eurasian Union obtained by President Igor Dodon (Supreme Council of the EU, May 14, 2018), deviating from the constitutional provisions (IPN, May 22, 2019), is clearly favoring the Eurasian vector. The mandatory delegation of a representative of Moldova to the Eurasian Commission and the intensification of institutional contacts (subordinated to President Dodon's office) allows an effective "popularization" of the EUE among the citizens (President.md, October 1, 2019). The normalization of Eurasian integration offers a "a plan B" for future geopolitical (re)orientation, if the pro-Russian forces continue the political ascension in Moldova, and the EU diminishes its ambitions for transformation and integration with the Eastern Partnership.

The pro-European forces in Moldova could use Serbia's experience in negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EEU that will create the possibility to opt out from the observer status within the EEU. Additionally, the Free Trade Agreement with the CIS of 2012, not respected by Russia vis-à-vis Moldova, could be substituted.

Instead of conclusions...

Tutoring the European integration in the Western Balkans requires EU prioritization, not postponement. The presence of other geopolitical actors, such as the Eurasian Union, will be felt more in the region, if the EU starts disengaging.

The European actors cannot ignore the attempts of the EEU to increase its weight in the Western Balkans’ affairs. The underestimation of Eurasian integration can lead to the idea of ​a ​"Wider Eurasia" leaning to the West, which can discourage further European integration not only in the Eastern Partnership, but also within the EU.

Strict fulfillment of the European agenda and the promotion of ambitious relations with the EU can remedy and diminish the Eurasian inclinations, inspired by President Igor Dodon. The sustainability of the European vector in Moldova, as well as throughout the region, has a strong reversible composition, especially if the EU distances itself from the Western Balkans, and Russia, on the contrary, advances the Eurasian integration to the West.

Dionis Cenuşa
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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