The European course of the three countries that signed Association Agreements with the European Union (Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia) differ both from the perspective of the practical accomplishments of the authorities, which directly influence the attitude of Brussels, of the pro-European support on the part of the population.
In Brussels, the three countries are regarded strictly through the angle of the events that mark their image at foreign level. Thus, Moldova is treated like the victim of corrupt governments and large-scale banking frauds. Ukraine is regarded as the initiator of anti-corruption reforms that are to prove the sincerity of the authorities and also as the object of Russia’s ceaseless aggression. Unlike the first two, Georgia is perceived in a more positive way, as a stable and predictable player in the European integration process in the southern Caucasus and, respectively, in the Eastern Partnership.
Paradoxically, but regardless of the harsh criticism leveled against it for the massive corruption and mediocre government, Moldova is given as an example by the EU when it speaks about the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgia and Ukraine. Also, despite the recognition of the merits of Chisinau in doing reforms in 2010-2013, some of the European voices admit with increasing conviction that the visa-free regime for Moldova was due to a favorable geopolitical conjuncture.
Three countries, three distinct relations with EU
The political crisis in Moldova, impact of financial-banking frauds on the stability of the public funds and intensification of the antigovernment protests placed the country at the end of the lists of countries that signed Association Agreements with the EU. Neither the probability of signing a memorandum with the International Monetary Fund can affect the skeptical position of the EU. The expectations of Chisinau exceed what the government of Moldova can and wants to deliver. However, the ‘roadmap’ implemented by the authorities in March-July 2016 received positive, even if reserved assessments on the part of the European officials that have their eye on Moldova (European Commission and European External Action Service). It is also evident that the Moldovan authorities make greater effort than the EU for the dialogue to be reanimated as soon as possible. That’s why the European institutions are obliged to use this moment to exert pressure on the government of Moldova and to seek concrete and immediate results.
Ukraine struggles on a number of fronts. At foreign level, this makes permanent effort for Russia’s aggression not to be overlooked in the European capitals. At the same time, the external rhetoric derives from the internal feeling that there are preconditions for Ukraine to be abandoned by the international community in exchange for the rapprochement with Russia. The sanctions (both the political and economic ones) against Russia were renewed by the EU at least until March 2017, but the presidential elections in France (spring 2017), followed by the federal elections in Germany (autumn 2017) can change the situation and Kiev realizes this well. Things can yet worsen earlier if the elections in the U.S. (November 2016) are won by Donald Trump. The possible annulment of the sanctions imposed by the United States against Russia will become the start of the end of the policy of sanctions against Russia in the EU. At internal level, the Ukrainian authorities focus on the reforms on which the external assistance provided by the IMF, the EU and other international donors depends. As in the case of Moldova, corruption prevents Ukraine from making progress in doing reforms. But the gravity of corruption in Ukraine started to become evident only now, when an increasing number of income reporting instruments become mandatory for the Ukrainian functionaries. After the EU failed in Moldova, Brussels excludes any compromise as regards the reforms implemented in Ukraine, in particular those aimed at fighting corruption.
The situation in Georgia is better than in Moldova and Ukraine. This enables it to have a more solid position in relation to the European institutions. The fact that the EU will apply the new type of country reporting, which was introduced in the context of the review of the European Neighborhood Policy, namely to Georgia (until the end of 2016) is not at all accidental. This shows a rather high level of confidence on the part of the EU. Also, the European officials refer to Georgia as to a champion country of the Eastern Partnership, even if this does not yet have a liberalized visa regime, which can be obtained in 2017. But this is not a decisive indicator in assessing Georgia’s progress because the delay in liberalizing the visa regime is caused more by the geopolitical imbalances in the region (refugee crisis) than the internal problems of Georgia. There is a clear persistent perception that favors Georgia and this derives from the low level of corruption. But this represents significant inheritance of the Saakashvili regime (January 2004 – November 2013) rather than the direct result of the reforms of the last three years.
Pro-European course, three different imagines
In Moldova, a balance is maintained between the pro-European and pro-Eurasian sympathies. According to the most recent poll, of August 2016, the Moldovans equally support Moldova’s entry into the EU and into the Customs Union – by 47% for each of the options. At the same time, the number of those who would vote against the EU is slightly higher than of those who would vote against the Customs Union (28% versus 25%). Also, a considerable number of respondents want Moldova to have advanced relations both with Russia and with the EU (38%). After a period of six years, when the political power was exerted by the ostensible pro-European governments only, the pro-European sympathies remained at the same level as the pro-Russian-Eurasian sympathies. The sustainability of the pro-European course will be seriously tested if the presidential elections of this October are won by the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon.
The pro-European feelings are maintained within positive limits in Ukraine, where the Russian aggression fuels directly the sympathies for the EU, which shows solidarity and support for the Ukrainian cause. According to the polls of 2016, the idea of Ukraine’s entry into the EU is supported by about 55% of the respondents. At the same time, even after two years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and, respectively, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the pro-Customs Union sympathies survived (15% in 2016).
Georgia is the most pro-European and, also, pro-NATO country in the Eastern Partnership. Thus, 72% of the Georgians are for entry into the EU, while 64% for entry into NATO. These figures are higher than in Ukraine, which faces Russia’s aggression and intuitively wants to join the region that supports it (EU), and also than in Moldova, which has benefitted from a liberalized-visa regime with the EU for two years already and also from other considerable EU assistance. However, the pro-Eurasian course is increasingly supported by the Georgians (29% in 2016, as opposed to less than 20% in 2014), mainly owing to the pro-Russian parties and nongovernmental organizations financed by Russia.
Instead of conclusion…
It is important for the EU to remain vigilant towards each of the three countries. Things seem reversible in these, while Russia’s influence does not disappear, but even increases. Despite the military episodes and the cases of violation of the territorial integrity or the multiple commercial embargoes initiated by Russia, large sections of the population in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine (less) express pro-Russian-Eurasian sympathies. Evidently, without propaganda and coercion by commercial ways, Russia wouldn’t have achieved positive results. But this is also due to the shortcomings in the European integration process in the region.
The European integration in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia must result in more justice, less corruption and more palpable results in the economy. The EU must be very clear in this regard and must channel all the efforts namely in this direction. The same sectors must prevail in the objectives of the Association Agendas with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine for 2017-2019.
The EU should act in the most pragmatic way, while the position to the problems in the three countries should be communicated to the population without the intermediation of the national officials. A differentiated approach is needed, but common indicators would also be useful for stimulating competition between Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. This competition could be organized around a ‘stimulation fund’ consisting of the resources that are already available to the countries with Association Agreements (frozen, undisbursed and other kind of assistance). The assistance from this fund can be used to implement economic projects, but depending on the progress made by each country in justice and corruption fighting.
Ultimately, the EU should be more ingenious than the post-Soviet political class of the region. The European financial assistance can have a really significant impact when the EU imposes the condition of doing complete reforms that would contain both the adoption of legislation and its implementation from up to down.
Dionis Cenușa is a politologist, holding an MA degree in interdisciplinary European studies from the College of Europe.
Areas of interes: European integration, European policies, EU's foreign policy, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenuşa on Twitter
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.