|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
Against the background of increased Western attention to supporting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia may appear to be losing some relevance. Contrary to this perception, the EU and NATO are taking various measures, albeit in different ways and through distinct channels, to support the authorities in Chisinau and Tbilisi. The evidence shows that Moldova depends on the EU and its member states, and Georgia bets on assistance from NATO, with which the political dialogue of the last two years has deteriorated less than with the EU. However, both countries are aware that, at least for the next 10 years, the West's major political efforts and available financial resources will be directed at ending the Russian war against Ukraine and the post-war restoration of Ukraine. Therefore, these countries must present their own initiatives to become visible, including the identification of new avenues to attract foreign assistance. Moldova is targeting the EU and its member states, seeking US support for development projects, while counting on external donors at the European level who have already pledged financial assistance of up to €700 million, consisting of old and new money. At the same time, Georgia looks up more help from NATO, as well as to repair relations with the EU. The latter has been damaged by numerous past accusations of lack of political impartiality by European actors, but also by the setbacks in carrying out judicial reforms in 2020-2021.
Following the EU's decision to financially support Ukraine's armament (€1.5 billion) to fight Russian aggression, the EU's presence in the Eastern Partnership region began to have other connotations for Russia. In light of the EU's assistance for military purposes of its eastern neighbour, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, compared the EU to an "economic unit" of NATO, which had lost the economic vocation that was attributable to it in the past. Later, the Russian ambassador in Brussels, Vladimir Chizov, voiced that the EU is on the way to becoming a "military bloc" with a supporting role behind NATO. The 5th package of sanctions (IPN, March 2022), with the sixth in preparation, has severely affected most areas of bilateral trade, with the exception of Russian exports of energy, grains and other goods vital to the stability economic of the EU. The US. Although the war could not be stopped, the sanctions severely punished both the Russian state and its population for conducting and supporting aggression and atrocities against Ukraine.
In the context of the EU's consolidation as a geopolitical actor vehemently opposed to Russian militarism, it is almost inevitable that Russia will treat the rapprochement of Moldova and Georgia with the EU as a threat to its strategic interests. The negative attitude of the Russian side may be exacerbated when the EU grants the two countries the status of candidate states, which can only happen after a similar decision, is made in favour of Ukraine. Therefore, the opening of the process of enlargement of the EU to the East may become as incompatible for Russia with its geopolitical interests as the enlargement of NATO, whose size may already increase in 2022 through the accession of Sweden and Finland, where support public for NATO membership reached 62-77%.
"Temporary separation" of the Trio?
Given the exceptional nature of the Ukrainian case caused by Russian military aggression, Moldova and Georgia are forced to seek separate ways to stand out and remain on the political agenda of the EU and/or NATO. Therefore, premises are created for individualism and unilateralism to intensify within the “Association Trio”. Launched in May 2021, the “Trio” platform provided for the coordination and unification of efforts to get closer to the EU and deepen European integration at the sectoral and institutional levels.
At present, each of these countries is apparently carving out its own individual path in relation to the West, in addition to the common one within the limits of relations with the EU. The situation in Ukraine is incomparable and requires a completely different strategy than the needs of Moldova and Georgia. Although the latter two are under pressure from Russia, the problems looming over them have a different degree of urgency. The EU is trying to maintain the appearance that Ukraine along with Moldova and Georgia are treated equally and that they will continue the path of integration and, respectively, accession to the EU "as a package". In this regard, Brussels sent the questionnaires for membership status to the three countries three days distance from each other (on April 8 to Ukraine and handed over in Kyiv; and to Moldova and Georgia - on April 11 in Luxembourg). Contrary to the institutional inertia of applying a collective approach to the three partner countries, things are moving in a different direction. Unilateral approaches were emerging both among EU member states and within associated countries, until recently (IPN, March 2022). In particular, Ukraine perceives itself and is considered a high priority in the EU, which must be separated from Georgia and Moldova. These two also show that they prefer, at least for the moment, some differentiation in the treatment they receive from Western actors.
The recent visit of the Georgian parliamentary delegation to Bucha and Irpin confirmed Georgia's solidarity with Ukraine (Civil.ge, April 2022). Even if the Georgian side continues not to adhere to the sanctions, it has reiterated that it will not allow them to be circumvented. The dialogue between Kyiv and Chisinau could be improved since Chisinau is fighting with its own methods against Russian influence. In the context of Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, the Chisinau legislature banned the use of the letters "Z" and "V", as well as the bicolour black and yellow ribbon. Consequently, some light diplomatic altercations took place between Chisinau and Moscow, in which the latter warned that such gestures, as well as the approval of anti-Russian sanctions (even in the condition of Moldova's non-alignment), are detrimental to bilateral relations (MID, April 2022). Taken together, recent actions by the Georgian and Moldovan authorities indicate that Ukraine can deal more confidently with its main Eastern Partnership partners. The same means that the associated Trio has a chance to recover if it still makes sense after the EU makes first Ukraine and then Moldova and Georgia into candidate countries, with which it will have to start separate accession negotiations.
Georgia - reinvigorating dialogue with the EU and NATO assistance
Although the political power in Tbilisi, discredited by the democratic involution, has remained unchanged, the Government's intentions are to revitalize the dialogue with the EU in the field of European integration and intensify that which it maintains with NATO in the field of conventional security matters.
It is clear that the beginning of Ilia Darchiashvili's job as Georgia's chief diplomat is being used to at least somewhat repair the relationship with the EU. This comes almost a month after the application to join the EU was submitted. However, the change in the face of the interlocutor did not make European officials overlook the reforms that the Georgian side abandoned or implemented partially and with deviations. However, even with these "facade renovations", until the oligarchic elements of the decision-making process are eradicated, it will be much more difficult for Georgia than for Ukraine or Moldova to obtain preferential geopolitical treatment from the EU.
On the other hand, the Georgian authorities can count, unconditionally, on the support of NATO. Updating of NATO's Substantial Defense and Security Package for Georgia, initially launched in 2014 and subsequently renewed in 2020, has already been requested for Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO prioritizes three areas in relation to Georgia: risk prevention (situational awareness), secure communication, and cybersecurity (Civil.ge, April 2022). However, the update of Georgia's Substantial Package will only take place at the NATO summit in Madrid in late June, when such much-needed assistance may come too late. However, it is clear that NATO is ready to provide concrete and more consistent assistance to Georgia than the EU. Contrary to the somewhat justified reluctant approach towards Georgia, Brussels is fully committed to the Ukraine case, but also finds time and resources to support Moldova.
Moldova seeks more attention from the EU
Although Moldova has officially exited from the pandemic crisis after cancelling (from April 16) the state of emergency in the field of public health, which lasted more than two years, and despite the fact that only 30% of the population vaccinated, the country is still facing three other crises. It is unable to overcome the energy, refugee and economic crises, all exacerbated by regional instability and Russian military aggression in the immediate vicinity. In this context, it is intuitive that public support for the authorities is declining, and the pro-Russian opposition is becoming active and using the discontent of the population to strengthen its positions. Without popularity, even the most noble and necessary reforms can be sabotaged by both institutions and people disappointed in the authorities, especially if the old system has not yet been definitively and irreversibly eliminated.
It is true that Moldova has a single-party majority pro-EU government like Georgia, but the credibility of the Moldovan leadership far outweighs that of the Georgian in the eyes of Brussels. Building on this strong affinity with the European institutions, the Moldovan authorities managed to attract financial support and political attention from European actors immediately after the early elections in 2021. However, the situation in Ukraine is so dire that, in comparison, Moldova's problems may seem more insignificant and less urgent. This is partly due to the fact that the EU sees, in a very idealized manner, the governance capabilities of the government in Chisinau, including because financial and even institutional assistance does not cease. The EU has recently agreed a €150 million macro-financial assistance package, in addition to more than €110 million of budgetary assistance allocated or pledged from early 2022 to mitigate the adverse effects of the energy and refugee crises. In addition, Brussels is funding the work of a Frontex team sent to the Ukrainian border to help manage the flow of refugees.
However, even in the context of the European aid already provided and the new one agreed, the Moldovan authorities are looking for new ways to put the problems of Moldova and its government, aggravated by the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, on the international community’s agenda. It is in this context that the Moldova Support Platform was launched, bringing together in Berlin (April 5) states and international organizations willing to provide financial assistance (loans, grants, etc.). Romania, France and Germany coordinate the work of the Platform, and its actions will be guided by the needs announced by the Moldovan side. In total, up to €695 million (new and old money) could be agreed to support the government in Chisinau in five areas where institutional capacities are insufficient or underdeveloped: care and relocation of refugees, energy security, fight against corruption, border management and allocation of money directly to the budget for socio-economic needs. The launch of this platform seems an extraordinary measure, determined by the awareness of the limits of the state, on the one hand, but also of the insufficiency of the assistance provided so far by the EU and other institutions, on the other. Moldova is more vulnerable than previously thought, and the security crisis in the region is a unique opportunity to bring vulnerabilities to light and eliminate them comprehensively and strategically. Therefore, the combination of EU assistance, with the support of actors participating in the Moldova Support Platform and US development projects, including IMF loans ($815 million), provides substantial financial resources for the government to strengthen the short-, medium- and long-term resilience of the state. Therefore, the Moldovan authorities have a huge responsibility to use this money skilfully and achieve tangible results until the next presidential and parliamentary election cycle of 2024-2025.
In lieu of conclusions…
The new geopolitical circumstances may lead to Russia's military aggression against Ukraine falling into one of the following three main scenarios. The first scenario is pessimistic and assumes that Ukraine or at least some regions of it will become a "new Afghanistan". This means a long war, in which both sides bear significant costs: Russia due to sanctions and Ukraine as a result of Russian occupation (human, humanitarian and economic consequences). The second scenario contains some moderate and optimistic nuances. It assumes that Ukraine will win, but fails to return the regions already occupied by Russia. According to the third scenario, Russia extends the period of military aggression to full occupation of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Moscow could also negotiate the status of the Zaporozhzhia and Kherson regions as a bargaining chip to ask Kyiv to implement the federalization of the country. The prolongation of the war against Ukraine hits Russia, but its end will be difficult if Russia does not lose the war or Vladimir Putin's regime does not obtain results, which they can disguise as successes or concessions by Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Ukraine is and will remain a high priority for the EU, but also for the entire West for at least the next 10 years. That is why Moldova and Georgia need to impress external partners with reforms and an increase in the efficiency of democratic institutions in order to maintain greater interest in them. Both countries compete for attention with each other and with Ukraine, which requires everyone's solidarity against Russian aggression and long after it ceases. Although for the time being the Association Trio appears to be abandoned, the latest gestures of solidarity from Georgia and the legislative changes in Moldova in support of the Ukrainian cause offer some positive prospects for reviving this platform. In any case, it is very likely that Ukraine will receive the status of an EU candidate country before Moldova and Georgia. Therefore, the separation of the three associated countries could occur naturally. Until then, Ukraine will benefit from a future comprehensive "Marshall Plan" for post-war reconstruction, in parallel with the reforming and Europeanization of the country. In the meantime, Moldova and Georgia will need the help of the EU and NATO, respectively to strengthen their resilience in the face of internal and external vulnerabilities, exploited by the Kremlin militarist foreign policy and historical revisionism.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa 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.