The intentions of the European Union to integrate its eastern neighborhood into a functional, qualitative and democratic normative-institutional model accumulate new sources of unpredictability. The conditions under which the new European Commission, headed by Ursula Von from Layen, from December 1, 2019, must operate are fragile and hostile. Fragility consists of scattering democratic standards within the EU. Political regimes similar to those in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria or Malta weaken the rule of law at national level, but are also legitimize that further through the affiliation with the pan-European parties. The hostility of the European context seems inevitable due to the elements of disintegration ("Brexit"), the anti-European nationalist rhetoric and the competition of integrationist projects hosted by regimes with "vertical power" (IPN, November 5, 2019). The latters will compete for the attention of the European Commission along with issues of commercial (disputes with the US inside WTO), environmental ("Green European Deal") or security (application of the 5G technology) nature (Politico.eu, November 29, 2019).
Inside the eastern neighborhood
Three parallel political processes, each of them with uncertain consequences, impose a nuanced look on EU’s relations with the Euro-optimistic countries that belong to the Eastern Partnership. The first impulse with inevitable political effects is the re-conceptualization of the conditions of EU enlargement, which devalues the attractiveness of the European perspective. Actually, the revision of the enlargement mechanism, suggested by France at President Emmanuel Macron's indications, could traumatize the European perspective, making it a hardly achievable objective. Raising the requirements, branching the (re-)evaluation criteria and inserting a disqualification and suspension mechanism upon the accession negotiations diversify the political costs for the pro-European forces in the Western Balkans, but also from the Eastern Partnership (Euroactiv, November 2019).
The second process derives from the attempt to facilitate a constructive dialogue with Russia, without applying conditionality and remedying measures dedicated to the international law and/or the European security architecture. On the contrary, with the support of France, Russia returned to the General Assembly of the Council of Europe, previously excluded for its actions against Ukraine (IPN, 7 October 2019). Similarly, Paris is calling for the elimination of NATO’s concerns about Russia, which in reality constantly proliferate threats regionally and globally (Bloomberg, November 28, 2019). Viewed as a gesture of capitulation in the face of the Russian military, informational and anti-democratic aggressions, restoring dialogue with Russia for the time being remains outside the walls of EU institutions. With a neutralized resistance because of its own appetite for the Russian gas, Germany manifests a rather permissive approach to the "Macronian" goodwill towards Russia. The normalization of relations with Vladimir Putin's regime, once injected into the bloodstream of the European structures, carries the risk of trivializing the pro-European discourse in the associated countries - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
The third conglomerate of processes originates from the internal political inconsistencies in the pro-European parts of EU’s eastern neighborhood. Party-based and individual egoism obstructs the national strategic interests, but also prevails over the commitments to the European integration in the rule of law field.
The Ukrainian governing elite under the presidency of Volodymyr Zelenesky selectively fights against the oligarchic influences. Thus, the ex-president Petro Poroshenko is targeted in more than 10 criminal cases, while Igor Kolomoisky, who left Privatbank with costs for the public budget accounting for $ 5 billion, attacks the state institutions, such as the National Bank of Ukraine (Intellinews, November 28, 2019). Moreover, the underestimation of the Russian plans in Donbas aggravates the strategic positions of Kiev, already undermined by the US internal political infighting ("outward Trumpian traffic of influence") and ignored by France (implementation of "Steinmeier Formula") and Germany ("Nord Stream 2").
The attempts to renew the Georgian political system consume institutional paths and resort to measures to solve governance problems through "street power" (Agenda.ge, November 30, 2019). The protests of the united opposition (about 30 political parties) seek to break the legitimacy of the political regime, dependent on the oligarch Bidzina Ivanshvili, by democratizing the voting system for the 2020 election (GeorgiaToday, November 29, 2019).
In Moldova, the governing alliances easily disintegrate under the pressure of the structural reforms, which are then offset by an active juggling with geopolitical vectors (3DCFTAs, November 18, 2019). As a result, the linearity of the reforms needed to strengthen democratic institutions and protect them from political corruption are endangered (NewEasternEurope, November 27, 2019).
Readjustments of the Russian factor in EU’s eastern neighborhood
The Russian presence is re-launching in Eastern Europe, even if part of the region is involved in more advanced exercises of European integration. Embraced by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, the European agenda was initially confronted by Russia (2013-2014). Today the latter is in a stage of adjusting its interests to the local realities that are in a difficult transition towards the European model. The permeation of the European norms, reshaping of the trade flows and the demographic changes are seen by Russia as an opportune time to re-enter the game. The aim does not seem to be the definitive exclusion of the European element; the re-adjustment for cohabitating with it counts more.
The actions of the Russian factor in EU’s eastern neighborhood produce at least three behaviors within the political elites, which increase the predisposition towards Russia or predisposes to diminishing of the rival factor’s position - the European one:
The intensification of the aggressiveness of the separatist regions ("South Ossetia") in Georgia allows moving away the attention of Georgians from the deterioration of the democratic climate. At the same time, the governors close to the oligarch Ivanishvili use the insecurity caused by Russia to soften the criticism of the European partners against the defects of the rule of law. Thus, the quality of reforms declines, and the public energy is channeled towards ensuring security and public order, which may stimulate authoritarian thinking if the role of democratic institutions decreases.
The exploitation of peace aspirations in areas exposed to Russian military interference characterizes precisely the overlapping between the political objectives of the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and Russia's strategy of freezing the conflict in Donbas. Indirectly, the Russian factor becomes useful for the new Ukrainian political force, but also for the Europeans who prioritize relations with Moscow. However, in reality, both sides are losing because technically speaking they surrender to Russia aiming a "peace at any cost". Thus, the Ukrainian governing elite ruins the legitimacy necessary for the reforms associated with the advance towards European standards. At the same time, the European actors validate Russia's geopolitical superiority and contribute to the undermining of the European integration’s authority in the eastern neighborhood.
The valorization of political crises, such as Russia's participation in the peaceful transition of power in Moldova, has propelled the pro-Russian forces into government (3DCFTAs, September 1, 2019). This balanced the pre-existing European aspirations in the decision-making process with an open interest to interact with the exponents of the Eurasian integration. That constitutes a significant investment in promoting the idea that comforts Russia concerning the cohabitation of the two geopolitical vectors. The Moldovan example may inspire other similar operations of Russia in the region. But before that, the minority government backed by the pro-Russian Socialists needs internal and external resources to stabilize the budget (3DCFTA, November 27, 2019), while Igor Dodon must win a second term in 2020.
The echoes of the Moldovan case
The situation in Moldova highlights the political turning points that can impact the European agenda, and which are applicable, to some extent, in other countries in the region. More specifically, there is a causal relationship between the presence of the oligarchic factor and its destructive nature for internal political dynamics, the "whitening" of the pro-Russian forces and, finally, the benevolent balancing of geopolitical orientation in favor of Russia.
The oligarchic element results from the disturbance of the democratic system, which, if not removed, produces negative effects for the power alternation and the vitality of the institutions. The oligarchic regime has discredited the EU's presence in Moldova and can do the same in Ukraine and Georgia, if that does not become the subject of EU’s political conditionality and sectoral reforms, particularly in the field of justice. The EU's discrediting in the Moldovan case resulted from tolerating the political forces associated with both the oligarchic influence and the European vector. The latter’s image has been ultimately degraded in a grave and irrecoverable way.
Against the background of disappointment in the old pro-European forces, the political system requires time to regenerate and produce new political parties, which will become credible to the more Western-oriented public, which also is more demanding of reforms.
In such circumstances of political confusion, the forces with a conservative attitude towards reforms, close to the desirable political profile for Russia, become more attractive to the electorate. Consequently, although the European integration is maintained in force, it is relativized and balanced by normalizing relations with Russia, including with the Eurasian vector.
Instead of conclusions...
The EU's actions, as well as its inactions, in its neighborhood, not only weakens its positions and those of the pro-European forces, but also represents an open invitation for geopolitical actors, with strategic objectives conflicting with the European integration. Traumatizing the European perspective is a wrong answer to the problem of the efficiency of the European integration, which can have long-term (geo-)political costs. At the same time, the failure to take measures to prevent the fortification of the oligarchic factors in the eastern neighborhood contains threats to the sustainability of pro-European sentiments in the society.
Given the e(in)volutions in Ukraine and Georgia, we can deduce that the EU has learned very little from the Moldovan case regarding the effects of tolerating oligarchic elements. Therefore, the re-adjustment of the Russian factor, similar to the Moldovan model, acquires the nuances of an increasingly real scenario.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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