|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Almost two months after the launch of the "Trio Association" (Kiyv, May 17, 2021) with the European Union (EU), the representatives of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine signed the first declaration of the "Trio" at the level of the heads of state, during the Batumi International Conference (July 19, 2021). The document, approved by Presidents Salome Zurabishvili, Maia Sandu and Volodymyr Zelensky, is, in fact, the first such trilateral political consensus between states implementing association agreements with the EU.
The content of the declaration reiterates the European aspirations of the associated countries. At the same time, the same trilateral platform indicates to the EU a number of ways in which it can increase its contribution to reduce and prevent negative influences from Russian foreign policy. In addition to expressing pro-European sympathies and the desire for future EU membership, the Batumi Declaration has important geopolitical symbolism with a double meaning:
On the one hand, the document was signed in the company of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who welcomed the strong pro-European commitment of the associated states and said that the EU will support them in economic recovery, interconnection projects (physical infrastructure) and rule of law reform (EU, July 19, 2021). Furthermore, although the EU still refrains from any official differentiation between the Eastern Partnership and the "Association Trio" respectively, Michel hinted that the EU is ready for a broader agenda and described the relationship with partner countries as "special". In addition, the European official presented a proposal to introduce a "competitive benchmarking" on key reforms. This idea recalls the principle of progressive integration into the EU, previously formulated by a group of experts from the EU and associated countries (3DCFTA, February 2021), referring to the European course of the Western Balkans and associated countries.
On the other hand, the trilateral declaration signals a historical synchronization between local political agendas in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, where 30 years after independence and 12 years since the start of the Eastern Partnership, pro-EU political parties dominate simultaneously in all three. First, the three presidents of these countries are dedicated to the European cause. At the same time, they have pro-EU political forces that have an absolute majority in national parliaments and have the influence to carry out reforms that can stimulate the implementation of association agreements. Still, the local situation is not irreversible, linear, or generally perfect. In Georgia, the government still appears to be influenced by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s circle. In light of the violence unleashed by radical conservative and religious groups, the Georgian government does not demonstrate full dedication to the unconditional protection of human rights, civil society, and media pluralism (Civil.ge, July 2021). In Moldova, after the snap elections in early July, President Sandu's party controls the parliament and the new government (3DCFTA, July 2021). They must demonstrate in practice the ability to reform the country in accordance with the spirit and letter of the Association AgreementThe scenario of the authoritarian turn of the reformist Mikhail Saakashvili before and after 2010 must be avoided at all costs. Likewise, one must avoid falling into complacency as a result of the total domination of state power, which has happened to two other politicians with reformist aspirations in the region, such as Nikol Pashinyan in Armenia and Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, after the years 2018-2019. Last but not least, although the situation in Ukraine shows some progress to counteract oligarchic interference in the decision-making process, it is currently mainly targeting pro-Russian oligarchic groups (IPN, May 2021). While important, recent advances in judicial reform and the fight against corruption should be treated with caution until there are tangible and lasting changes through the effective implementation of the reformed legislation. Strictly, from the perspective of the reform imperative, Zarubishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration is equally appropriate and welcome, as it emphasizes association with democratic values and top-down political commitment to reforms. However, Charles Michel warned the three countries that "reforms must be carried out not to please the EU", but for the good of the citizens.
From the inter-institutional memorandum to the political declaration
Entered into force in May 2021, the association memorandum of the "Association Trio" (IPN, June 2021) is not mentioned at all in the Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration. Negotiated and signed by the foreign ministers of the three partner countries, the memorandum has been ignored for reasons that are not yet clear, although it lays the foundations for a concrete trilateral coordination mechanism. The May 2021 Memorandum prescribes how Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine should articulate a common strategy of action in the field of deepening European integration.
In any case, the trilateral declaration of the presidents of the associated countries takes up the language and the basic aspects of the memorandum. Thus, the firm adherence to the implementation of the Association Agreements is visibly displayed. It also refers to the European identity of the three states, which is a precondition for joining the EU (Article 49 of the EU Treaty). In the same context, both the memorandum and the trilateral declaration specify that the Association Agreements are envisaged as flexible constructions, taking into account and adjusting to changes in European legislation. In both cases, the common intention of the three countries to broaden and intensify the political dialogue, but also the integration of the markets (DCFTA) and the economy, including in the sectoral dimension, with the EU is emphasized. At the same time, as in the case of the memorandum, the Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration recognizes the importance of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Thus, the objective is to avoid the suspicions that the "trio" wants to distance from the EaP, which can emerge among other eastern partners, but also at the European level. The recent sudden decoupling of Belarus in response to the Alexander Lukashenko regime to EU economic sanctions (IPN, June 2021) has shown that the EaP needs renewed guarantees and consolidation to avoid further fragmentation. Contrary to the example of Belarus, the associated countries reiterated their commitment to cooperation within the EaP, both in the memorandum and in the declaration. Both documents perceive the EU as a valuable source for regional security and the facilitation of territorial integrity, respectively, including assistance in the fight against hybrid threats, alluding to those of eastern origin.
It is worth mentioning that there are three major differences between the "Association Trio" memorandum and the declaration signed by Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky. First, given its destination, the memorandum has a narrower and more technical purpose than the declaration, which is a political document with an extended purpose. The second difference, of a technical nature, is that the memorandum suggests that the three countries seek trilateral cooperation vis-à-vis the EU, but also within the EaP. Contrary to this objective, the declaration emphasizes the common position of the associated states to approach the EU, without specifying the motivation to coordinate the steps of three states towards European integration. With the exception of the first paragraph, the rest of the statement shows a rather individual intention, although practically identical, of heading towards the EU. Finally, the third distinction includes the acute tonality of the declaration about some of the negative implications of the Russian factor on the territorial integrity of the associated states. At the same time, unlike the more neutrally worded memorandum, the signatories of the statement openly express their objections about Russia. They highly value the "five principles" which dictate an exigent and principled relationship of the EU with Russia. Likewise, the three presidents of the "Trio" are backing the latest decisions of the European Council in relation to Russia (EU, June 2021), which give rise to three approaches of selective relations with the Russian side: push back, constrain and engage. These principles include Russia's compliance with the Minsk Agreements, which condition the maintenance of European sanctions, as well as the strengthening of relations with the Eastern Partnership states, designed as a kind of counterweight to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the region to Russian influence (EU, March 2016).
Increase interconnection with the EU and limit Russian influence
The Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration outlines the main desired directions of cooperation in relation to the EU. While there is no shortage of calls for a prospect of EU membership that would "stimulate deeper and more comprehensive reforms", the focus is on the elements that can create bridges for tangible European integration into the EU.
Thus, above all, the presidents of the "Trio" emphasize the indispensable role of the Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs). They are seen as "road maps" for internal reforms, carried out according to the European model, on the one hand, seeking a political-legislative-economic convergence with the EU, on the other. Subsequently, the declaration lists the areas in which the "Trio" wants to find opportunities for European integration: transport, energy, digital space, green economy (including the circular component), justice and home affairs, strategic communication and the sector of health (highlighted in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic). The presidents of the "Trio" voluntarily expose themselves to the principle of conditionality, used as an external constraint to push for difficult reforms at home. At the same time, the assumption of conditionality, as required by the EU, is a continuation of the commitment of the three states to the proper use of EU assistance, to be allocated through the new Neighborhood, Development and Cooperation Instrument. International (NDICI). Both the deepening of relations with the EU and other regional cooperation initiatives, such as the Three Seas Initiative, pursue the strategic objective of physical anchoring in the EU through multidimensional interconnection. Obviously, this will allow a massive reduction of dependencies to the East, built in the past to facilitate the dominance of Soviet power.
At the same time, in addition to the bilateral channels of interaction with the EU, the "Trio" recognizes the importance of the EU's initiative to invest in the economic recovery of the entire eastern neighborhood. In this context, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, stated that the EU is available to allocate between 2.3 and 17 billion euros in investments for the EaP countries. Also in this context, the Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration emphasizes the need for a strategic vision of the Partnership in the (geopolitical) equations of the EU. Therefore, the Sixth Eastern Partnership Summit, scheduled for December 2021, is already seen as a new breath for the EU's relationship with the region.
As for the relationship with Russia, the "Trio" clearly points out the problematic points. In addition to reducing dependence on Russia by intensifying interconnection with the EU, the "Trio" shows an open interest in integrating into EU mechanisms, but also in acquiring European knowledge and practices, to counter risks, targeting public order and Russian national security. The declaration by the presidents of the "Trio" makes direct reference to hybrid threats, cyber resilience and the fight against disinformation, where the Russian factor has so far played a destabilizing role. A separate place in the declaration went to the Black Sea situation, recalling that the EU commited to ensure stability and resilience. Certainly, the issue of security in the Black Sea basin is the one that worries Ukraine the most. The latter faces threats of a military nature from Russia, which, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is attempting to extend its military presence to the waters surrounding the occupied peninsula, clearly violating international maritime law.
The Russian question is addressed more openly in the paragraphs related to territorial separatism, supported by the Russian authorities. Instead of the traditional term "frozen conflicts", the presidents of the "Trio" use individualized characteristics to describe, more precisely, the situation around territorial integrity obstructed by the Russian factor. Georgia refers to the "illegal occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (20% of the country's territory), Ukraine emphasizes "aggression in the east of the country" and "temporary occupation of Crimea", and Moldova opts for a more moderate formulation. of the unresolved conflict in the Transnistrian region” (Declaration of the presidents of the “Association Trio”, July 19, 2021). In order to restore national territorial integrity, the presidents of the "Trio" showed their willingness to explore with the EU new ways to achieve lasting peaceful solutions. The main demand is for the EU to have a greater role and commitment in weighing the balance of power, where the voice of Russia is crucial at this time.
The main shield against Russian influence is an active EU presence in partner countries, as part of the Eastern Partnership. In this regard, the Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration mentions the deepening and intensification of political, economic and people-to-people contacts. The combination of these pan-European connections and interdependencies may further tilt the region towards the West. Under such conditions, the decline in Russia's ability to influence the European dimension of the ex-Soviet space, with the same ease as in the period 1990-2014, is practically imminent. Furthermore, also directed to the leadership of Russia, the presidents of the "Trio" conveyed the message that European integration has no alternative and is a sovereign decision that cannot be influenced by any third party.
In lieu of conclusions...
The Batumi “Association Trio” declaration contains a harmonious combination of pro-European and pro-reform commitments jointly made by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These commitments do not yet correspond exactly to local political realities, but they can nevertheless be translated into concrete results, including through the rigorous application of conditionality and a critical assessment of progress by the EU.
Although the Zurabishvili-Sandu-Zelensky declaration does not incorporate the "Association Trio" memorandum, both documents share several key features, in particular the commitment to the implementation of the Association Agreements or the approach from the perspective of EU membership. In the future, however, practical ways must be found to bring the discussions taking place under the umbrella of the "Association Trio" on a single platform, with a view to ensuring a common voice and mechanism.
The association triangle created by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine aims at EU integration both to modernize according to European standards and as a shield against negative influence from Russia. Increasing the interconnection with the political, economic, technological and security space of the EU is a strategic objective, emerging from the body of the Batumi declaration. Finally, in addition to interconnection, the three partner countries want a massive EU presence in the Eastern Partnership to counteract the Russian factor, which still maintains some channels of influence over the region, especially in the field of territorial conflict resolution.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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