The secessionist wars in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia of 1992, in which military units of the Russian army fought on behalf of the separatists against the constitutional forces, stimulated the appearance of new forms of interstate cooperation designed to resist the imperial claims of Moscow. This way, GUAM was constituted on October 10, 1997 in Strasburg, during the Council of Europe Summit, as a regional initiative consisting of four states (initially, there were five states together with Uzbekistan). Its name derives from the initials of the founding states: Georgia, Ukraine, the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Moldova. When founding GUAM, the participants adopted a joint communiqué in which they set down the principles based on which interstate cooperation was constituted and that stipulated the observance of the sovereignty of the member states, inviolability of borders, respect for democracy, preeminence of law and human rights. Formed with the active assistance of the U.S. diplomatic service, GUAM has always been treated with hostility by Moscow.
From GUAM to Associated Trio and back to threats
As a result, during the years that followed, all the GUAM member states - Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – experienced at least one unsettled separatist conflict initiated by Russia on their territories: Georgia with Ossetia and Abkhazia and the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008; Ukraine with Crimea and the regions of Donbas and Luhansk; Azerbaijan with Nagorno-Karabakh, and Moldova with Transnistria. The necessity of coping with the revanchist expansion of Russia in the post-Soviet space and the absence of sufficient political cooperation dynamism within GUAM determined the next step of Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, which in 2014 signed Association Agreements with the European Union with the aim of promoting political association and economic integration in accordance with the major objective of the Eastern Partnership. Further following this political line, on May 17, 2021, the foreign affairs ministers of the three associated states signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of consolidated cooperation in European integration – the Association Trio.
Maximally bothered by the perspective of departure of these states from Russia’s sphere of geopolitical influence, the Kremlin started a large-scale war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. From that moment, the states of the Associated Trio have had to adjust their European integration policies to the conditions of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently spoke about the results of these adjustments, in the perception of Moscow, in an interview for the TV channel Rossia 24. In that interview, he noted that the West is eyeing the Republic of Moldova for the role of “next Ukraine”, while the President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu is eager herself to join NATO and is ready for almost anything, including the union with Romania. By these statements, Moscow showed how irritated it is by Chisinau’s stance on the war in Ukraine.
When enemy praises you...
When referring further to the theme of the interview, the Russian minister didn’t find it necessary to also speak about the position of Georgia. In the case of the Tbilisi authorities, the Russian foreign minister also accused the West of intention to transform Georgia into another factor for the irritation of Russia. At the same time, Lavrov noted, not without satisfaction, that the Georgian government abides by the national interests, despite the Western calls to open “the second front” against Russia. Lavrov also boasted that Moscow and Tbilisi developed bilateral trade, tourism, cooperate in the energy sector and the Georgian side realizes that all these are in the interests of the Georgian state and people.
Against such an approach full of beatitude to the relations with the authorities of Georgia, Moscow pretended not to see the reaction to the Russian military aggression in Ukraine of thousands of Georgians who staged demonstrations in support of Ukrainians and also the multiple blue and yellow flags placed on streets of Georgian towns and the constant words of support for the Ukrainians with the invariable “Glory to Ukraine!”, or the many Georgian volunteers who take part in the hostilities against the Russian aggressor. For the Russians, it is the attitude shown by the official Tbilisi that mattered as, in particular cases, this defiantly distanced itself from Kyiv. On the very first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian Premier Irakli Garibashvili stated that Georgia will not subscribe to the international sanctions against the Russian Federation and will support Ukraine only politically.
Benefits from war
Kyiv’s hopes to obtain military-technical support from Tbilisi were also dashed by the Georgian administration’s fears that Russia, as in 2008, will invade their country again. At the same time, the Georgian administration unofficially invokes the opinion that Georgia, unlike Ukraine, will not be supported by anyone if it is invaded by Russia and, consequently, the interests of the Kremlin should be taken into account. As a result, Tbilisi refused to resell the Buk air defense missile systems and Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. All these signals transmitted by the Georgian government are in line with the Kremlin’s expectations.
At the same time, amid the Russo-Ukrainian war, Georgia fully used the opportunity of trading with the Russian Federation, including the arrival of Russian immigrants, and this way ensured economic growth. In particular, according to the results of 2022, the GDP growth in Georgia was of 10.1%. This is striking progress against the more than modest economic evolution in the Republic of Moldova. In total, according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the country’s foreign trade in 2022 exceeded US$2.4 billion, which is by 52% more than in 2021. Furthermore, 2022 saw a record number of heavy vehicles travelling along Georgian roads from Armenia and Turkey to the Russian Federation. According to the Office of the State Treasurer of Georgia, 332,000 trucks crossed the country in 2021, as opposed to 448,000 in 2022. The transit from Turkey to Russia generated concerns in the United States, the EU and Ukraine, which suspect that Georgia is used for “grey exports” to the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, no violations of the sanctions policy against Moscow by the Georgian authorities have been made public so far.
One of reasons for deterioration of relations with the West
The specific attitude embraced by Tbilisi in its relations with Moscow is determined not only by the economic advantage, but also by the idiosyncrasy of the current rulers of Georgia over ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili. The former President of Georgia, who has Ukrainian nationality and is now held in jail in Georgia, for the current Georgian authorities is like a pain in the neck, a constant source of destabilization of the country and the main reason for the spoiling of Georgia’s relations with the West and the deterioration of its relations with Ukraine. Saakashvili’s fate is influenced by the hostile attitude to him of Georgia’s ‘grey eminence’ Bidzina Ivanishvili, who controls the ruling party Georgian Dream and exerts direct influence on the development of the position of the government and parliament. The pro-Russian billionaire is not interested in spoiling the relations with Russia and, consequently, the policy pursued by the Georgian authorities is not only a wish not to trigger a Russian invasion, but is also a demonstration of loyalty to the Kremlin, inspired by the great oligarch.
To the mind of a number of experts, the intransigency of the Georgian authorities as regards the keeping of Saakashvili in jail and the inhuman treatment towards him is one of the reasons for which Georgia wasn’t granted the EU candidate status. But not even the perspective of obtaining the candidate status, which is wanted by so many Georgians, convinced the Georgian authorities to make concessions in the case of Saakashvili and to the detriment of the favorable economic conjuncture. This led to a serious deterioration of the relations between Kyiv and Tbilisi, which are even frozen in some of the areas. At the same time, the authorities of the two counties even periodically exchange harsh statements against each other.
Crisis of Associated Trio
Unlike the attitude to Georgia, Moscow chose to be very tough on the Republic of Moldova. First of all, this attitude to Chisinau was manifested by the use of the economic war method, when the natural gas flow supplied by Gazprom as a monopolist on Moldova’s market was diminished to the maximum. On an almost daily basis, different Russian officials make mischievous accusations and threats against Moldovan officials, including threats with a military invasion against the Republic of Moldova. This is the payment for the firm position of the authorities of the Republic of Moldova, alongside Ukraine, and the unconditional support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of this, within its internationally recognized borders. The official Kyiv not only once expressed its gratitude to the Republic of Moldova for its principled stance of condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine even if Chisinau hasn’t formally subscribed to the international list of sanctions against the Russian aggressor, but respects most of its provisions.
The specific approach of the current Georgian officials to the situation concerning the war in Ukraine and their relations with Moscow influenced experts’ opinions about the Associated Trio project that includes Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as about a crisis one. Before the start of the Russian military aggression, Kiev was interested in being in the same “compartment” with Tbilisi on the path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, but now the situation changed and cooperation between Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova has intensified, while the relations with Georgia have deteriorated. The U.S. and the EU look at Chisinau and Tbilisi through this Ukrainian angle. This decisively influenced the granting of the EU candidate status to the Republic of Moldova, alongside Ukraine. The near future will show which of the two approaches to the relations with Moscow amid the war in Ukraine – of Chisinau or of Tbilisi – was the most productive and visionary one.
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.