The EU’s calculus in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - navigating between political crises, reforms and the "shadows" of Russia. Analysis by Dionis Cenușă



Pro-European actors in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova need EU support, because they are relevant and indivisible for reforms. But the EU must ensure that it supports the strategic interests of the people and the country as whole, based on the unconditional respect for the rule of law, against the momentary political instincts of the local political class...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The political developments in Eastern European countries - Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - with which the EU has privileged relations are worrying, as they unveil a pronounced disinterest in robust and urgent reforms. The predisposition for internal political instability is aggravated by the disturbances caused by the active or passive aggression of Russia, increasingly vocal about its disconnection from the West. Against this, too little promising, background, the President of the European Council Charles Michel held his first tour, sometimes in a "lightning" regime (several hours of talks in Chisinau), in the associated states of the Eastern Partnership (February 28 - March 3, 2021). Charles Michel's messages in Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau had completely different focuses. But in all three cases, the European official tended to show that the EU knows local realities and is efficiently handling them. It is true that due to the Association Agreements the EU acquired the role of co-manager of the reforms. However, the effective solving of the problems depends, first of all, on the political will and the stability of the decision-making mechanisms in the neighboring countries. Therefore, the EU should decide either it wants the role of an active actor involved in co-management or of a spectator waiting for the right moment.

Although European integration in the associated countries is expanding in terms of quantity (the approximation of legislation, bilateral trade or financial assistance), in qualitative terms there is an acute resistance to democratic reforms. In Ukraine, the reforms that contain the rule of law are under enormous pressure from the “gatekeepers” of the old system, who are trying to re-tailor the reforms to maintain its levers of influence. On the one hand, the pro-reform vocation of the elected political forces in 2019 is losing its relevance. On the other one, the tendency to geopoliticize political decisions risks distracting the public from the necessary reforms. Georgia's internal stability is being jeopardized by intensified political disputes between the ruling party and the opposition. At the same time, the democratic achievements due to which the country has gained its exclusivity in the region are being undermined, and the current reforms retain rather due to the old inertia. Moldova is being crushed by inter-institutional political conflicts, with deviations from the constitutional framework, caused by an absolute lack of trust between major political forces. The main source of political instability is the phenomenon of political corruption, which currently holds the country's parliament hostage.

Unlike the Ukrainian agenda, where the major problem lies in stopping the attempts to zigzag democratic reforms, in Georgia and Moldova the first option on the political menu contains either finding a political consensus or holding early parliamentary elections. Within these coordinates, Charles Michel communicated with Eastern European political actors, stressing that "the EU remains committed to its partnership with the countries in the region". Besides, the high European official reaffirmed the EU's geopolitical position regarding the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine (an aspect omitted in the Chisinau speech). However, the EU separates the dossier of internal reforms from that of security, where the destabilizing "shadows" of the Russian factor persist. The existence of genuine insecurity emergencies, of Russian origin, serves for some political forces in Ukraine and Georgia as a "cover" or "justification" for the inefficiency of reforms. For the same reason, the EU objects very carefully to the quality of the reforms in Georgia and quite moderately to the setbacks of the reforms in Ukraine. This contrasts significantly with Brussels' sharper critique of developments in Moldova, whose pro-Russian separatist region is increasing its trade dependence on the EU.

Table. Aspects highlighted by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, during his trip to Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine



Political approaches

Russian factor

Moldova (27 February):

only the meeting with the country’s President.

- "Strong support for reforms";

- "strengthening the rule of law";

- “fighting corruption”


- „Strict conditionality”;

- Early elections "as the best chance"


No mention of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country

Georgia (March 1): meeting with the President, the Prime Minister, the speaker of parliament and representatives of the opposition.

- "Ambitions in introducing reforms";

- "Strengthening the foundation of democracy";

- "Independent Judicial System"


- De-escalating the situation and "finding a common denominator";

- "Responsible" approach;

- Relaunching political dialogue and "willingness to compromise";

- Political stability, "open and effective democracy";


No mention of strict conditionality

- Supporting territorial sovereignty and integrity;

- Support for the Geneva negotiations

Ukraine (2-3 March):

meeting with the President, anti-corruption agencies

- Rule of law independent of narrow interest groups;

- Fight against effective corruption;

- Review of judicial governance and a meritocratic and transparent mechanism for appointing judges

- Conditionality in relation to macro-financial assistance and the visa-free regime;

- Courageous and strong leadership in justice reform and the fight against corruption;

- Technical, financial and public support;

- Association Agreement as "the EU's most ambitious agreement with another country"

- Supporting territorial sovereignty and integrity;

- Support for negotiations in the Norman Format;

- Full implementation of Russia's Minsk commitments

- Support demilitarization efforts


Ukraine - the Russian factor and the fight for the "rule of law"

Confirming his participation in the “Ukraine 30. Development of Justice” Forum on March 2, European Council President Charles Michel expanded his agenda to visit Georgia (amid the political crisis) and, at least for a few hours, Moldova (in support of President Maia Sandu). The imperative of justice reform and the fight against corruption stood out in the speech of the European official in Kyiv. He recalled that the EU links the reform of the judiciary (the integrity of legal governance bodies, attestation of prosecutors, etc.) to the disbursement of the second tranche of macro-financial assistance (EUR 600 million out of a total of EUR 1.2 billion), agreed in July 2020. At the same time, the EU makes the application of the visa-free regime (in its current form) conditional on the reinstatement of anti-corruption instruments (the mandatory e-declaration system). In October 2020, they were declared annulled and unfitted by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court. At the Justice Reform Forum, initiated by the Office of the President, Volodymyr Zelensky announced in the presence of the European official that a three-year strategy for judicial reform will be adopted soon (, 2 March 2021). The consistency of the reforms is extremely uncertain, and the judiciary in Ukraine seems to have an agenda that contradicts the one set, publicly, by the country's president and agreed with the EU. In fact, Zelensky's intentions to reform, announced to Michel, are boycotted by the parliamentary majority, composed of his own party - the "Servant of the People". The latter handed over to the “uncleaned” judicial bodies the initiative of forming the new mechanism for selecting clean judges (ANTAC, March 2021). Besides, just a few days after Charles Michel's visit, the self-governing judicial structures tried to circumvent European conditionality and the recommendations of the G7 states, including Germany, France and Italy hiring judges for the High Council of Justice and the Constitutional Court in the absence of a transparent and credible selection mechanism. The embassies of the G7 states in Kyiv have urged the postponement of the appointment of judges (UNIAN, 5 March 2021). Both Zelensky's three-year strategy and the sudden decisions of ruling circles in the judiciary prove a lack of real will to reform the judiciary according to the principle of urgency, efficiency, transparency and credibility.

Despite deviations from commitments on structural reforms, the Ukrainian authorities show full convergence with the EU on the subject of territorial aggression by Russia. Charles Michel learned details about the situation near the occupied territories in the east of the country and stressed that the EU can support peacekeeping efforts (full ceasefire, restoration of human movement, demining, etc.). Irritation at Russia's lack of reciprocity in the implementation of the Minsk Accords was clear from the message of the European official, who called on Moscow to ensure access to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in the separatist territories of Luhansk and Donbas. Charles Michel was extremely straightforward outlining that Russia is a "party to the conflict", not a "mediator", thus justifying the rationality of EU economic sanctions. Another reference to the Russian factor is the European approach to the Ukrainian events of 2014, which Charles Michel described as a "revolution" for freedom, dignity and support for European integration.

Georgia - political stabilization in the first place

The messages sent by Charles Michel during his visit to Tbilisi were addressed to the country, not to a particular political force. The European official emphasized that the Caucasian state is a "key partner", as well as that the EU is "a reliable partner and a friend". In his view, the country is facing a political crisis and polarization of society (EU, 1 March 2021), which poses existential risks for Georgian “young democracy” in a “complex region”. The EU's concerns about animosities between the Georgian government and opposition have never been so bold. This consideration led the European official to a personally engagement in mediating the political crisis. Adopting a neutral position, he proposed to turn the EU-Georgia Association Council in Brussels on 16 March 2021 into a kind of close deadline for measuring progress in the dialogue between the government and the opposition.

Usually neglected in relation to Georgia, the EU has at its disposal the conditionality mechanism, which can be activated to accelerate reforms linked to the electoral law and justice reform. These reforms, together with four other political conditions, form the content of an informal "pact" between the government and the opposition, which was reached with the help of Charles Michel (Sovanews, 3 March 2021). The implementation of these actions (justice, electoral legislation, etc.) may be conditional on the context of European financial assistance. Nevertheless, Brussels avoids introducing conditionality into talks with Tbilisi. For instance, the coupling of reforms with EU funding in Moldova in 2015-2019 has helped remove the oligarchic regime. The same tactic can be applied in Georgia to introduce rapid reforms that would take the country out of the political crisis, at the root of which is the ossification of oligarchic influence on electoral democracy and the governing process. The European Parliament could initiate a resolution on the situation in Georgia by invoking the provisions of the final tranche of macro-financial assistance for 2020 (EUR 75 million out of a total of EUR 150 million), which involves the rule of law and justice reform.

Although discussions about the political crisis overwhelmed the trip agenda, the country's security issue was also very much present. In addition to the traditional declarations of support for territorial integrity, Charles Michel went to the moving borders ("borderization") with the separatist region of South Ossetia. Even if Russia did not transpires in its statements, the European official turned to it by criticizing the negative effects generated by the South Ossetian and Abkhaz separatism, impossible without Russian support. Michel's assessments about the importance of the civil EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, which has been preventing the current status quo from deteriorating near separatist regions for 13 years, exemplified the multi-dimensional nature of European engagement in Georgia.

Even if the EU allocates diplomatic resources to support Georgian political dialogue, the latter is unlikely without early elections or at least a plebiscite. In any case, the European side is not trying to find instead of Georgians the right solution. For now, the EU rules out a deliberate complication of dialogue with the ruling party ("Georgian Dream"), regardless of its oligarchic DNA, as it is about twice as popular as its opposition rivals (NDI, December 2020). Concomitantly, European pragmatism takes into account the pro-EU sympathies of the Georgian public (NDI, December 2020 - about 80%), which in absolute proportion are in favor of political dialogue. The EU's rationale for maintaining political neutrality finds some reflection in mixed impressions created by the OSCE election report. It confirmed the efficiency of the 2020 parliamentary elections, in which the "Georgian Dream" won. However, at the same time, the OSCE indicates that the merger between the ruling party and state institutions has generated a general distrust of the electoral process (OSCE, March 2021).

Moldova - between the political crisis and the "ostrich policy" of the EU

Charles Michel's touring to the partner countries began with Moldova on February 28. Although the visit was very short, the European official pointed out that it was "important" (EU, 28 February 2021). Moldovan circumstances show that Michel's "lightning" trip (on a Sunday) had a significant political significance, primarily for President Maia Sandu.

The arrival of Charles Michel was announced only close to the day of the flight and not long after the Constitutional Court in Chisinau (February 23, 2021) declared "unconstitutional" the action of President Maia Sandu to repeatedly nominate Natalia Gavriliță's candidacy for the position of prime minister. The Court's decision shows that the majority formalized by the pro-Russian Socialists and the parliamentary groups made of former members of the oligarchic regime (54 deputies out of a total 101), is not against the law. Therefore, their candidacy for prime minister (Mariana Durleșteanu), proposed on February 11, 2021, would be conform. None of the points set out in the Court's decision sounded convincing to President Sandu. Intending to hold early elections, the President's Office refuses to comply with the Court's decision, which calls for the renewal of political consultations between the Presidency and Parliament to seek solutions to the political crisis. After the resignation of Prime Minister Ion Chicu on his own decision, at the end of 2020, the executive became incomplete and with limited powers until the formation of a new government. In this way, the presidency and the interim government possess reduced powers, while the parliament (voted in 2019) is irremediably discredited because it is reminiscent of the oligarchic regime.

Faced with a political and constitutional crisis, Maia Sandu was in need for an external validation, which Charles Michel gladly offered in Chisinau. Regardless of the constitutional conflict, the European official sent unconditional support to Maia Sandu. The credibility of President Sandu's reform intentions seems to outweigh any minimum concern in Brussels about ongoing conflicts' impact on setting precedents, with hidden risks, for the country's present and future political stability.

Compared to European diplomatic activism regarding political dialogue in Georgia, the Moldovan political crisis seems unidentifiable by the EU radar. It appears that European officials show a preference for "ostrich policy" rather than to help bring Moldova's political processes back to constitutionality. Even if the country needs to reform the rule of law and fight endemic corruption, the country's continuing political destabilization does not bring the country closer to a lasting solution. Contrary to the rule of law, enshrined in the Association Agreement and the conditionality mechanism, the EU seems to ignore the Constitutional Court’s decision, from which President Sandu keeps the distance. In part, this is due to the considerable popularity of the President, which extended to her party - the Action and Solidarity Party – as well. On the other hand, Maya Sandu's pro-European and pro-reform profile predominates in Brussels' strategic calculations, compared to the corruptibility of the parliamentary technical majority and its pro-Russian affiliation.

By tolerating deviations from the rules, currently protected by independent institutions (the Constitutional Court), the EU risks encouraging new slippages, by all (non-) systemic political actors, which will take place in the name of democracy. Over time, by not preventing such scenarios, Maia Sandu's political trajectory may bear similarities to that of Georgian pro-Western reformer Mikhail Saakashvili, whose authoritarian gestures provoked political crises in 2007-2012. Namely against the background of these crises, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power in Georgia after all. The EU can help pro-European actors in Moldova follow the principles of the rule of law by investing in solutions for sustainable reforms that would prevent the restoration of the governance of anachronistic, oligarchic and/or pro-Russian forces.

In lieu of conclusions …

Pro-European actors in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova need EU support, as they are relevant and indivisible for reforms. But the EU must ensure that it supports the strategic interests of the people and the country, based on the unconditional observance of the rule of law, against the momentary political instincts of the political class.

The success of European integration in the associated countries and the whole Eastern Partnership depends on the EU's capacity to support reforms through the consistent application of conditionality, the unconditional demand for respect for the rule of law and the equal prioritization of reform and security dossiers. Reforming the Eastern Neighborhood is a long-term process, where the potential for reversibility is always at high alert. This is well known to Russia, which is gaining, without intervention, from the failure of reforms caused by repetitive political crises. For this reason, the EU must prepare its diplomatic arsenal for the pro-active management of Eastern European political crises, based on strategic, not temporary, calculations.

This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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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.

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