The EU's political agenda and the "moving sands" in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, analysis



Even if changes throughout the Eastern Partnership matter, European integration in the associated countries is a priority, as it will have a multiplying effect on the rest of the region, including Russia...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The institutional, normative and ideational changes, supported by the European Union (EU) in the Eastern Neighborhood, are shaped by various voices and are characterized by an uneven trajectory. The many obstacles to substantive enactment of the policy lie in the local “moving sands” that are deterministic for the quality, legitimacy and geopolitical intentions of current governments (IPN, May 19, 2020). These features, as demonstrated by the situation in Ukraine and Georgia, can merge perfectly and lead to a benevolent alignment with European governance models. At the same time, others express the feeling of a forced binding to bilateral agreements with the EU, established by political predecessors - the Moldovan case.

European partners often use different approaches and voices when operating in neighboring jurisdictions. The European Commission is sometimes more visible when it insists on structural reforms, in exchange for which loans and grants are awarded. In other instances, the EU's diplomatic arm - the European External Action Service (EEAS)- through the EU Delegations, comes to the forefront, including when it offers political crisis mediation services. The activities of the European Parliament, which tend to set the tone for the dialogue between the EU and its eastern neighbors, fall into a separate category.

Nothing from within Eastern Partnership states blocks the reform movement as much as pernicious oligarchic interests. Therefore, an old problem remains on the surface, related to combating oligarchic influence in the three countries associated with the EU. So far, only Moldova has been listed as a "hot case" of oligarchization of political power. The proven crimes of the powerful oligarchic networks of Moldova against the state, culminated in the “capture of state institutions”, and led to a variety of criticism from the EU. Conversely, the European position seems too moderate, and event passive, regarding the oligarchic presence in Ukraine and Georgia.

Before the current challenges posed by the health crisis (COVID-19), the EU was already navigating between multiple strategic objectives in the neighboring partner countries - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Traditionally, the implementation of reforms is at the heart of the EU’s external political agenda. Still, the local peculiarities impose a differentiated and pragmatic vision, where a specific array of policies have superior objective significance. They attract the political attention and technical and financial resources available in the EU arsenal. However, the discourse of European actors betrays a somewhat explicable predilection for security imperatives, especially towards Ukraine and Georgia. European actors also express concern for Georgian political stability, while in Moldova - the focus is on implementing the political conditions related to the rule of law.

The "5 categories" of states in the Eastern Partnership

One week before the Eastern Partnership virtual meeting, scheduled for 18 June, European Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell stated that “the Eastern Partnership is a success story” that has already lasted for 11 years. However, such a finding is partial, as the significant measures of progress are mostly limited to the (largely invisible to the public) trade field and less in the political sphere. Even in the countries with the most profound form of European integration - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia - the effects of justice reform are limited or invisible, the electoral system allows for the ongoing interference of corrupt party financing, and the uprooting of oligarchic elements is extremely difficult.

It is certain that over a decade of existence, the Eastern Partnership has become a useful platform for experimenting with reforms, with the participation of 5 categories of countries with hybrid or authoritarian regimes. The first category includes Ukraine and Georgia, where European aspirations are mixed with Euro-Atlantic ones. Moldova is part of the second type, where European integration is currently merging with a multi-vectored foreign policy and the unchanged constitutional neutrality. The third category consists of Armenia, for which Eurasian integration is accepted not as a substitute for the European agenda, but as a solution of "non-aggression" or abandonment by Russia. In the fourth category is Azerbaijan, which demands an equal relationship with the EU, and the latter has no real tools of asymmetric influence. The fifth category includes Belarus, which is seeking a balance with Moscow at the expense of cooperation with the EU, though refusing any ideological alignment with the West.

Ukraine and "selective justice"

The EU's central concerns towards Ukraine are to maintain the country's stability, so as it does not fall under the weight of Russian aggression in the occupied territories (EU, March 2020). The dismissal of Oleksiy Honcharuk's government in March 2020 went unnoticed and wasn’t condemned by the European partners (IPN, March 9, 2020). The EU's disinterest in controversy over the short fate of the Honcharuk government points to a dose of subjectivism. However, Brussels reacted differently (very harshly) when the reformist government, led by Maia Sandu, fell in Moldova in 2019 (NewEasternEurope, November 29, 2020). Controversy over the inclusion of Mikhail Saakshvili in President Volodymyr Zelensky's team indicates an intention to persuade the West that Ukraine remains on the path towards reforms than the need to upgrade qualitatively the reforms. In fact, the eccentric personality trait of Saakashvili, who will coordinate the Reform Executive Committee, considerably increases the likelihood of inter-institutional animosities.

The attitude of the Ukrainian authorities towards the oligarchic elements is definitely selective. The amendment of regulatory legislation in the banking sector (15 May 2020), which allows the nationalized private banks to remain the property of the state, has created the illusion of a confrontation between Zelensky and one of the key oligarchs, Igor Kolomoysky. This law prohibits the restitution of Kolomoysky's rights over the Ukrainian bank Privatbank, suspected of embezzling about $ 5 billion. However, the same law allows for compensation via the courts (ZN, May 2020), which are far from entirely credible independent actors in Ukraine.

Even though the US authorities are investigating Kolomoysky's involvement in financial transactions of dubious origin (ZN, June, 2020), the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office shows no interest in taking these cases forward. Instead, new Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova opened multiple criminal cases for "abuse of power" allegedly committed by the former President Petro Poroshenko. As the prosecutor is a well-known loyalist of Zelensky (Hromadske, March 2020), the perception of the prosecutor’s office as politically dependent is gaining more and more traction. There is a striking difference between the ‘light touch’ approach of the prosecutor's office to the Ukrainian oligarchs who appear in cases of alleged serious bank frauds, on the one hand, and the thorough investigation of Zelensky's political opponents, on the other hand. So far, only a few MEPs from the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee have called for a "fair trial" and for a depoliticised investigation against Poroshenko (European Parliament, June 2020).

The obvious politicization (and thus compromising) of the prosecutor's office in Ukraine hardly features on the agenda of EU macro-financial assistance, which in the case of Moldova has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the rule of law. Immediately after the IMF approved the provision of access to $ 5 billion for Ukraine (of which $ 2.1 billion was due for immediate transferred), the EU disbursed the second tranche of the EUR 1 billion in macro-financial assistance of EUR 500 million. Thus there remains a profound lack of consistency in the application of the rule of law by the EU to its eastern neighbors. The liberation of core legal institutions from any political influence, and their subsequent professionalization, should constitute key imperatives for the EU’s cross-sectoral drive for reforms. Instead the EU approach is widely regarded as lacking consistency.

Georgia and European mediation

The EU's image of Georgia is permeated by security emergencies. On the one hand, under Russian control, the separatist regime in South Ossetia moves the borders ("boderization") and perpetuates the violation of Georgian territorial integrity. On the other hand, the Georgian information space is under constant attacks from Russian disinformation networks. Russian policy is aimed at reducing public sympathy for the Euro-Atlantic and European vectors, particularly among the Russian-speaking population. Another subtle (societal-behavioral) and visible (economic) influence takes place through the significant flows of Russian tourists (about 1.4 million people in 2019). The latter will start to return after the reopening of the Georgian borders, increasing the risk of exporting COVID-19 infection from Russia (which currently has more than 530,000 confirmed infections) to Georgia (only 879 confirmed infections).

The stabilization of the political environment is the second element of concern for the European institutions. The EU delegation in Tbilisi (led by Carl Hartzell), together with the US embassy (Kelly Degnan), recently mediated political negotiations between the government led by the "Georgian Dream" and the fractured opposition. During the fifth round of the talks, the political compromise of "March 8" was reached. It advocated the use of proportional voting for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 31, 2020. Out of a total of 150 deputies, 120 deputies will be elected under the proportional system, the other 30 MPs coming from uninominal constituencies (, March 2020). In addition, the electoral threshold for party representation in parliament has been reduced to 1%. Furthermore, government by a single party becomes impossible unless it brings into parliament at least 48 deputies through the proportional vote. In this way, a demonopolization of power is pursued and potentially effected. Since 2013, the real political power in Georgia was concentrated de facto in the hands of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, seen more and more in Washington as a destabilizing factor for good governance and the pro-Western geostrategic orientation of Georgia (, May 2020).

The constitutional and electoral reforms needed to transpose the "March 8 agreement" have gained momentum following the amnesty by the country's president, Salome Zurabishvili, of several political activists and opposition figures- Gigi Ogulava, Irakli Okruashvili. This followed from the ultimatum imposed by the opposition (26 political parties), which conditioned the facilitation of preparations for the introduction of the proportional vote system with the releasing of “political prisoners” (RadioFreeEurope, May 2020). However, the amnesty act does not invalidate the fact that the Georgian courts have issued political decisions targeting the opposition in first place (OSW, May 2020).

There is a significant risk that the large number of active political parties and the lowering of electoral barriers could transfer polarization from society to parliament. Even if the electoral process becomes more transparent, fair and free, oligarchic interests can adjust to the new political circumstances. They can try to benefit from natural divisions and political confrontation for the (re-) distribution of political power that will emerge within the newly elected parliament.

The re-democratization of government in Georgia must not become a renewed source of post-2020 political crises. That would shorten the appetite for European integration reforms and restore the political influence of the openly pro-Russian political forces. Although the EU successfully mediated Georgia's latest political crisis, it previously missed the opportunity to robustly apply the conditionality mechanism to oust oligarch Ivanishvili before he moved the country in the direction of "captured state".

Moldova and the political conditionality of the EU

Over the last five years the EU's attitude towards Moldova has been distinguished by its extremely sharp nature and disciplined use of the conditionality mechanism. Neither in Ukraine nor in Georgia did the European partners emphasize the importance of political pre-conditions as intensively and consistent as in the Moldovan case. Nevertheless, that could have made sense given the existing similarities (oligarchs, rule of law irregularities etc.).

Both the European Parliament, through the active participation of Romanian MEPs, and the EU Delegation in Chisinau regularly point out the commitments not fulfilled by the Moldovan authorities. Since 2017, when the agreement on macro-financial assistance was signed and until 2020, three governments have activated. So the incumbent government did not negotiate either the old sectoral conditions or the newly updated political pre-conditions. Therefore, in a slow manner, only the sectoral conditions related to the second tranche (out of a total of three) were fully met. The inflexibility of the political pre-conditions demanded by the EU, combined with the geopolitical preferences for Russia, provokes irritation and infuses with Euroscepticism the rhetoric of the ruling parties in Chisinau, in particular the Socialists (IPN, May 19, 2020).

Out of a total of 8 political conditions addressed by the EU, some are more urgent than others. The opposition and civil society insist on their full implementation before providing financial assistance. The actions of the European side and the opposition create enormous pressure on the government, whose stability is also declining under the impact of political corruption. The recent unanimous adoption in the parliament of the declaration against “political tourism and political corruption” (June 11, 2020) proves the attempt of the “associates” (a total of 22 deputies - Adrian Candu's group, Șor Party faction) of the fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc to stamp their/his influence on developments. The inefficient management of the health crisis, which continuously compresses the economy, puts the government of the Socialists and the Democratic Party (51 deputies) on the brink of political survival. Conditions look gloomy also because, unlike Ukraine and Georgia, the country's leadership does not enjoy significant external support. For instance, the EU treats the government with caution and reluctance. Attempts to obtain external state loans at any cost to cover current budget expenditures also failed, as demonstrated by the cancellation of Russian credit because of constitutional non-compliance (NewEasternEurope, May 2020).

Although Moldova is facing a severe political crisis, against a shaky economic and public health background, the EU shows no determination to use its political authority to contribute to the improvement of the political dialogue in the country. Brussels chooses to be predominantly vocal on political pre-conditions, which it does not do in Ukraine or Georgia. In reality, they can use the recent experience in Georgia to create a platform for negotiations between the government and the opposition to prepare a stable ground for the November 2020 presidential election. The geopolitical pro-Russia core of the governing coalition (Socialists -37 deputies) seemingly discourages the EU from taking a more proactive role.

Waiting for the outcome of the political climax is not a safe strategy, given the ongoing changes in the political composition through corrupt methods. So far, the EU has not shown much desire to participate in the country's political stabilization, as it did in the summer of 2019 when together with the US and Russia, it helped eliminate the oligarchic regime. Conditionality is not a strategy, but a useful tool, if coupled with other actions. The EU can act based on independent political calculations. They must reflect the agendas of its political allies in Moldova, but in all circumstance, it should avoid any form of bias in its approaches.

Instead of conclusions...

Even if changes throughout the Eastern Partnership matter, European integration in the partner countries is a priority, as they will have a multiplier effect on the rest of the region, including Russia. Therefore, the focus on the rule of law, especially on depoliticization of law enforcement agencies, has equal significance in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as in Moldova. The EU can use its own experience in the three countries to translate policies and policies that have proven effective, and where they fit better.

The issue of oligarchs in the region is little emphasized on the EU's political agenda. This is noticeable when compared to US equities. Unlike Europeans, they investigate the origin of the financial transactions of Ukrainian oligarchs and the impact of the influence of the oligarchic system on foreign investment in Georgia. In its eastern neighborhood, the EU has a beneficial political context to cooperate with allied forces to complement and excel the reform efforts.

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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