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Public Attitudes in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine towards the EU - between Adoration and Moderation. Analysis by Dionis Cenușa


https://www.ipn.md/public/index.php/en/public-attitudes-in-georgia-moldova-and-ukraine-towards-the-eu-7978_1081407.html

 

 

Although Ukrainian public opinion does not surpass that of Georgia in terms of Euro-optimism, Ukraine is showing a stronger and more stable devotion to the European vector than its western neighbor - Moldova...

 

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
 

The increased presence of the European Union (EU) in the Eastern Neighborhood is determining a successful placement at the top of societal preferences. Expectations towards the EU are determined by the content and dynamics of the relations between European actors and the local political class in the region. Even the most positive political intentions of the EU, expressed in relation to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, cannot compensate for the imperfections in the dialogue with the rulers of these countries. Eastern Europeans' perception of the EU is by no means static just because there is a positive predisposition of Brussels towards its neighbors, which is constantly manifested through external assistance, diplomatic-political support or humanitarian aid today. Two major factors contribute to the tailoring of the public perceptions in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine vis-à-vis the EU. The first one consists of the speech and actions of local rulers, who have their own geopolitical sympathies. And the second factor lies in the information products, distorted and maliciously thrown into the public space by (non-) state actors led by Russian decision-makers.

Through the prism of the 2019-2021 surveys, it can be seen how attitudes towards the EU have evolved during the overlap of internal political and institutional crises and external ones caused by the pandemic. The conduct of local political forces, their reactions to domestic political crises and their performance in electoral processes have been major catalysts in forging the public disposition of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine towards the EU. Concomitantly, the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other related conditions, such as EU external assistance or "vaccine diplomacy" currently implemented by Russia (IPN, April 2021), have also left their mark on the public perception.

Based on the specifics of the national political scene, where the pro-EU current dominates, but also the current public consensus on the pejorative nature of the Russian factor, Ukraine and Georgia have developed more robust pro-European attitudes than Moldova. In the latter case, public opinion regarding the Russian state is not influenced by recent major societal traumas, as in the case of Georgia (the 2008 Russian-Georgian war) or Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea and the continuing military aggression in Luhansk and Donbas). The concern for good governance, in particular the fight against corruption, are the elements that drive the pro-European discourse in Moldova. Although the pro-European attitudes in Ukraine and Georgia stem from economic reasoning, followed by incentives for regional insecurity, the orientation towards Russia is not annulled, but co-exists with the pro-European one. Furthermore, Georgia and Moldova show a high dose of moderation about geopolitical preferences, which under pressure from events in Crimea, eastern Donbas and Luhansk is virtually unusable in Ukraine.

Georgia - the leader in pro-EU sympathies

 In recent years, the idea of ​​European integration has deepened in Georgian society. The political crises of 2020-2021 have highlighted the EU's commitment to ensuring stability in Georgia. Both the improvement of electoral competition in the October 2020 parliamentary elections and the building of a political truce between the ruling party and the opposition in the first half of 2021 were due to the concerted actions of European actors (NewEasternEurope, April 2021). In both cases, the EU stood out, even though the US commitment also played a key role. The impact of the EU contribution can be seen in surveys, which illustrate some leaps in support for EU membership - from 59% in October 2019 to 67% in February 2021 (IRI, February 2021). Surveys also show that the attraction of Georgians to the EU lies mainly in economic considerations (43%). This explains the cause of the more visible popularity of the EU compared to the sympathies for NATO, which also exceed the 50% threshold.

Even though Georgian opinion believes that Russia is an economic (78%) and security (88%) threat, about 70% are in favor of dialogue with Russia, in one form or another. The openness to normalize relations with the Nordic neighbor indicates that a moderate path is still possible and probable, combining European integration with the development of normal relations with Russia. Maintaining the tense situation around the separatist regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - politically and militarily controlled by Russia is gradually reducing the Georgians' appetite for moderation towards Russia in favor of the pro-EU orientation. However, against the background of the imperative of post-pandemic economic recovery, Russia's tourism potential can level the reluctance of Georgians by restoring some of the moderate attitude visible in Georgia before the 2019 protests against Russian occupation (See Table 1).

Table 1. Georgian public opinion on EU-Russia relations,%

 

February, 2021

June, 2020

October, 2019

Only pro-EU and pro-West

40

37

27

Pro-EU, but maintaining the relations with Russia

45

45

49

Pro-Russia, but maintaining the relations with the EU

6

6

12

Only pro-Russia

2

2

2

Source: IRI Georgia

Moldova and the geopolitical equilibrium

The variation of geopolitical options in Moldova, with the possibility to choose between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, brings to the fore the degree of polarization still persistent in society. Manifestations of public opinion from the 2020-2021 period have risen some questions about the backing of the European vector. More exactly, the support for EU membership decreased from almost 47% in June 2020 to about 42% in February 2021. At the same time, positive sentiment towards the Eurasian Economic Union increased - from 18% to about 26% (IPP, 2020-2021). The pro-EU option was more pronounced at a time when all institutions (the presidency, government and parliament) were dominated by pro-Russian Socialists than after the election of a pro-European candidate for president’s office in the November 2020 elections (3DCFTAs, November 2020). Thus, from around 58% in October 2020, support for EU membership collapsed to around 48% in February 2021 (See Table 2).

Table 2. Moldovan public opinion concerning the EU accession, % (2020-2021)

 

February, 2021

October, 2020

June, 2020

For

48,6

58,1

56,2

Against

22,9

19,9

20,7

Source: IPP, Public Opinion Barometer

Maia Sandu's victory seems to have been insufficient to quickly energize the pro-EU sympathies of the population inside the country (without counting the diaspora). At the same time, the defeat of the most pro-Russian Moldovan politician Igor Dodon did not result in the immediate deceleration of interest in joining the Eurasian Union, which, on the contrary, increased. The explanation for this paradox refers to the moderate feature of the external orientation preferred by citizens. According to the March 2021 polls, the majority of public opinion advocated a balanced foreign policy (47%), and the rest of the public was divided between pro-Europeans (29%), pro-Russia (15%) and pro-union with Romania (6%) (IMAS, March 2021). However, there is potential for EU support to exceed the 50% and even 60% threshold, given the overall positive assessment (80%) of relations with the EU (IRI, March 2021). Increasing pro-EU sympathies can result from good governance reforms and the fight against corruption, the effects of which can spread changes in the institutions responsible for the health of the information space. As a result, citizens could get access to better-grounded arguments about the country's external orientation.

Ukraine - the internal regionalism of the pro-EU sympathies

At the end of 2019, pro-EU preferences managed to stabilize around 55% of public support in Ukraine (IRI, 2019). One of the reasons that keep the EU's popularity below the 60% threshold seems to be the existence of the Russian-centered Eurasian Economic Union alternative, which in 2019 attracted the attention of 17-19% of the Ukrainian population. The western regions continue to be more pro-European than the eastern ones. However, the difference between pro-EU sympathies in the Center-West and those in the South-East needs some clarification. Thus, only in the East of the country, the Eurasian Union has higher support than the EU - 39% versus 30%. Besides, in the West and the Center, public attitudes favor the EU in the proportion of 58-76%. The same result is intangible for the Russian geopolitical project, which is below 40% even in the most pro-Russian regions of Ukraine. Even though the youth is the most pro-European (64%), a high degree of pro-EU sentiments extends to 52-55% to older age groups (36-51 + years). The European orientation is ubiquitous in the main Ukrainian parties, even in the Opposition Platform - "For Life". This indicates that the electorate can find itself under the same political roof regardless of its geopolitical visions. For example, after the victory in the 2019 elections (254 seats out of 450), the voters of the "People's Servant" party consisted of about 15% of pro-Russian supporters, about four times less than pro-EU ones (62%).

The blocking of anti-corruption instruments by the Constitutional Court or the inefficiency of the prosecution (IPN, March 2021) did not affect the people's sympathies for the EU. Apparently, the population does not extend its dissatisfaction with the quality of the reforms or the problematic management of the pandemic crisis on its relationship with European integration. The March 2021 polls show results as good as those of December 2019 did. About 58% of the population would vote for EU membership (Razumkov Center, March 2021), and among those determined to participate in a referendum on this topic the support up to almost 80% (See Table 3).

Table 3. Ukrainian public opinion on EU membership, %

March, 2021

Total respondents

Only respondents that to take part in the referendum

For

59,4

79,6

Against

25,9

16,7

Source: Razumkov Centre

Broadly speaking, not only NATO membership but also the accession to the EU is seen as a guarantee of security for the Ukrainian state. Surveys validate this hypothesis to some extent, as they illustrate that during March-April 2014 (annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Russian military aggression) support for the EU increased from 41% to 52% (IRI, 2019).

In lieu of conclusions...

Although Ukrainian public opinion does not surpass that of Georgia in terms of Euro-optimism, Ukraine demonstrates a stronger and more stable devotion to the European vector than its western neighbor - Moldova. In general, the European aspirations of the EU's eastern neighbors should not be treated as an irremovable property. They vary depending on the internal political processes, but also in response to the behavior of external factors.

Observable in Georgia and Moldova, a long-term functional geopolitical moderation would allow maintaining a positive dynamic in the field of European integration, with a focus on reforms. Such a scenario seems unrealistic for the time being, because it requires the Russian factor to become predictable, constructive and credible, conditions that Moscow refuses to meet.

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.