Russia, the EU and the restoring geopolitical coexistence along the Kiev-Chisinau-Tbilisi line, Op-Ed

“The logic of the bridge restoration is felt in the foreign policy of the countries from EU’s and Russia’s common neighborhood - Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. Though staying pro-European, they try to achieve constructive relations with Russia, serving their motivations of local fabric. In all these efforts, the focus is on immediate benefits, while long-term risks and costs are largely neglected. The restoration of dialogue with Russia, for the peripheral countries of Eastern Europe, must fully express their national sovereignty, rather than suppress it... "
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The necessary preconditions are multiplying so that relations between the EU and Russia can be reset in, still poorly identifiable, near future. The geopolitical normalization of the common neighborhood seems to have a beneficial conducive role for such an objective. The countries associated with the EU - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – calm down, with individual variations, the general rhetoric towards Russia. Areas of higher compatibility or with indivisible character, such as gas transit, are prioritized. The governments of these countries are motivated by the excess of political power and the underestimated strategic threats, or by the reflexes of political survival. At the same time, the concern for sensitive topics, such as separatist conflicts, are externalized to international negotiation platforms. The idealist belief persists that at a supranational level, the West would have the weight to more accurately calibrate, in favor of the sovereignty of the eastern neighbors, Russia’s unrestrained claims.

Examining the latest developments in Europe shows that the opening of European actors towards Russia results from solving several critical nodes. Thus, the panic related to the rise of Eurosceptic populism is softened. Although for the time being only partially and temporarily, the backlash of pro-Russian populists in Italy (government reshuffle in September 2019), Greece (parliamentary elections in July 2019), most recently in Austria (snap elections in September 2019), eases anti-populist fears in the main European capitals. Additionally, besides the Macedonian-Greek disputes on commercial terrain (DW, September 25, 2019), eliminating the impasse related to the name of the FYR Macedonia offers political impetus for further materialization of the European aspirations in the region. Consequently, EU enlargement within the Western Balkans can no longer be neglected. Therefore, the activation of the accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia, until the end of 2019, is gaining an urgent contour (Politico, October 3, 2019). At the same time, the EU is constantly seeking political and technical solutions to keep operational the gas flow from Russia through Ukraine. The most feasible option consists of separating the transport operations in Ukraine, as a result of the application of the "3rd Energy Package", and providing non-discriminatory access, including to Gazprom, for accessing to the transit capacities of the Ukrainian pipelines (Bloomberg, September 20, 2019). The EU's expectations are that Kiev will reform the gas market according to the European rules of competition, in a fast and plenary manner. Emphasized aspects are the de-monopolization and non-discrimination. In other words, Russian companies could return to energy business in Ukraine, after they were sanctioned and expelled from the Ukrainian economy for Russian (military) interference in Crimea and Donbas. As a result, both the reform of the most complicated sector (the natural gas one) in the Ukrainian economy can be advanced, and the freezing of the Ukrainian transit of the Russian gas avoided.

Emmanuel Macron – Europe’s or Russia’s advocate?

Separately and through EU mechanisms, the giants of the European project - France and, in a less extrovert manner - Germany - are looking for feasible ways to bring life to the dialogue with Russia, which for Emmanuel Macron results from the "historical and geographical" circumstances of Europe and from the deeply European nature of Russia (CoE, Octomber 1, 2019). Two major goals are at stake - the easing of rivalries and the optimization of cooperation in multilateral structures, in a volatile multipolar international context. Macron's approach, however, does not have full support neither in the European institutions nor among all member states (Reuters, October 6, 2019), because Russia's political regime is unfit to play by democratic rules.

In the view of the French Presidency, the security of Europe depends on the degree of engagement with Russia in matters of security and common neighborhood (IPN, September 9, 2019). The attempt to re-establish the EU-Russia relationship coincides with the implementation of the initiatives to create EU’s own military forces, based on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launched in December 2017 (EEAS, May 2019). The development of PESCO represents the transposition of the element of "European autonomy in the field of defense", invoked by Emmanuel Macron as the first of the 6 principles of "European sovereignty" (Sorbonne speech of Emmanuel Macron, September 27, 2017). Therefore, a renewed predictability in relations with Russia can be vital to encourage deeper defense cooperation between EU countries. In this regard, the French leadership is trying to anticipate Moscow's reactions to the intensification of European military cooperation. So the French model for "a common European intervention force" or the German suggestion for a "European army" (Federal Academy for Security Policy, 2018), even if it concerns critical interests of Europe, is believed to be easily discouraged if the Russian factor is not taken into account.

The EU giants (France and Germany) consider pragmatism what the Eastern European countries usually interpret as surrender to Russia. This type of approach is observed in the restoration of the Russian delegation’s voting rights at the General Assembly of the Council of Europe (NewEasternEurope, July 2019). The contribution to this is first and foremost due to French presidency at the Council of Europe (May-November 2019). Alerted by the consequences of Russia's self-alienation from the mechanisms of promotion and protection of European values, President Macron strongly defended the Russian presence in the pan-European structure. Perhaps, in addition to promoting the rights of Russian citizens in relation to their own government (PACE, October 1, 2019), the undermining of multilateralism in Europe sounded even more important to the French president. As a result, Macron is betting on an imperfect pan-European organization, which is subjected to reforming, more than on an organization with a limited and divided geographical impact, if Russia withdraws. De facto, France indicates that the Ukraine-Russia relationship can be solved in other formats ("Minsk Agreements" and "Normandy Process") more "effective" ” (CoE, October 1, 2019), than using the leverages of the Council of Europe. At the same time, the pacification of eastern Ukraine represents for Paris the fundamental precondition for revitalizing contacts between the EU and Russia. Actually, the restoration of bilateral relations may slow down the process of dissociation of Russians from belonging to the European space. The polls of August 2019 show that only 37% of the Russians consider Russia a European state compared to 52% 11 years ago (DW, September 10, 2019).

The disposition within the Russian society and the intense discussions about the future transfer of power from Moscow imply an anticipatory effort on the part of the European political leaders, which Emmanuel Macron is trying to prove. On the one hand, the young generation of Russians expresses political intolerance to Vladimir Putin's regime, with 45% negative reactions in 2019 compared to 31% in 2018 (ZOiS, September 2019). While, on the other one, the image of the EU receives positive ratings from 50% of the Russian public opinion in August 2019, compared to 42% in February 2019 and 27% in March 2018 2018 (DW, September 10, 2019). In other words, despite the Kremlin's massive anti-Western propaganda, the idea of interacting with EU is highly liked by the Russian population. The European capitals capture this message, and the Russian authorities seem to exploit the European optimism through episodic concessions at home, such as authorizing protests for human rights in Moscow (France24, September 29, 2019).

Relations with Russia - necessary, but risky for Ukraine and Georgia

The indirect pulling into US political and electoral affairs (Nytimes, October 3, 2019) was a serious blow to the image of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Even though it has multiple ramifications, Zelensky's failure to avoid Trump-related controversies facilitates the unfolding of the Donbas peacekeeping scenario, backed by France and Germany, and very convenient to Russia, following the "Steinmeier formula". Although Zelensky's administration wants to advance negotiations with Russia, the "Steinmeier formula" (Uacrisis, Octomber 4, 2019) needs secure guarantees for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Franco-German tandem should convince Moscow of the need to start with the demilitarization stage. Only afterward the democratization can take place through local elections in territories that have 5 years background of military and informational occupation. A compromise solution would be the employment of a civilian mission, in parallel with the removal of the Russian military presence, and the taking over of the border control. Neither Russia nor European actors want to lose the "window of opportunity" offered by the still massive popularity of the Zelensky-controlled government. At the same time, the latter cannot mimic progress or fail repeatedly, without losing the legitimacy needed to keep up the speed of the reforms.

In fact, Zelensky's administration has about 3 months to popularize and balance the "Steinmeier formula", until the old legislation on the occupied territories expires. At this time, Franco-German diplomacy needs solutions to restore Ukrainian territorial integrity, with Russia's agreement for ensuring a both advantageous and unshameful withdrawal. This mission seems impossible, as long as the Russian part wants to ensure a legalized and sustainable political presence in Luhansk and Donbas. Any viable combination to reconcile the strategic priorities of all parties will affect the Ukrainian sovereignty. Meanwhile, the key strategic objective is to fill the security vacuum, achievable by sending reliable peacekeeping forces.

Unlike Ukraine, the recovery of Georgia's territorial unity is blocked by the artificial statehood building in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with over a decade of Russian assistance. The movement of internal borders (“boderization”) in favor of the separatist regions (USembassy, August 21, 2019) or Russia’s sanctions aimed at the Georgian tourism industry (ban on direct flights) do not stop the regime of Bidzina Ivanishvili from the political-diplomatic attempts to keep open the contacts with Moscow. After 11 years from the cessation of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations, Tbilisi took a symbolic step in the direction of Moscow, requesting a meeting with Seghey Lavrov, welcomed by the EU, US, OSCE and UN (Civil.ge, September 27, 2019).

The alleviation of tensions in the bilateral relations on the basis of dialogue represents for the EU the "key to the peaceful settlement of disputes" (EEAS, September 26, 2019), desired for Georgia. From a European perspective, constructive engagement in dialogue with Russia is useful for taking care of population in the occupied territories. The humanitarian nature of the EU approach still condemns the Russian occupation. But in the absence of realistic ways to eradicate the latter, EU accepts coexistence - as the most optimal solution. However, the constructive attitude, appreciated by the West in the case of Georgia, is of unilateral type (Civil.ge, September 28, 2019), because Russia refuses to assume any responsibility for deteriorating relations with its neighbors.

Although it rules effectively since 2012, the oligarch Ivanishvili’s regime has not learned how to approach the Russian factor. The normalization of contacts with Russia has created a strong dependence for the Georgian tourism. Subsequently, Russia’s sanctions introduced in the 2019 summer can amount the losses up to about 800 million USD, othewise available via the influx of the Russian tourists. At the same time, the Russian occupation keeps Georgia fragmented and continuously vulnerable to interventions of separatist regions. For this reason, the ruling party (the “Georgian Dream”) will need to find the ideal balance between containing the Russian factor on the security dimension and exploiting it in economic terms, in an effort to address the increased pessimism of the population related to the deep footprint left by unemployment and poverty (IRI, July 2019). The geo-politicization of the 2020 elections by invoking Russia cannot distract attention from poor economic conditions, whose deterioration is reported by regime's new opponents, led by the businessman Mamuka Khazaradze. Symbolizing the anti-systemic opposition (the "Lelo" Public Movement), he challenges the "inept management" of Ivanishvili's regime, which doubled country’s external debt (from 9 billion USD in 2012 to 22.5 billion USD in 2020). A new approach to managing relations with Russia, different from that of Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, may be required if Georgian voters favor a qualitative renewal of the political elite (Georgiatoday, September 30, 2019).

Moldova and the Eurasian socialization in the shadow of the re-launched European integration

The multi-vector foreign policy de facto implemented by the ruling coalition from Chisinau (Austrian Institute for Security Policy, July 2019) creates the perception of a geopolitical harmony in Moldova. The president Igor Dodon praised the exclusivity of the internal and external geopolitical consensus on Moldova, including at the UN General Assembly (Speech of the President Igor Dodon, September 26, 2019). Rather comfortable in a European environment, Prime Minister Maia Sandu addresses the shortcomings in the Moldovan-Russian relationship with targeted criticism of the illegal Russian military presence in the Transnistrian region (Agora, September 27, 2019). However, the critical, selective discourse towards Russia is used by the pro-European component of governance for domestic consumption. After all, Chisinau's government aims to normalize dialogue with Moscow to reach at least two goals. The pro-Russian Socialists aim for strategic positioning in the national politics, and the ACUM bloc - the elimination of pressure from the relations in order to prioritize at maximum the European agenda.

The concomitant movements to the East and the West directions made in the first 100 days of government (starting from June 8, 2019) produce results. At the end of the mandate, the head of the European diplomacy Federica Mogherini visiting Chisinau expressed the EU's interest in offering Moldova "even more" assistance than in the past (EEAS, September 30, 2019), although strictly according to the implementation of the reforms. The renewal of the relationship brings with it some major benefits, revealed within the 5th EU-Moldova Association Council (EU, September 30, 2019). First, the European part is open not only to disburse macro-financial assistance (two tranches by the end of 2019), but also to seek new financial sources in the EU budget for 2020. The availability of old and new money overrides any objections about the lack of financial coverage for complicated reforms. At the same time, the presence of sectoral conditionality and political preconditions is increasing. The second qualitative evolution consists in the individualization of the mechanism for monitoring the reforms in Moldova by creating the "Project Team for Moldova" (PTM). The competences of the new entity are still unknown, but to have an impact it must combine local expertise and political recognition within the European institutions and in Chisinau. If the entity suggested for Moldova had at least half the responsibilities of the Support Group for Ukraine, which is operational since 2014, then the European integration of the country could gain even more visibility and steadiness. Last but not least, the main attention of the EU is in fact captured by the structural reforms initiated by the government of Maia Sandu in the field of justice and the prosecution. The political commitment of Chisinau and the close supervision of Brussels enhance the pressure on this reform and reduce the chances to trick. Given the emergence of the Ursula von der Leyen European Commission and the drafting of the new Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-2027), the pro-European Moldovan forces must use their credibility to place the Moldovan cause high on Brussels’s agenda.

Several other tendencies take root in the Eastern direction. Maia Sandu's government intends not only to resume, but also to substantiate the content of economic relations with Russia. During her visit to Moscow, scheduled for October 2019, Prime Minister Sandu will select the directions of intense cooperation within the Moldova-Russia Intergovernmental Commission (MEI.GOV, September 19, 2019). Foreign trade and energy dialogue are among the most essential, as they provide for the facilitation of Moldovan exports and the renewal of the contract for gas supplies. The latter also includes the transposition of the legislation related to the 3rd Energy Package in the Transnistrian region (MoldovaGAZ, September 19, 2019). While the government cautiously manages the thorny relations with the Russia, President Dodon announced, during the summit of the Yerevan Eurasian Union (Kremlin.ru, October 1, 2019), that he would implement the duties deriving from the observer-status in this organization (IPN, May 22, 2018). Thus, Moldova is to delegate a permanent representative to the Eurasian Commission (Point 7, Decision no. 8 of the Supreme Council of the Eurasian Union, May 14 2018). To this ened, President Dodon will have to identify money from the budget, with which to pay the costs for the activity of the permanent representative's apparatus (Point 14). From a technical and political point of view, the Socialists will need to convince the ACUM bloc not to block the participation in the Eurasian Union. Although the activity of the permanent representative will have symbolic nature and no legal effect, this position requires framing in the existing diplomatic system to have minimal political significance.

In any case, President Dodon plans to produce socialization, at least at the level of officials subordinated to the presidency, with the institutional framework of the Eurasian Union. Additionally, it is examined the establishment of contractual links between Moldova and the Eurasian Development Bank (ZiarulNațional, October 3, 2019). In the long term, this can create competition for European credits (EBRD, EIB) that have a philosophy implying requirements for reform.

The Eurasian integration propagated, in a quieter form, by the Socialists does not endanger the implementation of the Association Agreement for now. However, the contact with the Eurasian structures and the circulation of the ideas produced by them in the Moldovan public and administrative space is going to feed the Eurasian alternative in the external orientation of the country. Since European integration is not irreversible and may suffer from failure at any time, the political class, along with the population, will be confronted with a Eurasian alternative, available and increasingly clear.

Instead of conclusions...

The normalization of dialogue with Russia is becoming an urgent objective in some European capitals, as it is believed that the distancing of Russia would multiply Europe's problems more than the other way around.

The easing of the US-Iranian tensions, the stability of Libya needed to control trans-Mediterranean migration flows, the strengthening of multilateralism against "Trumpian-type protectionism", are some of the lines of cooperation, where the European capitals feel the need to hold Russia rather closer than far.

The logic of the bridge restoration is felt in the foreign policy of the countries from EU’s and Russia’s common neighborhood - Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. Though staying pro-European, they try to achieve constructive relations with Russia, serving their motivations of local fabric. In all these efforts, the focus is on immediate benefits, while long-term risks and costs are largely neglected. The restoration of dialogue with Russia, for the peripheral countries of Eastern Europe, must fully express their national sovereignty, rather than suppress it.

Dionis Cenușa