This Friday marks another milestone in the fall-out from last November’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius – Georgia and Moldova will sign Association Agreements with the European Union. What’s more, Ukraine will complete the signature process by signing the economic part (the political part was signed back in March). These AAs provide for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU which is designed to benefit these countries’ economies in the long-term.
Significant constituencies in all these countries favour a move towards Europe. However, as we have examined in our series of papers on ‘Protecting the European Choice’, Moscow is known to be deeply concerned about this swing of neighbouring countries out of its sphere of influence. Beyond intervening militarily in Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly enjoined both Tbilisi and Chisinau to think carefully about the “possible consequences” of this move. This is effectively a veiled threat of economic sanctions. Both countries are fearful of trade restrictions on their exports of staple goods such as fruit, vegetables and wine. Moscow has form in this area – back in 2006 it slapped bans on Moldovan wine and Georgian mineral water. Another weakness that Putin can exploit is migrant workers: several hundred thousand Moldovans and Georgians work legally and illegally in Russia – it would be easy to impose or enforce restrictive visa requirements. And let’s not forget the frozen conflicts of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow has exploited these unrecognised republics in the past and can do so again. Transnistria has already applied for membership in the Russian Federation and just last week Tskhinvali announced that South Ossetia would organise a referendum on union with Russia.
Moscow’s hostility towards the signing of the AAs can be explained by the trials and tribulations of its rival project – the Eurasian Union. As we analysed in our recent publication “Russia’s ‘pivot’ to Eurasia” , this is intended to replicate the European Union in the post-Soviet space, but so far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have (more or less) reluctantly signed up. Armenia is still hovering on the sidelines and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova clearly want no part of it. For Putin, being an empire-builder, defending Russian interests and Russian-speakers abroad plays very well to his audience at home; if he is seen not to get the right results, then there will be consequences domestically in the long run.
The EU needs to be aware of Russian concerns not in order to assuage them, but to anticipate the effect possible counter-measures might have and ensure the swift and smooth implementation of the AAs, including provisional application. There is a long way to go; this is just the end of the beginning.
See also our memos on Russia and the AA countries: “Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian pressure points” and “Can Moldova stay on the road to Europe?”.
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