As announced by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in May, Georgia and Moldova signed the Association and Stabilization Agreement (ASA) with European Union on June 27th. This completes a process officially begun in 2010 in the frame of the European Eastern Partnership (EaP) – the EU program aiming at strengthening political, economic and social transition in Central and Eastern European countries. A draft of this agreement, inclusive of the free trade deal, was already approved by European leaders at the Vilnius Summit in November 2013.
To confirm this, in the last reports issued in March, the EU Commission welcomed the progress made by these two countries in reinforcing the rule of law, in organizing elections in full compliance with democratic criteria, in implementing visa facilitation, in promoting deep democracy and respect for human rights, and in fighting corruption. Despite that they are now requested to improve their efforts in institutional process reform, most of all in ensuring the independence and the transparency of the judicial system, the EU Commission decided that the time was ripe for the signing of the ASA, to the point that the European Council decided in March 2014 to move the date, originally scheduled for the fall, to June.
The reasons behind the date change are to be found in several considerations, involving both international and domestic factors. First of all, protests in Ukraine after former President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the ASA in Vilnius, and the resulting tensions between Russia and Western countries related to the Crimea annexation and pro-Russian separatist pushes have raised fears of a possible armed intervention by Moscow. Notably were the areas where there are significant Russian-speaking minorities as well as secessionist demands from central government, and where Kremlin still keeps military forces.
This is the case of Transnistria, a strip of land between the Dniester river and the Moldovan border with Ukraine, in dispute with Chisinau since 1990, which hosts is the 14th Russian Guards Army and whose parliament has submitted a formal request of annexation to Russia after the referendum in Crimea. In fact already in January Transnistria’s leaders suggested to introduce Russian legislation in the land. On the other side South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Caucasian and Georgian northern regions – formally recognized as independent only by Russia and few other countries and where there are four Russian military bases – are the main areas with whom Russia seeks to practice its political and military leverage on Tbilisi.
This is especially the case after the Russia-Georgia war in the summer of 2008. Furthermore, the June 8th parliamentary elections in South Ossetia (called illegitimate by Tbilisi and the EU) decreed the pro-Russian United Ossetia party victory (claiming re-unification with Moscow) while in Abkhazia at the end of May anti-government protests in Sukhumi forced Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab to resign. According to Georgia’s Minister for European Integration, Alex Petriashvili, Russia is arguing that it would not oppose Tbilisi’s deal with the EU but actually Moscow is using troops in South Ossetia to raise the political temperature.
All of these cases, as well as similar requests of independence by other minorities groups (for example in March in Gagauzia, the Turkish-speaking region of Moldova), – alarmed Brussels regarding its Eastern partners’ internal stability. From an EU perspective, a rapid conclusion of the ASA by Moldova and Georgia would contain separatist expectations and it would preserve (as much as possible) sovereignty and territorial integrity with the advantages resulting from the process of European integration. The hypothesis of a Russian armed intervention is not concrete, due to the fact that Moscow is not so interested in these regions, as it is, on the contrary, in Crimea, while after all the war in 2008 was due to a Georgian provocation: the real battlefield here is the economic one.
Like other countries in Russia’s “near abroad”, Moldova and Georgia do indeed depend on Moscow’s economy. Moldova, which in Transnistria has several important iron and steel industries from the Soviet era, was submitted to restrictions in September-December 2013 on Russian wine exports (but it was not applied to Transnistrian products). An interruption to gas supplies was also threatened due to its August 2013 decision to start construction on the Ungheni-Ias gas pipeline This is a project in cooperation with the EU, Romania and Ukraine that is expected to reduce dependence on Russian gas; Moldova already owes Gazprom $4 billion. In the same way last October the Russian consumer protection Agency Rospotrebnadzor, the same Authority that imposed a ban on chocolate imports from the Ukrainian company Roshen, announced new restrictions on the export of Georgian wines to Russia (even in this case not on Abkhazian products).
The international political agenda (the so-called Georgian Dream) of President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Ministers Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Garibashvili is in continuity with that of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, focusing on a Euro-Atlantic partnership. It remains to be seen what direction the country will take after the Moldovan parliamentary elections scheduled for October. According to the latest polls, with 35% of preferences Vladimir Voronin’s Communist and pro-Russian party is leading over the pro-European coalition government of the President Nicolae Timofti and his Prime Minister Iurie Leancă.
Rather than a new escalation following the Crimean model, Moscow probably wants to fully exploit its economic leverage, offering the benefits for members of the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union, officially born in Astana in May. This can explain the meetings held in June between Russian and Moldovan economic ministers focused on the “neutralization of the negative consequences of Moldova’s association with the European Union”, as declared by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Kasarin.
These factors help explain the EU decision to speed up the ASA signing. On its part, the Kremlin has no interests in pushing towards other referendums: The 5+2 talks for the Transnistrian dispute are ongoing (they may take place in July); South Ossetia and Abkhazia are more interested in independence from Georgia than in annexation to Russia. Nevertheless deepening the EU’s economic ties with Tbilisi is important for Brussels to ensure greater energy supply security in the Caucasian region after the Ukraine crisis: Georgia hosts pipelines along the Turkish-Azerbaijani energy route that pump oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to European markets.
The Association and Stabilization Agreement marks a historical moment both for the EU and for Georgia and Moldova, although Tbilisi seems to be a more reliable partner than Chisinau. However it is important to ensure that the acceleration of this process does not bring about medium- or long-term tensions with Russia, not to mention difficulties in managing the internal political-ethnic complexities. A win-win agreement is mandatory for the European Union, as much of its international credibility depends on the Eastern Partnership Program’s success.