The COVID-19 crisis has put what the European Union calls its eastern neighborhood — Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia — under increased political, economic, social, and security stress. On April 30, CEPA hosted a discussion on the future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries to diagnose the implications of the pandemic, the future of regional cooperation, and the role of the West in strengthening resilience. In a discussion moderated by CEPA’s Corina Rebegea, participants Oksana Syroid, Co-Chair at the Lviv Security Forum, Nicu Popescu, Director of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council for Foreign Relations, and Tengiz Pkhaladze, Associate Professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs brought their insights to these questions. Key takeaways (paraphrased and condensed for clarity):
Although the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian governments are tackling the pandemic with different degrees of effectiveness, the crisis exposed significant gaps in their governance systems. In Ukraine, the crisis has accentuated the limited capabilities of the oligarch-based governance system to cope in moments of crisis, while Georgia has faced challenges in its occupied territories. The population lacked access to key medical services and was targeted by Russia’s ‘infodemic’ aimed at sowing distrust and division. Meanwhile, the integrity of upcoming elections in the fall is at risk, as concerns grow over attempts to influence electoral outcomes, for example through bussing Transnistrian residents across the demarcation line into the rest of Moldova; or the ongoing signs of Russian meddling before Georgia’s parliamentary elections.
Russia’s foreign and domestic policy considerations are therefore key to the political and security developments in the three EaP countries during and after the COVID-19 crisis. But Russia will pose broader security concerns for its neighboring countries, even after the crisis is over. When faced with internal challenges, as Russia is right now, the Kremlin’s strategy is to find scapegoats, diverting attention from internal problems, and fueling patriotic sentiment. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and their Western partners must be especially vigilant about any such Russian actions. Moldova finds itself in a less conflictual dynamic with Russia due to friendly relations at the leadership level. However, a controversial Russian loan agreement worth €200m sparked internal tensions between the Parliament and the Constitutional Court, due to obscure provisions which allegedly favor Russian companies and allow for private debt to be offloaded into Moldova’s public debt. This scheme is also considered as Russia’s attempt to force Moldova into assuming responsibility for some €7bn in debt that Transnistria has vis-à-vis Gazprom.
Although the EaP framework provided tangible support for these countries, its short-term capacity to retain leverage is challenged by a waning enthusiasm for reforms in Ukraine amid the COVID-19 crisis, while its longer-term perspectives remain uncertain. The EU’s assistance diplomacy also had debatable effects. A Chinese medical equipment delivery to Moldova sufficed to boost public perception of Chinese assistance, to the detriment of the EU’s long-term €100m aid package pledge. A robust EaP security dimension and a more pragmatic approach to cooperation with the EU (i.e. sectoral cooperation and engagement in the Three Seas) could provide more promising avenues for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to strengthen their European trajectory. However, it is essential to develop a unified regional policy for the whole Black Sea region if these countries are to improve their resilience and become perceived as more valuable partners for the West.
Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.