Original Article Post Date:
17 September, 2013
Two weeks ago I wrote about the decision of Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan to join the Russian-led Customs Union instead of proceeding with a trade agreement Yerevan had spent over three years negotiating with the EU.
Armenia's turnaround acted as a wake-up call for the EU in terms of understanding
how seriously Russia is working to repeat the Armenia case with Ukraine, Moldova
and Georgia. With the EU's Vilnius Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit taking place in
November and the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States due to take
place on Oct. 25, a geopolitical battle is under way between the EU and Russia. For
the EU, this is a battle it cannot afford to lose in terms of the success of its
The EaP was never intended to be anti-Russian. Russia views its Western
neighborhood as a strategic imperative and views the EaP as a tool for containment.
Hence the creation of its own integrating projects. While there are no criteria or
conditions for joining the Customs Union, joining countries not only need to give a
hefty chunk of their budget to the new supranational institutions but also their
sovereignty. Hence the only way Moscow can get them on board is by a lot of arm-
twisting and bullying.
While Ukraine and Moldova are direct neighbors of the EU, with Ukraine being of
particular importance because of its size, regional role and economic potential,
Georgia should not be forgotten. Therefore, I was disappointed when during a recent
speech by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, she stated that the EU would
fight for Ukraine and Moldova, but when asked about Georgia she said Georgia had
signaled that it was interested in both options. She was no doubt referring to the
comments of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili over Customs Union
membership despite the fact that Georgia's leadership has reiterated on numerous
occasions that European integration is their priority.
While Georgia may be further away and in a difficult neighborhood, it is equally
important. While not everything is perfect, Georgia has worked hard to meet EU
criteria. Furthermore, it is now the only country in the South Caucasus where the EU
has real influence. Armenia is lost, while leverage on Azerbaijan is almost non-
existent. Russia has already used a lot of sticks on Georgia. They have invaded the
country, occupied two regions, consolidated a military presence, cut off gas supplies
and banned Georgian wine and water. While Georgians want good ties with Moscow,
it needs to be a relationship of mutual respect. I doubt Georgians will forget the image
of Russian tanks rolling towards Tbilisi only a few years ago. Yet Moscow still has the cards and is likely to lure Tbilisi with carrots, with rumors that Russia will offer to reverse its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states or even make a deal whereby one of these regions is returned to Georgia. The EU has reacted to Russia's new assertive approach, but so far with words only. A European Parliament resolution states that “MEPs deplored the unacceptable pressure that Russia has been putting on EU Eastern Partnership countries as the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit approaches. They call on Moscow to respect the independent states' sovereignty and not to intervene in their internal affairs, as required by international law.” Unfortunately, this demand is about as likely to be met as asking a lion to no longer eat meat. Small and vulnerable states such as Georgia need to know the EU is fully behind them and that they will get adequate support both politically and economically. The EU needs to move away from what is often viewed as a passive approach and show some real strategic thinking. It needs to demonstrate that its neighborhood policies have teeth and are able to deliver. The EU should start to open its markets, increase financial assistance and proceed more rapidly with the lifting of visas. Second, it needs to speed up its technical readiness, which often seems to move at a snail's pace. Moreover, it needs to show the ticket it has sold its neighbors has an end destination, which is presently not the case.