Russia has been alarmed by what it perceives as expansionism by NATO and the US into Eastern Europe and into countries it views as part of its sphere of influence. Although perceived as a ‘lesser evil', the EU followed the footsteps of NATO by expanding eastwardly. For those countries who remained outside the union's frontier, it initiated "The Eastern Partnership" (EaP), a policy program aimed at exporting the values of the EU and developing strong political, economic and cultural cooperation with six states (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), though without promising them perspective membership . Since its inception, the EaP has become a contentious issue between the EU and Russia, for Russia perceives the EU's eastern expansion as a direct threat to its hegemony in the post-Soviet space.
Eurasian Economic Union (EurAsEC)
The recent return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency was far from unexpected. Moreover, he has always been regarded as an unofficial head of state, despite letting Dmitry Medvedev hold his presidential position for the last five years. It may seem that everything has gone according to plan and that the EU should have prepared well for the predictable change in Russian policy.
After a controversial presidential election, Moscow immediately initiated a new multinational union. EurAsEC, often referred to as a "quasi-European Union", is meant to ensure the creation of a single market in the former Soviet region that will bolster the free movement of goods and services. It will also create an EU-like joint security sphere by developing the military capabilities of its member states. This union, which is Putin's brainchild, will serve to reinvigorate Russia's hegemony in the region. Although skeptics argue that this union does not have a future given that Russia's current economic capabilities largely fall behind its ambitions, several weeks ago the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine gathered in Moscow and declared 2015 as the year of the union's birth.
EaP vs. EurAsEC
While the EU puts significant emphasis on the economic aspects of bilateral relations as a promotion of its normative expansion, this endeavor does not afford time for complacency. The EU needs to engage more constructively with its eastern neighbors to avoid a situation where these states turn increasingly towards Russia.
Let's take Moldova and Georgia. Both countries have long declared their aspirations to integrate into the EU and have honed all efforts towards doing so, the processes of which have rightly earned them the status of "EaP-forerunners". Nevertheless, the top priorities of both countries remain the restoration of their territorial integrity and the establishment of a stable and secure environment without which their further development is questionable.
Therefore, if the EU does not change its approach to the conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and instead of trying to maintain the status quo, summons political will and applies a more pro-active approach to its resolution, the current fragile situation on the ground, notably in Abkhazia/South Ossetia, and the presence of the limited-capability missions will not be able to prevent the re-escalation of instability.
The risk that these states will revert to the Russian orbit any time soon is still significant given that Russia plays an instrumental role in their conflicts. Furthermore, Russia represents an attractive marketplace in which quality requirements, unlike in the highly competitive and saturated EU market, are not difficult to meet with most low-quality Moldavian and Georgian production. Moldova already stands as an observer within the EurAsEC, confirming its interest to accelerate economic ties with its member states.
Also, in spite of the existing tension and the suspicions of Georgia's mainstream political actors towards Russia, there is consensus in Tbilisi that restoration of relations between the countries will substantially promote Georgia's sustainable economic growth. Negotiations between the Georgian businessmen and the Russian authorities are ongoing and might result in the re-opening of the world's 11th biggest market for Georgian production.
Lastly, Russia's traditional "hard power" policy towards its neighbors leaves little chance for the EU's "soft" approach to succeed. Manipulation with unsettled conflicts has always been Russia's leverage point vis-à-vis the EU's longtime presence in Moldova and Georgia. The Eurasian Union might fail to achieve its foundational goals as its predecessor's alliances in the post-Soviet space did, but it will obviously continue to serve Russia's agenda to impose its own will on both countries.
Shalva Dzidziguri is the member of the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.