The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders in Brussels Tuesday is likely to be the frostiest such summit in 20 years, as the two sides clash over the turmoil in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s crisis should, however, also serve as a reminder of the broader malaise that afflicts the six countries of Eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus that are in the EU’s so-called "Eastern Partnership" program. These states that form the buffer between the EU and Russia are in limbo, still far worse off than the rest of Europe in terms of poverty and potential for conflict.
Russia’s hegemonic habits are, of course, a significant problem for the group, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Yet their own incapacity to decide a strategic direction — and follow through with it — poses an even bigger hurdle.
The good news is that Georgia and Moldova are now opting for a pro-European path, having initialed the agreements that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych snubbed in November, a decision that has led to the spate of unrest in his country. For the EU, the question is whether it wishes to have meaningful influence over how its eastern neighbourhood develops. If so, it needs to show more vigorous support for the choice these two countries have made.
The EU devised the Eastern Partnership project to offer some of the benefits of EU integration to ex-Soviet countries that were interested, without the prospect of eventual membership. Georgia and Moldova performed best in meeting the requirements, and in Vilnius they initialed EU Association Agreements and began talks on a trade pact that promises them privileged access to the European single market.
Russia, which used intimidation to prevent Armenia and Ukraine from signing similar agreements, is now beginning to make threatening noises toward Moldova to stop it from completing the EU trade deal. In response, some commentators and politicians in the U.S. and Europe are urging the EU to become more "geopolitical," and confront Russia. That would be a mistake. Putin is no Leonid Brezhnev, and his project to build a Eurasian alternative to the EU is a long way from the machinations of the Soviet Union. But if it comes to spoiling tactics — using sanctions, trade embargoes or energy pricing as political weapons — Russia will win every time. In Moldova, for example, Russia can increase gas prices and manipulate the local Communist Party and the separatist region of Transnistria to try to get its way.
It is also rash to assume that people in these countries want to reject Russia. Hundreds of thousands of their guest-workers and naturalized citizens still live on Russian soil. Many Georgians, Moldovans or Ukrainians want integration with the EU, but not at the price of severing extensive economic and cultural links with Russia.
Most Georgians, for example, welcomed the thaw in relations that has occurred since the election of the Georgian Dream government in 2012 and the departure of Moscow’s bete noire, former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgian wine and agricultural products are on the Russian market after a seven-year absence, and communication links are being restored. This is still a cool handshake rather than a warm embrace. Diplomatic relations remain frozen, due to the protracted conflict over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Europe should continue to support this tentative rapprochement, which benefits all of the Caucasus.
So the EU doesn’t need to get tougher (or softer) with Russia over Georgia and Moldova. It needs to leave the rhetorical fireworks to the Russians, deal with Putin on an issue-by-issue basis and become much smarter about winning the argument for European integration on the ground.
That argument can be a hard sell. The biggest threat to Georgia’s European future isn’t the Russian Army but a home-grown isolationist camp that has support from much of the Orthodox Church and sees Europe as synonymous with decadence and homosexuality. The EU needs to respond by communicating much more clearly what it stands for. It has an excellent product to sell — the peaceful integration of 28 European economies — though it is often obscured by technical jargon. If EU officials can explain, in ordinary language, the benefits of its free trade area to businesses in these countries, including the many Russian companies operating there, half the job will be done.
The EU package for Georgia and Moldova consists of three "Ms": Money, Mobility and Markets. Each needs to be more tangible. That means speeding up visa procedures to allow Georgians and Moldovans to travel to the EU more easily. It also means offering more technical help to ease the pain that the new EU-mandated regulations will cause to farmers and businessmen, as the two countries move to join the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
It will take boldness, both from the EU and elites in Georgia and Moldova (and perhaps in Ukraine in the future) to make the process work and save the region from perpetual limbo. In that spirit, the EU can make one more offer that would make a big difference: hold out the long-term promise of a fourth ‘’M’’ — Membership — as it did successfully in Central Europe and the Balkans.
These six ex-Soviet states remain decades behind EU standards, so there is little reason for EU members to be afraid. Once the potential for membership was granted, Georgia and Moldova would take their places at the back of the line, behind countries such as Serbia and Turkey. Even such a long-term pledge would change the strategic equation, however, allowing Georgians, Moldovans, Ukrainians and others in the region to aspire to a European future.
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of several books on the Caucasus region.