What the Alasania Scandal Means for Russo-Georgian Relations

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Georgia’s recent scandal involving former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is now winding down.

The government managed to avert a crisis. Not only did they succeed in retaining their majority in parliament but also expanded it. The addition of independent MPs and defectors from Alasania’s camp have increased the Georgian Dream’s share of seats to 87, even higher than the original 83 prior to the Alasania scandal. This not only averted a potential new parliamentary election, but also now gives the Georgian Dream a comfortable and secure majority.

In addition, the vacant ministerial posts have been filled. Prime Minister Garibashvili has also selected Tamar Beruchashvili as the new Foreign Minister. He also appointed Georgia’s former ambassador to Greece, Davit Bakradze (not to be confused with the Saakashvili political ally and former presidential candidate) as the country’s new Euro Integration Minister.

Yet, a significant question continues to linger: does the scandal indicate a Georgian U-turn toward Moscow? The simple answer is “not anytime soon.”

A potential Georgian U-turn seemed more likely in late 2013 and early 2014, as Saakashvili left office. At that time, Georgia had not yet signed the EU Association Agreement and was scheduled to do so in far-off August. There were also emerging signs of a growing thaw between Moscow and Tbilisi, culminating in Vladimir Putin’s invitation to President Giorgi Margvelashvili during the Sochi Winter Olympics for a one-on-one meeting.

However, the rapprochement was disrupted by the Ukraine crisis. The West redoubled its efforts to bring Georgia into its fold, by moving up the signing of the Association Agreement in June, by granting Tbilisi more EU aid money, and by persuading the formerly pro-Putin Georgian Orthodox Patriarch to become pro-EU.  The fear of a possible Georgian Maidan and the tragic legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia also loom large in the thoughts of Georgia’s pragmatists.

Therefore, a potential Georgian U-turn toward Moscow appears unlikely, at least for the time being. Also, much is contingent on how developments progress in Ukraine and if the cash-strapped, pro-Western government in Kiev can last.

Still, the departure of Alasania’s Free Democrats and the government’s comfortable majority in parliament certainly does grant more maneuvering room for dealing with Moscow. Specifically, this gives the government a mandate for expanding relations with Russia beyond trade and economic spheres.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (PIA)

For now, this will not mean that Georgia will abandon its pursuit of the EU and NATO, though without Alasania, such efforts will become less strident and aggressive. Likewise, it will not signal an immediate mutually acceptable solution to the longstanding Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts.

However, the new situation does create the conditions for the dormant high-level meeting proposed by Putin in Sochi to be realized, and for diplomatic ties to be restored between both countries. It will also allow for a greater dialogue between Tbilisi and its breakaways and for the realization of important confidence-building measures vital to future peace. For South Ossetia, this includes a possible reopening of the Ergneti market and, for Abkhazia, a possible reopening of the Abkhaz railway. The Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba has already offered his support for the latter.

Some may contest the idea that Tbilisi would ever consider a serious rapprochement with Moscow. The Georgians, they argue, are simply too proud and nationalistic to let this happen. The Russians too, they would contend, would be unwilling to accept anything less than the total capitulation of Tbilisi, including its full recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

However, such arguments are purely impressionistic, based on long-standing ethnic stereotypes played up by the media. In reality, there is nothing in the “Georgian national character” that makes all Georgians, by fate of their ethnic origins, inherently “nationalistic,” “Russophobic,” or “reckless.” Likewise the Russians are not “uncompromising, stubborn imperialists.” In fact, Russia has a history of flexibility, compromise, and openness – provided that its interests and international law and procedure are respected.

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

Zurab Abashidze (PIA)

In fact, the facts reveal a different story from the mainstream narrative. The vast majority of Georgians want to restore relations with Russia. According to a poll by Georgia’s Kviris Palitra newspaper, 59.4% of Georgians favor continuing the Abashidze-Karasin format. Only 19.7% opposed it, while 20.9% were unsure. The poll was conducted very recently, in October 2014 during the controversy over Russia’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. At that time, Georgia’s more hawkish politicians wanted to scrap the Abashidze-Karasin format entirely.

In addition, a good portion of Georgians also favor membership in the Eurasian Union. In 2013, the pro-Western Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) asked Georgians whether or not they supported membership of their country in the Eurasian Union. The results showed that 32% said “yes,” 24% said “no,” 27% said that they “don’t know” while a further 17% support some aspects of it but not others. If one adds the latter figure with the 32% in support, the total actually emerges as 49%.

Another poll from the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank from this year (2014) found support for the Eurasian Union among 53% of Georgia’s population. For comparison, support for the Eurasian Union in Armenia was 64%, while in Azerbaijan, it was 22%. A much earlier poll by Gallup conducted in 2008 found strong support in Georgia for deeper cooperation among the CIS countries. Overall, 11% favored a “single state,” while another 11% favored a “federal state,” and 32% favored an “economic union” for a total of 54% of the population. Meanwhile, 30% favored cooperation as independent states and 16% were “unsure.” In percentages comparable to the 2014 Kazakhstan poll, the total percentages of those who supported integration either as a single state, a federation, or an economic union, was 63% in Armenia and 28% in Azerbaijan.

Taking into account these significant findings, if one were to attach the incentive of a potential Russian-backed peace deal for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be difficult to imagine support for Moscow’s Eurasian Union not growing. In fact, it would likely increase substantially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by a supporter after his election as Georgia's president. (AP)

Giorgi Margvelashvili is congratulated by one of his supporters after his election as Georgia’s president. (AP)

In the case of the first two polls from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, a consistent trend can be discerned. The majority of Georgians favor restored ties with Moscow, a significant number are still “unsure,” while a minority favors a total rejection of all things Russian. If one observes Georgia’s latest election (i.e., the presidential election of 2013), one finds a similar breakdown. Margvelashvili, the pro-Georgian Dream candidate, acquired 62.12% of the votes while the overtly pro-Moscow Nino Burjanadze received 10.19% of the votes. Together, this makes approximately 72.31% of the vote. Davit Bakradze, the UNM candidate, only acquired 21.72% of the vote. Therefore, one can conclude from the election results, combined with the polling data from Kviris Palitra and the CRRC, that the section of the Georgian electorate that is Russophobic, nationalistic, and overtly pro-Western, represents only 20-25% of the total Georgian electorate.

However, within Georgia’s political and intellectual elite, the influence of this group grows significantly. This is enhanced by the fact that, in the 2012 parliamentary election, which was conducted while Saakashvili was still in office, the UNM still gained 40% of the vote, allowing them to maintain significant influence in the Georgian parliament. In addition, the two major pro-Western opposition blocs, the UNM and the Free Democrats, both have backers and supporters in the West, especially among the American political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Further, they are also supported by American-backed NGOs working in Georgia.

There have also been earlier polls, conducted by Gallup, that showed tendencies in the general Georgian society indicating continued admiration, respect, and positive attitudes toward Russia. On the eve of the 2008 war in Georgia, Gallup found that 41% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA.” Another 41% volunteered the response that “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and USA.” Only 11% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia.”

To the question “which country in the former Soviet space do you admire and look up to most of all?,” 40% responded “Russia,” 29% “Ukraine,” and the remainder other countries. In addition, 64% of Georgians agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.”

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili at the UN (Reuters)

These very friendly attitudes soured after the 2008 war. In the subsequent poll conducted in 2009 by Gallup, only 47% agreed with the statement that “Georgia has to have good relations with Russia by all means.” 37% agreed that “Georgia has to have a principal position regarding Russia.” Significantly, only 5% agreed with “terminating all relations with Russia,” which is effectively the policy that Mikheil Saakashvili pursued after the war and which the UNM continues to support today.

The number of those who agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the USA” dropped to 28%. Meanwhile those who agreed that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the USA even if this can harm relations with Russia” increased to 24%.

Inquiring about the EU, Gallup determined that in 2008, only 14% agreed with the statement that “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with the EU even if this can harm relations with Russia.” This increased in 2009 to 27%. Meanwhile, 33% said “it is more important for Georgia to have close relations with Russia even if this can harm relations with the EU.” This decreased to 22% in 2009. Finally, 44% of Georgians volunteered “it is equally important for Georgia to have close relations with both Russia and EU.” This decreased to 34% in 2009.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (AFP / Vano Shlamov)

It is indisputable that the development of these new attitudes was affected by the war and by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, it is also worth noting that people in Georgia became increasingly more afraid to express their opinions openly as Saakashvili’s regime became increasingly more authoritarian. According to Gallup, in 2012, only 17% of the population agreed with the statement that “no one is afraid to express their opinion.” This shot up to 40% in 2013, after the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.

For his part, Saakashvili’s approval rating in Georgia stood at a mere 22% in 2012 according to Gallup. The approval rating was exactly the same in August 2014, according to a later poll conducted by the CRRC for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The figure again corresponds to the fact that about 20-25% of the Georgian electorate supports a tougher line toward Russia. Significantly, the latter poll also found that 73% of Georgians are presently dissatisfied with the current state of relations with Russia and that 65% supported the reopening of the Abkhaz railway. In another more recent CRRC poll, 91% of the Georgian population indicated that they still speak Russian as a second language, despite Saakashvili’s efforts to supplement this with English. For comparison in Armenia, 97% speak Russian as a second language while in Azerbaijan, 73% speak Russian.

Still, as of August 2014, support for the EU and NATO remains high in Georgia at 78% and 72% respectively according to the CRRC’s NDI poll. This is despite the fact that, in a typical post-Soviet manner, many Georgians also support membership in the Eurasian Union. Indeed, many would claim to support “both,” especially in the regions. In the case of the EU, the majority (58%) believe that eventual membership will improve the Georgian economy. However, it must be emphasized again that the “vision” of Europe and the reality of Europe are very much different. Brussels is still recovering from the Eurozone crisis and it is unlikely that, if Georgia were to eventually join the EU, it would see any immediate economic benefit, as was the case with the bloc’s newest Eastern European members – Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia.

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine

Kakheti, Georgia: A People and Their Wine (Eurasia Travel)

Yet, as far as the EU and NATO are concerned, membership in these organizations is not a priority for most Georgians. In fact, in their view, Georgia’s main priorities are unemployment, poverty, pensions, and healthcare reform, as well as fixing relations with Russia and resolving the Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. According to the CRRC’s NDI poll, only 10% regard NATO as a priority while 2% regard the EU as a priority. Additionally, according to the same poll, about 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Georgia is not going anywhere” and about 70% consider their job status to be “unemployed.”  Under the present government, more action has been taken to meet these needs.  In Kakheti province, the center of the Georgian wine-making and grape cultivation, Garibashvili was well-received as he told local farmers, “in the last two years, our government planted four hectares of vineyards as an incentive for the peasants, while Saakashvili forced the peasants to cut down with their own hands the vineyards, which even Shah Abbas or other very cruel conquerors did not do.”

In general, all of this information illustrates that a significant pro-Russian sentiment does exist among the Georgian populace, regardless of claims to the contrary. Such support is most likely concentrated in the regions where poverty and unemployment remain widespread and where nostalgia for Soviet times persists. Consequently, if Georgia were to move toward Russia, concurrently with a Moscow-backed peace deal on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is conceivable that the “silent majority” of Georgians would support the government. Therefore, the major concern for the government would not be the majority of the people, but rather the pro-Western hardliners in the political elite and their supporters.

In this regard, Tbilisi’s pragmatists face major challenges. Constant threats from Saakashvili and the UNM to launch a Georgian Maidan are being taken very seriously by the government. To a Georgian, such threats are especially troubling, given the legacy of the 1990s civil war in Georgia. If something like this were to happen, it would be a disaster for Georgia domestically and would seriously jeopardize very critical efforts at reconciliation with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. The stakes are high.

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Saakashvili Addresses Supporters at the UNM Rally in Tbilisi (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

In this context, the government was especially cautious and restrained during the UNM’s recent rally against the proposed Russo-Abkhaz “Alliance and Integration” treaty that took place in Tbilisi on 15 November. Thousands of protestors attended the rally, some carrying anti-Putin placards and signs that read “Abkhazia and Samachablo [a Georgian nationalist term for South Ossetia] are Georgia.”  Addressing the rally via live video from Kiev, Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowds that there were two Georgias: “our Georgia” and “Ivanishvili’s Georgia.” Insulting Ivanishvili’s Imeretian peasant roots, Tbilisi-born Saakashvili bombastically declared that Ivanishvili’s “dream Georgia” is a “small, insignificant village that should not have regional ambitions” and that is “run by a provincial dictator.” He further provocatively drew parallels between the Georgian government and the government of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

All of this has underscored the need for extreme caution and prudence by the Georgian government.  Prime Minister Garibashvili perhaps said it best in a statement on 14 November, a day before the UNM rally:

I do not think that anyone can overlook the tightrope Georgia is walking today. Radicalism is absolutely unacceptable and inadmissible in our country today. Any step other than a peaceful, prudent, and pragmatic policy may lead us to grave consequences. Imprudent actions and radicalism led Georgia to the 2008 war. This must serve as an example to everyone; we cannot build our decision making upon emotions.

Moscow’s Sochi Summit on Karabakh

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.

Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically.  However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.

Protection mounds placed near the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014

Defensive mounds placed near Armenia’s north-south highway along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014. (Photograph by this writer)

However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.

In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.

In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.

Russia and Georgia: Where to Go Next?

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU's José Barroso (right)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU’s José Barroso (right) (Georgian Government)

On Friday, Georgia signed its Association Agreement with the EU. The event was favorably celebrated in Tbilisi and touted in the West as a “first step toward the EU.”

However, the agreement does not guarantee automatic membership in the EU. In this regard, Georgia still has a long way to go. Russia has voiced its concerns regarding the EU agreement. Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway republics on the Black Sea, has echoed this sentiment. On July 1, its Foreign Ministry declared the following:

It is quite obvious that signing of the Association Agreement with the EU does not provide to Georgia an immediate perspective for membership in this union, but at the same time, it distances Georgia from cooperation with neighboring states, first of all, with the Russian Federation and Republic of Abkhazia.

There has also been concern in the West, and to a lesser degree in Georgia, regarding an even greater Russian reaction. Some fear a reversal of the progress made on economic ties while still others fear an invasion of Georgia proper.

Yet Moscow will likely not resort to hard retaliatory measures as has been widely speculated in the West. In its effort to bring all the ex-Soviet states into its Eurasian Union, instead Moscow has sought to pursue its aims by proposing offers and deals that may make the ex-Soviet republics more amiable to it.

Georgia is an important country to include in a proposed supranational union of ex-Soviet states, not just for Putin, but for any future Russian leader for several reasons.  Georgia has historically been viewed in Moscow as the “center” of the Caucasus region and the gateway to Eurasia. Outside of Abkhazia, it possesses a prosperous Black Sea coast that includes port cities and resorts like Poti and Batumi. Russia views the Black Sea as a vital geostrategic region and as part of its traditional zone of influence. Georgia naturally plays a role in this. The United States, Russia’s rival in the region, has also realized the geopolitical significance of Georgia and thus has focused much of its efforts on trying to bring Georgia into Euro-Atlantic structures. Whether or not such ambitions will help US-Russian relations, global security, or Georgia’s own efforts toward reform, remains an open question.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Further, there are also cultural and interpersonal affinities between Russia and Georgia. A Georgian nationalist might state that “as people, Russians and Georgians were never brothers and sisters” and that this is “Soviet mythology.” However, the truth and reality are far different from such ethnonationalist pronouncements. Despite the rupture in relations from the 2008 war, most Russians admire the Georgians, if only because of their reputation as easy-going party people. Conversely, many Georgians deeply admire Russian culture, literature, and language. At least 92% of Georgians still speak Russian as a second language. There are also the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity. Additionally, as many as one million ethnic Georgians live and work in Russia, and that number is estimated by some to be even higher. Georgians are generally well-integrated in Russian life and freely intermarry with Slavic Russians. The most famous Georgian in Russian history is probably Prince Bagration, the hero of the Napoleonic War. The most infamous is probably Joseph Stalin.

These are the reasons why Russia values Georgia and why its long-term plan is to lure Tbilisi back through some goodwill gesture. The obvious place for this to occur would be in Georgia’s two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both were recognized by Russia as independent states after the 2008 war, thus further complicating Georgian-Russian relations. However, Moscow’s aim at the time was to “respond” to the West’s recognition of Kosovo and to domestically discredit Georgia’s controversial President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

Georgia’s Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

With these goals attained and with a new government in Georgia willing to talk to Moscow, Russia may be more flexible on the issue. Already Bidzina Ivanishvili has stated that the goal of reunification with the two breakaways is Georgia’s top priority and the Georgian attaché to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, has confirmed this position, even tying it to the re-establishment of relations between Georgia and Russia. At the same time, Russia will not betray the interests or rights of the Abkhaz or Ossetes. Instead, the logical solution lies in working to find a compromise between them and Tbilisi to forge some sort of federal or confederal solution. This can be accomplished informally without direct diplomatic relations, even outside of the Geneva framework which, like its OSCE counterpart on Nagorny Karabakh, has failed to produce any serious results or resolutions.

It is likewise unclear how the recent revolution in Abkhazia will affect such talks. Regardless of speculation on whether or not Russia played a role in the revolution, or whether it was an entirely domestic Abkhaz affair, it is clear that whomever the Abkhaz select as their next president, he or she will play a decisive role in working to normalize relations between Abkhazia and Georgia. Certainly, even this depends on the development of Georgian-Russian relations.

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Meanwhile, the situation in South Ossetia is less clear. United Ossetia, the victors of the recent parliament vote in the breakaway region, advocate joining North Ossetia in a political union with Russia. It is unclear if they will follow through with such a program or, if under pressure from Moscow, they will take a more compromising stand on relations with Georgia. Moscow has already distanced itself from Ossetian demands and will likely react with caution if South Ossetians do indeed vote for a political union with Russia (as Moscow did with the Donbas rebels in Ukraine). In general though, the outcome of all of this remains to be seen.

The Georgians are also looking for an opening with Moscow not just in terms of a resolution to its conflicts. Tbilisi also wants to ensure that if Moscow makes an attractive counteroffer to the EU, it must consider Georgian national sensitivities. Any effort toward integration among post-Soviet states cannot be imperial in nature, but rather a union of equal states. If the Eurasian Union, like the EU, were to ensure an official status for Georgian and other national languages, then such an idea would become much more attractive to Tbilisi and would make the Eurasian Union an easier sell to the Georgian public at large. Moscow must keep in mind its own long tradition of multiculturalism, universalism, and ethnic tolerance that has preceded the birth of post-war “EU values” by several centuries. In order to be a viable international player, Russia must do more to embrace this great tradition of multiculturalism and shun all forms of ethnic Russian nationalism that not only threaten the unity of Russia but also its geopolitical interests in the ex-Soviet space as well. In this regard, presenting the Eurasian Union as a “union of equals” to Georgia would certainly work to its advantage.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Efforts toward a reconciliation with Moscow by Tbilisi began almost immediately after the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. However, the progress of such a reconciliation had to be limited to basic issues, such as trade and visa questions. This was due not only to the complex situation that existed over Georgia’s breakaways, but also because of the fact that Saakashvili still remained the President into 2013 and thus still held significant political influence. Following the electoral victory of Margvelashvili in 2013 and Ivanishvili’s appointment of Garibashvili as the new Prime Minister, the chances for an enhanced reconciliation grew significantly. During the Sochi Olympics, Putin proposed meeting with the Georgian President. Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin, agreed to meet and plan this high-level visit which was supposed to take place in March. However, as the Ukraine crisis worsened and the crisis in Crimea erupted, the proposed meeting was postponed indefinitely.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi likely have their reasons for this. Moscow is not only focused primarily on the outcome of Ukraine but it is also clear that, since Yanukovych’s ouster, it learned from recent history and sought to not place the potentially friendly government in Tbilisi in the same position as Yanukovych. Already Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened to launch his own “Georgian Maidan,” and a Georgian volte-face on the EU Association Agreement would have been the perfect excuse to launch such a revolt. Tbilisi likely shares this same concern and that probably played a part in its considerations on how to approach Moscow. Adding to this were other considerations on the Georgian side, such as its desire to balance its relations between East and West. The government also sought to maximize its support base in the recent local government elections.

The Georgian government also has a problem in that its party, the Georgian Dream coalition, is still a coalition. Garibashvili and Margvelashvili, though they have disagreed on petty issues such as who will sign the Association Agreement, are nevertheless allied on the question of Russia. They favor a pragmatic and balanced approach. This is contrasted by Davit Usupashvili who heads the Georgian parliament, a very vocal critic of Moscow and a stalwart supporter of NATO expansion. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has been traditionally more moderate and once played a key role in bringing the Abkhaz and Georgians close to a peace. However, during his stint as Defense Minister, his advocacy for NATO membership and his proposal to place missile bases on Georgia soil near Abkhazia have raised eyebrows in Moscow, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tshkinvali.

Tbilisi was likewise concerned over the Russian annexation of Crimea and of the potential implications of this for Georgia’s breakaways, though Russia quickly assured Tbilisi afterward that Crimea was a unique case and that Russia was not interested in annexing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili reaffirmed this view on an interview with the BBC.

What the next step will be in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow remains to be seen. However, there are compromises and deals to be made. One aspect of Tbilisi’s protracted conflicts with Moscow, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali remains clear: that from a basic geographic perspective, cooperation between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, is not only desirable and logical, but necessary.

Some Georgians may want to break away totally from Russia and join Europe, but they seem to forget the simple fact of geography; that the Kura is not the Seine and that Georgia is not at the center of Europe but at its very fringe. Historically, it has had less-than-pleasant relations with its larger Islamic neighbors like Turkey and Iran. It shares a very long northern border with Russia, a country that has served for centuries as Tbilisi’s protector and as its lifeline to the rest of Europe. Georgian nationalists can try to wish Russia away all they want, but the fact is that Russia is there and Tbilisi has to deal with it and can even benefit from it.

For its part, Russia views Tbilisi as an important factor in its security policy, and in turn needs Georgia to secure its position in the Caucasus region, especially in the unstable North Caucasus. Thus, while ethnic Russian nationalists may believe that weakening or punishing Georgia for its “independent attitude” will help Russia, in fact they are far from correct. This will only exacerbate regional divisions and animosities that will most certainly not serve the interests of Russian security.

Finally, the Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalists too may try to wish Georgia away, but this is unrealistic as well. Geography and centuries of close cultural ties demand coexistence and compromise. Thus, it is to everybody’s benefit and advantage that there be a solution to the protracted conflicts plaguing the Georgians, Russians, Abkhaz, and Ossetes. Above all, it is the people of Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia who will benefit the most from a peaceful diplomatic solution. This is what the politicians of these countries and regions have to realize if any tangible progress is to be accomplished.

What Will Be the Legacy of Ukraine’s Maidan?

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Though Western commentators have rushed to hail Ukraine’s Euromaidan as a “democratic” revolution, in truth its results still remain very far from certain.

It can be said that Euromaidan was a truly post-Soviet movement. In other words, it was a revolt in which many fervently believed that simply joining an organization (in this case the EU) could instantly solve all their problems. This recalls other instances in Ukraine and other former Soviet states in which people voted for a given politician believing that he or she will be the “savior” of their respective country.

Of course, the reality is that joining the EU holds no promise of immediate reform for Ukraine. In fact, it will likely mean that Ukraine (a near-bankrupt country) will have to fall in line with harsh EU austerity programs, thus only creating more problems. It is also true that EU institutions can indeed help Ukraine reform itself and reduce corruption. However, they cannot simply “cure” Ukraine of the corruption issue. What Ukrainians who supported the Maidan do not seem to realize is that Ukraine must work toward fundamental reform on its own.  Unfortunately, with Ukraine’s present corrupt political elite, this does not seem to be an immediate prospect. In this regard, if Ukraine were to actually join the EU, it would become like Bulgaria or Romania, i.e., a large country which despite joining the EU, continues to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and other issues. However, given Ukraine’s large size and the sheer level of corruption and poverty, the task of integrating this country into the EU would be even more problematic, especially because the EU is still in the process of recovering from its own very serious Eurozone crisis.

Poland is often evoked by advocates of Ukrainian EU membership as an example for Ukraine to follow. However, this too is misleading. Poland’s perceived success was not due to simply joining the EU. It was the result of hard work and serious reform efforts conducted by the Polish government both before and after joining the EU.  Again, this illustrates that joining the EU alone will not be a solution to a country’s problems.  The reform can only come from that country alone.

Yet another problem with Maidan is that it seems to have been encouraged and driven by internal and external forces who are not acting in the interests of the Ukrainian people or its demands. The internal forces are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite who see an opportunity, not so much for Ukraine, but for themselves. The external forces are those Western countries with geopolitical interests in Ukraine, especially the United States. It is acknowledged that the emotions of those fighting against the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych and for democratic reform were truly genuine. However, these same emotions were also manipulated by the above mentioned internal and external forces, which sought to achieve their own aims in Ukraine and which are not seriously interested in the genuine, fundamental reform of the country.

Outside the EU, there is the Moscow-backed option of the Eurasian Union. Casting common stereotypes about corruption in Russia aside, the Eurasian Union and Russia actually do offer impressive results to Ukraine. Regardless of Putin’s questionable democratic credentials, it is apparent that he has managed to stabilize the situation in Russia, especially from where it was in the 1990s. The economy is stable and growing. The middle class is growing. The birthrate is growing and not just in “national” republics like Chechnya but in the Slavic Russian heartland as well. Corruption is decreasing (slowly, but still decreasing — Russia ranked 143 on Transparency International’s CPI in 2007 and last year ranked 127, still very corrupt but a significant improvement nonetheless). Alcoholism too is decreasing (albeit again, slowly).

At the same time, Russia still has many problems. Poverty remains a serious issue and Putin, though reigning in several oligarchs, has not reigned in all of them. Though the print media is free in Russia, television, from which many Russians get their news, entertainment, and information is still controlled by the government.  In addition to all of this, the most daunting task facing the Eurasian Union idea is its lack of a coherent vision. The EU presents itself as supportive of human rights, democracy, reform, etc. By contrast, the Eurasian Union, which is a direct descendant of earlier integration efforts in the post-Soviet space, does not really have a set of ideals, aside from the natural historical, cultural, and economic links that bind the ex-Soviet countries. What the Eurasian Union needs is a common vision and, in this regard, the best would most likely be a common social democratic vision. Such a vision would be a natural fit for populations in the ex-Soviet space suffering from widespread poverty and joblessness and who are somewhat used to leftist economic models, given the Soviet experience.

The Eurasian Union also needs to promote itself as a “union of equals,” meaning that all of its members should have a stake in it.  In this respect, all the national languages (not just Russian but Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, etc.) should have equal status in the union as well.  Like in the European Union, all documents regarding the Eurasian Union should be translated into all of the state languages of each member state.  Such a policy would make the Eurasian Union far more attractive to the former Soviet states and would demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding toward national cultures.  By contrast, campaigns to have ex-Soviet states adopt Russian as a co-official language will fail because the republics will only perceive this as an “imperial” endeavor.  In other words, Russian is already widely spoken in these countries.  Why push the issue and create a problem where there is none?  As Mikhail Gorbachev (one of the leading advocates of post-Soviet integration) has stated, if the Eurasian Union is to work and succeed, it must be a real union of equals, not an empire.

Overall, whatever the choice Ukrainians make, they must realize that they cannot simply “sign up” to join this union or that union and expect instant reform.  True reform can only come ultimately from the Ukrainians themselves.

Abashidze-Karasin Meeting Today

Georgia's Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Georgia’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Today, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, will meet with his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin in Prague to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries and to lay the groundwork for a future meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since 2008.  The Abashidze-Karasin summit was  originally scheduled for March 4-5 but was postponed twice.

The stakes are relatively high for both Tbilisi and Moscow. From a geostrategic perspective, Moscow specifically needs Georgia as part of its planned Eurasian Customs Union. Not only would it geographically link Russia with prospective Eurasian Union member Armenia, but it would also discourage further Western efforts to expand its geopolitical and energy interests into former Soviet territory. Political circles in the West, and particularly Washington, view Georgia as a critical part of its efforts to gain access to natural gas and oil reserves in the Caspian basin and Central Asia.

Moscow views this expansion as a threat to its security. Consequently, Russia has been reaching out to Georgia in recent months. Its efforts include both Medvedev’s August  invitation to Tbilisi to join the Eurasian Union and Putin’s friendly comments toward Georgians during his December press conference. In the meantime, the West has been also reaching out to Georgia, expanding the presence of the EU and NATO, and taking advantage of the fact that Georgia has not yet fully restored its relationship with Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

The post-Saakashvili Georgian Dream government kept the pursuit of the both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as leverage in its relations with Moscow. The major force behind the party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a patriot in his own right who can be best described as neither pro-Western nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. Whoever can offer Ivanishvili, and by extension Georgia, the best deal, Tbilisi will accept. So far, the West recently increased its efforts to bring Georgia fully into its camp. It has moved up the date of Georgia’s planned signing of the EU Association Agreement to June and has discussed the possibility of granting Georgia a NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the next NATO summit in Wales in September. Yet, unlike his predecessor Saakashvili, Ivanishvili and his party have not ruled out the Russian option completely.  In September 2013, just six days after neighboring Armenia formally reversed its course on its EU Association Agreement in favor of Eurasian Union membership, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too may consider joining the Moscow-backed union “if it will be advantageous for our country.”

In plain Georgian, this means that if Moscow wants to see Georgia join its Eurasian Customs Union, then Georgia needs to be enticed to join. Tbilisi will not accept any solution that would involve forgoing claims to its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Significantly, Ivanishvili and others in his Georgian Dream party have placed more emphasis on Georgian unity than any other issue. For Georgians, the unity of their state, including all of its historic and ethnically distinct regions is a top priority, even more so than EU or NATO membership.

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

In a December interview with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter Sophie Shevardnadze on the Moscow-backed news service RT, Georgia’s new Prime Minister Irakli Gabribashvili, expressed his sadness at the present situation vis-a-vis Georgia’s breakaway regions. While acknowledging the mistakes of Georgia’s earlier post-Soviet governments, Gabribashvili stated “we are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us.” He also stated that “if, as a hope – I am quite optimistic about this issue – the Russian government decides one day to reset relations with Georgia by means of peaceful conflict resolution, it will be the best case scenario.”

Consequently, only a peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways involving a federal solution would be the best possible outcome, satisfying all parties in the dispute. Such a solution would ensure Moscow’s security in the region, the unity of the Georgian state, and, most importantly, the ethnic rights of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes.

However, if Moscow tries to entice Georgia to join the Eurasian Union without any incentive for a peace deal on its breakaway regions, then the situation could become very dangerous. If Tbilisi were to make a U-turn on the EU and NATO without any significant concessions from Moscow, then Euromaidan-style civil unrest could break out in Georgia, led by Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). Kiev-style violence and unrest is especially concerning for a country like Georgia, which experienced a very violent civil war in the 1990s. If the UNM were to launch a revolt in Tbilisi, succeed in overthrowing the potentially friendly Georgian Dream government, and replacing it with a staunchly pro-Western nationalist government, then it would be a geopolitical nightmare for Moscow.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Already the Georgian government is taking precautions in the case of such an eventuality. Prosecutions and questionings of UNM lawmakers and activists, including former President Saakashvili, on various unresolved controversies have increased in recent weeks. Also, Georgia’s Interior Ministry recently spoke of concerns with regard to UNM launching a Maidan-style revolution. Prime Minister Garibashvili has responded by declaring that “no one will dare to stir destabilization in this country while we are in the government” and that “if anyone has any such desire or attempt, they will be strictly punished.”  Indeed, in light of the recent Ukraine crisis, the UNM has become increasingly aggressive, nationalistic, and Russophobic, calling for sanctions against Russia by Georgia, an end to any diplomatic communication with Moscow, and for denial of “Russian aggression against Georgia” to be criminalized. From his base in Ukraine as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government, Saakashvili has been particularly provocative, not only against his traditional enemy Russian President Putin, but also his domestic arch-rival Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream government, which Saakashvili dismisses as “completely worthless.”

Certainly, the UNM could try to launch a Maidan-style revoltion even if Moscow does grant Tbilisi concessions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, its effectiveness would be greatly diluted given its already declining popularity and the fact that a peace resolution on the two breakaways would seriously undermine their credibility even further among the Georgian public. Conversely, if Moscow attempted to entice Georgia into the Eurasian Union with no concessions on the breakaways, it would create an angry backlash in Georgian society on which the UNM could easily capitalize to launch a “Georgian Maidan” in Tbilisi. Saakashvili might even take advantage of this to restore his political career and return to the Georgian presidency in a coup d’état.

Given this, Russia has to very cautious and very prudent. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008 has served its purpose by discrediting and neutralizing Saakashvili and by illustrating to the West the potential dangers of the Kosovo precedent.  Now Moscow has to consider its strategic priorities.  Specifically, Russia must ensure its security in the region as well as the overall stability of the Caucasus.

If Moscow can entice Tbilisi into its Eurasian Union, then this would be a major diplomatic success. If not, Russia will continue to be vulnerable to Western expansionism, not just in the Caucasus but in Central Asia as well.  Much of this depends on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting as well as any future meeting between the Georgian and Russian leaderships. Already there are some concerns because a Georgian TV crew was detained yesterday for accidentally crossing the border into breakaway South Ossetia. Given Moscow’s concerns regarding Georgia, releasing these journalists should be a top priority, which in turn would build trust and confidence between both sides.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

Moldova and Transnistria: An Overview

Updated and revised on 20 September 2016 with additional information, including the economic and political roots of the Transnistrian conflict (in addition to the historical factors). Please note that this entry was originally written in April 2014 and thus does not cover subsequent political developments in Moldova, such as the rise of the Euroskeptical and pro-Moscow Party of Socialists and Patria-Rodina bloc. It also does not cover subsequent events in Ukraine, such as Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment to the governorship of the Odessa Oblast.

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria have been in the news a lot lately. I will attempt to give some historical background to this complex borderland in my analysis below.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program included within its scope the six countries of the former Soviet west. These were Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Caucasus. Of the six, Belarus and Azerbaijan expressed little interest in the project. However, the remaining four states – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – actively participated in it. The motives of these states’ involvement in the EaP varies. In the cases of Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the leaderships of these countries used the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West to get the best terms for their countries. Armenia’s Sargsyan and Georgia’s Ivanishvili have both played this chess game especially well as their countries have a history of playing Great Powers off of each other to their own advantage. In this respect, they are neither categorically “pro-Russian” nor “pro-Western,” but rather “pro-Armenian” and “pro-Georgian” respectively. Ukraine’s Yanukovych attempted to play this game too but proved far less decisive and pragmatic than his Caucasian counterparts. Meanwhile, the leadership of Moldova has pursued an entirely different path. It seeks to fully free itself from Moscow’s orbit and to integrate into the EU regardless.

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Indeed, if there is one state out of all the EaP countries that is thoroughly committed to Europe and sincerely interested in leaving Moscow’s orbit once and for all, it is Moldova. The leadership in Chișinău, under President Timofti and Prime Minister Leancă, is entirely committed to the idea of firm and total European integration. Additionally, out of all the EaP states, Moldova is arguably in the best position to become a candidate for EU accession geographically, politically, and economically, making it an “easy pill to swallow” by EU standards. Within the EaP, Moldova also represents a very unique case because their main backer within the EU is Romania. Romanian President Traian Băsescu has lobbied hard for Moldova’s integration into the bloc and would never allow his ethnic Latin Vlach cousins to end up outside of the EU. In the early 1990s, Romania was the first country to recognize Moldova’s independence. It also has allowed for Moldovan citizens to obtain Romanian passports. This has caused a large flow of Moldovans to enter the EU “through the back door.”

Historical background

Mihai Eminescu in Prague in 1869

Mihai Eminescu in Prague, 1869

The reasons for the close Romanian-Moldovan relationship are both ethnic and historical. Moldova corresponds almost exactly to the historical Romanian region of Bessarabia, located between the Dniester and Prut rivers. The majority of its population are ethnic Romanians, who speak Romanian. The colors on the Moldovan flag are almost exactly the same as those on the Romanian flag. Likewise, both countries consider the Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu to be their national poet. Along with a good portion of eastern Romania, Bessarabia had once formed a major portion of the old Vlach-speaking principality of Moldavia. In 1812, it was annexed by the Russian Empire, but after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the region’s local leaders formed a National Council (Sfatul Ţării) and voted to join the Kingdom of Romania in 1918. It remained a part of Greater Romania for much of the interwar period.

As a challenge to Romania’s control of Bessarabia, the Bolsheviks created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1924 in Soviet Ukraine. Most of the territory of the Moldavian ASSR corresponds to the now-breakaway region of Transnistria. Inhabited primarily by a mixed population of East Slavs and Romanians, this territory was never part of Bessarabia or the historic principality of Moldavia. The Soviets instead used the region as a means of arguing that the Moldovans were not a branch of Romanians but an entirely unique people.

“Scholars from the West, in particular the German ethnographer Gustav Weigand, had noted earlier in the century that Romanian-speakers in Bessarabia and Bukovina spoke a dialect distinct from those in the Romanian kingdom,” wrote historian Charles King in his excellent overview, The Moldovans, “but these differences were no more striking than regional variations inside Romania itself. In the MASSR, however, these distinctions were imbued with political meaning.” These dialectal differences served as the basis for the creation of a new “Moldovan” language, which, despite its Cyrillic alphabet, was virtually identical to Romanian.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows "Greater Romania" including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows the interwar Kingdom of Romania including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

In June 1940, the USSR annexed Bessarabia as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Most of the area was united with much of the old Moldavian ASSR (modern Transnistria) to form the new “Moldovan SSR.” When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Romania under the fascist leadership of Ion Antonescu joined the German war effort. The Romanian forces not only regained Bessarabia from the Soviets but pressed on further east to take all of the territory between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers, including the historic city of Odessa. The new territory, administered by Romania, was called “Transnistria.” Hitler granted it to Antonesu as compensation for giving Transylvania to Horthy’s Hungary in the Second Vienna Award. The Romanian administration of this “Transnistria” was very brutal for the local population, especially for the Jews. When the tide turned in the war, the region was recovered by the Soviets along with Romanian-speaking Bessarabia. By the end of the war, the 1940 borders between the Soviet Union and Romania were now reestablished.

With the onset of perestroika, nationalist elites in Moldova began to gain power and sought to reunite their republic with Romania. However, political concerns prevented this from occurring. Reunification was especially rejected by the people of Transnistria who bristled at the new nationalistic rhetoric from Chișinău.  In contrast to the nationalist elites gaining influence in the capital, the Transnistrians argued that they had never been part of historic Bessarabia.  Many also still had memories of the brutal wartime administration of Transnistria by Antonesu’s Romania. “The Transnistrian war was in no sense about ancient hatreds between eastern Latinity and Slavdom,” wrote King, “but history did play an important role.”

No less significant to the conflict were economic, social, and political factors.  Whereas most of Moldova west of the Dniester was largely rural and agricultural, Transnistria was mostly urban and industrial.  Moreover, after the war, the region became an important industrial center in the Soviet economy and played a significant role in the Soviet military industrial complex.  “After 1945,” wrote King, “Transnistria became a central component of the Soviet defense sector and its heavy industry.  Some four-fifths of the region’s population was employed in industry, construction, and the service sector.”

The industrialization of Transnistria in the Soviet era also fueled the migration of East Slavs into the region, thus making it more distinct from the rest of Moldova and more “Soviet.”  “Internal immigrants arrived to work in the new factories, increasing the Russian and Ukrainian portions of the population,” wrote King.  “The key issue… was not how Russian the region became after the war, but how quintessentially Soviet… The primary loyalty of individuals in the region was not to Russia – even though most spoke Russian and had ties to the Russian republic – but to the Soviet Union.”

Attempts at centralization by the nationalist government in Chișinău only exacerbated the differences with Transnistria.  “Soviet” elites in the latter began reacting to the nationalist elites in Chișinău.  “Already in the late 1980s,” wrote King, “there developed a dynamic that would culminate in full-scale war by 1992: Every move in Chișinău that pulled the republic further away from Moscow was met by a countermove in Transnistria that drew the region itself farther away from Chișinău.”  This eventually led to Transnistria militarily breaking away from Chișinău to form its own self-proclaimed republic in 1992.

Moldovan elites were likewise concerned about the Gagauz, a unique group of Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christian people whose homeland straddles the southern boundaries between Moldova and Ukraine. After the Soviet collapse, the Gagauz “made common cause with the Transnistrians” but did not go so far as to proclaim their own independent republic. Still, in December 1994, Chișinău granted them their own autonomous unit in the south known as Gagauzia. The situation has been stable and the Gagauz have likewise been granted the right to secede if Moldova decides to reunite with Romania. Chișinău offered a similar deal to Transnistria, but there has been no resolution on this to date.

In the 2000s, the head of the Moldovan Communist Party, Vladimir Voronin was elected President of the country, the first such case in the former USSR. Though claiming to be supportive of European integration, Voronin, a highly Russified Moldovan, also sought to expand ties with Russia. However, his administration did little to improve the lives of everyday Moldovans, and poverty and corruption remained major problems. A victory for the Communist Party in Moldova’s April 2009 parliamentary election, though hailed as free and fair by European observers, sparked major protests and civil unrest. Student demonstrators clashed with police, stormed the parliament, and carried the flags of Romania and the European Union, chanting slogans like “We are Romanians!” and “Down with Communism!” At least five students died because of the riots. President Voronin responded by placing the blame for the unrest on Bucharest, which denied any involvement. Three months later, Moldovan state prosecutor Valeriu Gurbulea confirmed that Romania had nothing to do with the protests.

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Though successful in the April 2009 elections, the newly elected parliament was unable to elect a President in June. Consequently, Voronin had to dissolve parliament, thus paving the way for snap parliamentary elections in July 2009. This election brought to power a new governing coalition of liberal political parties collectively known as the Alliance for European Integration (AEI). Voronin resigned from the presidency in September but the AEI was unable to elect a president until March 2012, when the independent judge Nicolae Timofti was finally voted into office.

As their name implies, the top priority of the AEI and its successor the Pro-European Coalition (PEC) has been EU integration and EU membership. It took advantage of Moldova’s position with the Polish-Swedish EaP initiative and quickly emerged as the most progressive ex-Soviet state in terms of EU reforms. Among other things, the AEI advanced the issue of visa liberalization in Moldova. On April 3, 2014, it was announced that there will now be a visa-free regime between Moldova and the EU’s Schengen Area. Moldova also confirmed the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit to be signed in June 2014.

Further, under the AEI and PEC, Chișinău also moved increasingly closer toward Romania. In December 2009, the AEI announced that it would be removing the barbed wire fence separating their country from Romania. On December 5, 2013, the PEC recognized Romanian as the official language of the Moldovan republic. This move was welcomed by Romania’s Traian Băsescu who has long favored reunification with Moldova. On the eve on the Vilnius Summit, he stated:

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

When a nation has the opportunity to be together, it should not give up. It may not happen straightaway, but it will happen one day, because blood is thicker than water. I think this is the right time to say that we have this objective, if Moldovan people want this. I am convinced that if Moldova wants to unite, then Romania will accept.

He also stated that after joining the EU and NATO, Romania’s third priority must be reunification with Moldova, though given official Chișinău’s concerns with ethnic minorities such as the Gagauz, it would likely be less enthusiastic about taking such a step.

Băsescu further cautioned that “the big risk for Moldova would be a treatment with arrogance by EU – be aware, I use the word with responsibility – which would not take into account the electoral realities in Moldova.” Moldova still faces many challenges to its EU road, both domestic and foreign. Internally, Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party advocate a strongly pro-Russian stance, ultimately favoring membership in the Eurasian Customs Union. The Communists adhere to a strong Moldovenist position, advocating a unique “Moldovan” identity and firmly rejecting the idea that the “Moldovan language” is in fact the Romanian language. “Moldova can become a European country only by joining the Customs Union,” the 72-year-old Voronin told a crowd of largely elderly anti-EU activists from the Communist Party.

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

However, Voronin and the Communists are not a spent force. As Băsescu alludes, they have a substantial following within Moldova. Though they lost the July 2009 parliamentary election to the AEI coalition, the Communists still garnered 44.69% of the vote. They poll especially well in the north of the country and also among the substantial East Slavic minority of Moldova proper, which numbers about 14% of the total population. They also do well among the Gagauz in the south who fear that closer relations with Romania could threaten their hard-won autonomous status. Consequently, the possibility of Moldova’s pro-EU coalition losing to the communists is very real for Moldova in terms of its future geopolitical orientation. Still, for the immediate future, this risk is mitigated by the fact that Moldova’s next parliamentary election will not be held until November 2014, several months after Chișinău is set to sign the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU in June 2014.

There are also external challenges. Like Ukraine and Armenia, Moldova too is heavily dependent on Russian energy. It currently imports all of its natural gas from Russia, though the newly-inaugurated Iași-Ungheni pipeline with Romania promises to undermine this total dependence. A wine-producing country, Moldova also exports 28% of its wine production to Russia (for comparison, 47% of Chișinău’s exports go to the EU). A recent embargo by Moscow of Moldovan wine, due to an alleged trace of plastic contamination found in barrels of devin, has been a serious issue for the country. Some claim that the ban was politically motivated as a means of pressuring Chișinău to change its pro-EU geopolitical orientation, an assertion that Moscow has flatly denied. In addition, as many as half a million Moldovans are estimated to work illegally in Russia. Significantly, approximately the same number have Romanian passports and have departed the country to work in Western Europe, with Traian Băsescu provocatively claiming the number to be much higher, up to 1.5 million.

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in the February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

However, Moscow’s biggest cards to play with regard to Chisinău’s EU ambitions are its distinct ethnic regions of Gagauzia and Transnistria. Gagauzia is not a breakaway region but rather an autonomous unit comprised almost entirely of ethnic Gagauz. Though content with remaining part of Moldova, the Gagauz are concerned about how joining the EU could affect their future, especially given Romania’s involvement. Recently, the Gagauz leadership held a referendum in February 2014 that rejected the country’s pro-EU aspirations and reaffirmed its right to secede from Moldova in the case of reunification with Romania. Though condemned by the Moldovan court as “unconstitutional,” this referendum was clearly intended as a warning to Chișinău against the possibility of a future reunification with Romania in which the Gagauz autonomy might be threatened. For the record, ex-communist Romania has consistently refused to grant autonomous status for any ethnic minority in its country including, most notably, the ethnic Hungarians of the Székely Land. Traian Băsescu himself has ruled out any possibility of a future Hungarian autonomy. Following the referendum, the pro-EU Moldovan government sought to reassure the Gagauz that a reunification with Bucharest was not imminent, and that the EU will actively work to better guarantee their minority rights. Whether or not the Gagauz will be adequately convinced of Moldova’s European choice remains to be seen. If left unresolved, this issue could devolve into a very serious crisis.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Most significantly of all, there is the unresolved conflict over Transnistria. The majority of Transnistria’s population is East Slavic (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who collectively make up 60% in total according to the 2004 census) and Russian is the dominant language. Politically, the pro-Russian orientation is strong here and is reinforced by the presence of the Russian 14th Army (now known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova). Aleksandr Lebed, the Bonapartist Russian strongman from the 1990s, played a key role in Transnistria’s 1992 war of independence from Moldova proper. He viewed himself as the liberator of Transnistria from the “fascists” and “ideological heirs of Antonesu” in Chisinău. He is regarded as a hero here.

Towards a potential solution

While Moldova is officially committed to returning Transnistria under its rule, it is unclear what benefit this would bring to the country as a whole. For one thing, Transnistria does not have a deep historical relationship with Moldova. Even the poet Eminescu in his famous work Doina spoke of the Romanian nation as only stretching “from the Dniester to the Tisza.” Unlike Georgia’s conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in which the Georgians attach deep emotional and historical significance to their breakaway regions, the same really cannot be said for Transnistria and Moldova. Transnistria was attached to Moldova proper in 1940 and thus was only associated with it for 52 years until its secession in 1992. Compare that to the Georgian-Abkhazian or Georgian-Ossetian relationships which extend back several centuries into history.

Indeed, most Moldovans, according to various opinion polls, are indifferent toward Transnistria. For the vast majority, the issue ranks as the ninth or tenth priority for the population of Moldova proper. Fewer than two percent consider the issue to be the most pressing, while “five percent consider it second, well behind issues such as poverty, crime, or inflation.” According to one observer, “this stands in striking contrast to the much higher preoccupation with frozen conflicts in other post-Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia.”

In addition to this, Transnistria can be viewed as more of a major economic liability for Chișinău than a benefit. Though Moldova currently owes virtually no debt for its gas imports from Russia, Transnistria owes approximately $4 billion to Gazprom. Moscow presently holds Chișinău accountable for this debt. The only way to get rid of it would be for Moldova to entirely relinquish its claims to the disputed territory.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Meanwhile, Transnistria’s current President Yevgeny Shevchuk, while not the Kremlin’s choice in the Transnistrian election, has continued to maintain strong ties with Moscow. An ethnic Ukrainian, Shevchuk studied in both Ukraine and Russia and was elected as a reformer committed to challenging corruption and oligarchy, not as an advocate for reunification with Moldova. After his election in 2012, he immediately met with Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest associates and an influential member of his inner-circle. He also advocated that Transnistria adopt the Russian ruble and Russian laws, with the ultimate aim of Transnistria joining the Eurasian Union.

Observing this scenario, it seems that while Moldova proper is increasingly moving closer toward the EU, Transnistria is moving very much in the opposite direction toward the Eurasian Union. A potential, logical, and peaceful solution to this problem would be the formal separation of these two entities from each other. Moldova’s pro-EU leadership could recognize Transnistria and relinquish all claims to it, while working with the authorities in Tiraspol to delineate the border between the two states.  Given Transnistria’s limited viability as an independent entity, Moscow could work with Tiraspol and Ukraine to consider the possibility of reuniting the former with the latter.   A solution like this would satisfy Transnistria’s pro-“Soviet” and pro-Slavic sentiments and would absolve Moldova of any lingering debt to Gazprom. It would also help reduce any sort of ill feelings in Ukraine toward Moscow for its recent incorporation of Crimea.  However, such a resolution is entirely contingent on the people and the elites of Moldova and Transnistria and on how the situation in Ukraine develops.  It could only work if a new government more amiable toward Moscow and Tiraspol emerges in Kiev.

It also should be noted that Moldova proper is of marginal significance to Moscow. The country is poor, landlocked, and Romanian-speaking, with few natural resources and very little geostrategic value. It is already very much integrated with the EU and a sizeable number of its citizens already have Romanian/EU passports. Additionally, the inauguration of the Iași-Ungheni pipeline will likely substantially reduce Moldovan energy dependence on Moscow. Thus, the best and most logical solution to the ongoing Transnistria problem would be its split from the Moldovan state and its eventual reunification with Ukraine.