European Charm: Wooing Georgia and Moldova

Article published on Aug. 4, 2014
Article published on Aug. 4, 2014

Wedged be­tween Putin's im­pe­r­ial dreams of grandeur and the mod­ern European cheva­lier of human rights, Geor­gia and Moldova find them­selves in a rather pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion of choos­ing be­tween two would-be prince charm­ings.

On June 27, 2014, the Eu­ro­pean Union ex­tended its ten­ta­cles fur­ther east­ward by sign­ing as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ments with Geor­gia and Moldova, two oft-for­got­ten coun­tries. One lies next to the heart of the con­ti­nent near Ro­ma­nia, while the other is nes­tled deep in the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains on the pe­riph­ery of Eu­rope, bor­der­ing Rus­sia. De­spite their ge­o­graphic dis­tance, both have strug­gled to en­sure their na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion vis à vis the power of Rus­sia and the Eu­ro­pean Union. In­stead, they have been en­tan­gled in a ro­man­tic fairy­tale gone sour. 

Since the fall of the So­viet Union, east­ern Eu­rope has been the site of a love tri­an­gle wor­thy of any Shake­spearen drama. Both dash­ing Rus­sia and al­lur­ing Eu­rope have been try­ing to woo this be­sieged belle for decades. Some states, such as Be­larus, Azer­bai­jan and Ar­me­nia, have re­mained faith­ful to Rus­sia, while oth­ers, in­clud­ing Geor­gia and Moldova, have be­trothed them­selves to Eu­rope. By pledg­ing their al­le­giance openly, both coun­tries face threats of re­tal­i­a­tion from their for­mer So­viet mas­ter with­out the en­sured pro­tec­tion that would come with mem­ber­ship in the Eu­ro­pean Union. 

A De­c­la­ra­tion of Amore 

In Eu­rope's courtship of Geor­gia and Moldova, the as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ment is a pub­lic de­c­la­ra­tion of love, a vow to en­rich each oth­ers' ex­is­tence via the re­la­tion­ship. In ex­change for greater ac­cess to the Eu­ro­pean mar­ket, Tbil­isi and Chisinau com­mit to adopt­ing EU stan­dards such as free mar­ket reg­u­la­tions and qual­ity con­trols. Both al­ready have strong eco­nomic ties to the Bloc: Moldova sends over half of its ex­ports to the EU, while Geor­gia-EU ex­change goods for a com­bined total of 2.7 bil­lion euros. As a ges­ture of their noble in­ten­tions and con­tin­ued Russ­ian bel­liger­ence, cit­i­zens of Moldova were granted visa-free ac­cess to the Schen­gen zone in April, while Geor­gians ea­gerly await their turn. In the case of Geor­gia, the mod­est coun­try has been thrust into a po­si­tion of lead­er­ship in the re­gion, sur­pass­ing its neigh­bours as the new cen­tre of power in the Cau­ca­sus. In re­turn, Geor­gia is of high strate­gic im­por­tance for the EU in order to se­cure en­ergy sup­plies to the con­ti­nent, as Russ­ian sources are no longer cer­tain due to the cur­rent cir­cum­stances. Per­haps, of ut­most im­por­tance, such a pact is the first step down the long route to­wards highly-cov­eted EU mem­ber­ship. 

How­ever, this covenant is most sig­nif­i­cant for cit­i­zens, par­tic­u­larly those who en­vi­sion their fu­ture within the Eu­ro­pean Bloc. "This agree­ment is proof that the Moldovan gov­ern­ment has done at least some­thing right in their at­tempt of im­ple­ment­ing re­forms," says Va­le­ria Munteanu, from Moldova. "Even though there is a long way to go, it is ful­fill­ing to have the EU val­i­date Moldova’s ef­forts through this agree­ment."

"This agree­ment has an im­por­tant sym­bolic mean­ing to Geor­gians," ex­plains Christina Tashke­vich, a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist from Tbil­isi. "We’ve com­mit­ted our­selves to be part of an Eu­ro­pean fam­ily, and that’s why sym­bol­i­cally it means to many Geor­gians as this agree­ment is some sort of val­i­da­tion of this sta­tus of a Eu­ro­pean (West­ern) state for Geor­gia. And of course, ad­di­tion­ally, and maybe more im­por­tantly, this agree­ment serves as an im­por­tant mes­sage to Rus­sia, that Geor­gia is mov­ing fur­ther from the Russ­ian in­flu­ence and never would be back under Moscow’s heel again."

Menage à Trois

It is tricky to ma­neu­ver through the per­ilous threat of the seething jeal­ousy of a lover scorned. Rus­sia's pos­ses­sive­ness of its for­mer satel­lites has not damp­ened; it is cur­rently en­gaged in ter­ri­to­r­ial dis­putes with Geor­gia and sup­ports pro-Russ­ian groups in Moldova. In 2008, Rus­sia un­of­fi­cially an­nexed two Geor­gian re­gions: South Os­se­tia and Abk­hazia, lead­ing to an armed con­flict that jeop­ar­dised the del­i­cate peace in the area. In a sit­u­a­tion rem­i­nis­cent of Ukraine, pro-Russ­ian sep­a­ratists have been oc­cu­py­ing Transnis­tria, a long strip of east­ern Moldova, since the early 1990s. Is it pos­si­ble to co-ex­ist peace­fully with Rus­sia while in a union with Eu­rope?

"In a per­fect world that would be pos­si­ble," laments Va­le­ria. "Moldova has never been an ag­gres­sive coun­try; on the con­trary the ag­gres­sion has al­ways come from the out­side. The size of the ter­ri­tory, the num­ber of the pop­u­la­tion and lim­ited re­sources is not in favour of Moldova being in con­flict with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Over his­tory, the ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion of Moldova has cre­ated a strong in­ter­est in Rus­sia, mainly due to its prox­im­ity to the Black Sea and Eu­rope."

"I think Rus­sia would grow more and more upset to see Geor­gia’s closer in­te­gra­tion into the EU," wor­ries Christina. "There­fore, we should al­ways stay watch­ful in our re­la­tions with Rus­sia, and judg­ing from the im­pe­ri­al­is­tic am­bi­tions of the Russ­ian pres­i­dent (Vladimir Putin — Ed.), the re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and Geor­gia would stay in a tense, or even hos­tile, mood well into the fu­ture."

Moldova is al­ready pay­ing the price of an agree­ment with Eu­rope, as Rus­sia ap­plies eco­nomic pres­sure via trade re­stric­tions, and mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion aimed at in­cit­ing up­ris­ings in sen­si­tive re­gions like Transnis­tria. On July 22, Russia banned Moldovan fruit from their market, on top of the restrictions on wine imports. Although described by Moscow as temporary, it is unsure if the ban will ever be lifted. 

"Un­for­tu­nately, Moldova is vul­ner­a­ble from many points of view, such as eco­nomic, so­cial and mil­i­tary," ex­plains Va­le­ria. "Rus­sia is well aware of that and, as you can see from the media al­most each day, Rus­sia is in­tro­duc­ing new trade re­stric­tions for im­ports com­ing from Moldova and this is very much con­nected with the As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment with the EU. It be­comes clear that the de­ci­sions taken by the Moldovan gov­ern­ment to tighten the re­la­tions with the EU are not pleas­ing the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment. It is a tough time for Moldova be­cause the re­la­tions with the EU are still at its in­cip­i­ent phase and some of the Russ­ian re­stric­tions are ac­tu­ally fright­en­ing the pop­u­la­tion. Moldova could have a peace­ful re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia and the EU, only when Rus­sia starts re­gard­ing Moldova as a truly in­de­pen­dent coun­try, ca­pa­ble of de­cid­ing its own des­tiny, and not its dis­obe­di­ent ex-So­viet child who needs to be pun­ished."

A Sul­lied Rep­u­ta­tion

What lays be­yond the bor­ders of the Eu­ro­pean Union re­mains rather mys­te­ri­ous and un­known to the ma­jor­ity of Eu­ro­peans. Both Geor­gia and Moldova are plagued with sul­lied rep­u­ta­tions as de­vel­op­ing post-So­viet waste­lands or lit­tle clones of Rus­sia de­prived of democ­racy and human rights. Moldova is often de­picted as the  poor­est coun­try in Eu­rope and has earned no­to­ri­ety as one of the biggest sup­pli­ers of sex work­ers to the Eu­ro­pean mar­ket. Geor­gia is often con­fused with the Amer­i­can state of the name; some­times it is even ex­cluded from Eu­rope, as it lies at the cross­roads of two con­ti­nents, cre­at­ing a repet­i­tive in­ter­ro­ga­tion of whether it is Eu­ro­pean or Asian. 

De­spite chal­lenges to their Eu­ro­pean­ness, most Geor­gians are clear of their iden­tity. "I can re­mem­ber the words of the late Prime Min­is­ter Zurab Zh­va­nia, when he said in his speech to the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil: 'I am Geor­gian, there­fore I am Eu­ro­pean', " de­clares Christina. "Most Geor­gians think them­selves as part of the Eu­ro­pean fam­ily and strongly be­lieve that we share the same val­ues with the EU coun­tries."

How­ever, times are a-chang­ing, as old stereo­types dis­in­te­grate in an age of glob­al­i­sa­tion. "I’m happy to ob­serve that more and more peo­ple in Eu­rope learn about Geor­gia, are in­ter­ested to come and visit Geor­gia," she re­flects. "But we should con­tinue to work on pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the rich Geor­gian cul­ture and unique­ness in the EU. Some peo­ple still, when they ask me where I come from and hear Geor­gia, think a minute and then ask, 'Oh, is this the coun­try near Rus­sia? You had war with Rus­sia?' Of course, un­der­stand­ably Geor­gia came into the news in 2008 dur­ing the war with Rus­sia, but I think we, as a coun­try, need to work more to show Eu­rope why Geor­gia is unique as it is."

"From my own ex­pe­ri­ence, not many Eu­ro­peans know where Moldova is even lo­cated," says Va­le­ria, sadly. "Moldova has been going through many changes ever since the So­viet Union col­lapsed but it’s still a rel­a­tively new in­de­pen­dent coun­try. Maybe a mis­con­cep­tion about Moldova would be the as­sump­tion that Moldovans are ac­tu­ally Rus­sians. There are still many head­lines cir­cu­lat­ing such as Moldova being the poor­est coun­try of Eu­rope, which some­times makes it sound worse than it ac­tu­ally is. Maybe it is still in­deed so, con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors, but the way I see it, Moldova has huge in­tel­lec­tual and agri­cul­tural re­sources, which are an in­di­ca­tor of po­ten­tial."

Chas­ing the Eu­ro­pean Dream

As Rus­sia height­ens its anti-EU of­fen­sive in for­mer So­viet states, many buckle under the pres­sure ex­erted by Putin. Re­mark­ably, Geor­gia and Moldova, along with Ukraine, have with­stood at­tempts to med­dle in their af­fairs. They are out­liers who rush to ea­gerly em­brace Eu­rope, in an ef­fort to jet­ti­son their trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia, and try their hand at a new ro­mance with the Eu­ro­pean Union. 

"I think there’s def­i­nitely a pos­si­bil­ity for (Geor­gia to join the EU — Ed.). I be­lieve that this agree­ment is cer­tainly a right step in this di­rec­tion, but Geor­gia should not now sit down, relax and think that the job is done. The re­forms in the coun­try should con­tinue, de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions should be straight­ened, as well as the work should con­tinue on fol­low­ing rule of law and pro­tec­tion of human rights. There’s still a lot to be done, and that’s what Geor­gia should focus on."

For Va­le­ria, the long-awaited agree­ment couldn't come soon enough. "To me, it means a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive and maybe even a re­lief that the coun­try is in­ter­ested in of­fer­ing its cit­i­zens new Eu­ro­pean op­por­tu­ni­ties. When giv­ing it an extra thought, at the end of the day, get­ting closer to the EU is about peo­ple — set­ting com­mon val­ues, cre­at­ing frame­works, pro­mot­ing tol­er­ance and free­dom, en­sur­ing a pros­per­ous eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, elim­i­nat­ing bar­ri­ers. I came to the con­clu­sion that Moldovans de­sire most of all to be the own­ers of their own des­tiny, while hav­ing ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties to sus­tain­ their as­pi­ra­tions. There­fore, I am a strong be­liever that the newly-signed As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment with the EU has a much deeper mean­ing than the legal and eco­nomic tech­ni­cal­i­ties of it. It’s more of a sym­bol that the coun­try is fi­nally shift­ing to a mod­ern di­rec­tion."