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Russian Roulette In The EU Neighborhood

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A Moldovan protester holds a sign reading 'Europe Help Us.' Events in Chisinau have shown unexpected instability just beyond the EU's borders.

A Moldovan protester holds a sign reading 'Europe Help Us.' Events in Chisinau have shown unexpected instability just beyond the EU's borders.

Russia has six bullets with which to wound or kill the European Union's Eastern Partnership, and put the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy out of its misery in the process.

It is generally accepted that the project is at the mercy of Moscow, the old colonial master of the six privileged European neighbors: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

As the EU scrambles to assemble those countries' representatives for what is hoped to be a portentous launch summit for the project in Prague in early May, officials in Brussels fear to contemplate the consequences of failure.

In recent months, EU fears of failure focused primarily on Belarus. But last week's violent unrest in Moldova has driven home the point that each country represents a potential vulnerability. The unpredictable antics of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka are merely the tip of the iceberg; massive structural problems lurk beneath the waterline.

The EU's strategy of promoting its values by means of "passive aggression" is predicated on a deceptively simple premise -- it requires persuasion, dialogue, a partner willing to engage. The events in Moldova -- followed by another round of protests in Georgia -- show that the legitimacy of even relatively stable partner governments remains heavily contested.

Large-scale civil unrest retains the potential to bring down governments by unconstitutional means. Or it could impel the governments to respond to protests in ways unacceptable to the EU, no matter how eager the bloc might be for dialogue -- as Chisinau appears to have just done.

The EU is congenitally unable to handle instability. Without a stable partner, the EU's "invisible hand" of piecemeal incentives designed to bring about incremental change has no leverage.

Russia’s Main Weapon

Moscow has been long resentful of the expansion of EU influence into what used to be the territory of the Soviet Union. The vulnerability to instability of the EU's eastern designs gives Russia a very potent weapon to counter the spread of its influence.

Russia certainly has the motive. Speaking at a recent international conference in Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attacked the EU's Eastern Partnership as a ploy to acquire a "sphere of influence."

Russia has also demonstrated a willingness to act on its grievances. The war against Georgia in August 2008 and the renewal of the gas squeeze on Ukraine earlier this year speak volumes. Loans dangled by Moscow before cash-strapped governments in Belarus, Ukraine, and Armenia are reported to have political strings attached. Azerbaijan has been courted with generous offers for its entire gas production.

But the events in Moldova show the answer could be much simpler. Fomenting instability would take very little engineering, assuming an element of imagination.

Moscow has been unable to bring about regime change in either Georgia or Ukraine, but it looks as though it may not need to in order to stymie these countries' westward march. Their leaders are starting to get nervous and turn on their own -- thus hamstringing their countries' progress towards democracy. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week claimed the opposition is being financed by Russian oligarchs.

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko accused Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of high treason in January after she signed a deal with Russia defusing the gas dispute between the two countries.

In Moldova, a modicum of encouragement for the outgoing unreconstructed Communist President Vladimir Voronin may have been all it took. Apart from the reports of brutal violence against protesters and mass arrests, Voronin went a long way towards alienating Romania, Moldova's natural ally in the EU, by accusing Bucharest of having had a hand in last week's unrest.

Soft Power

Intriguingly, Russia also demonstrated a newfound interest in the OSCE's electoral observation capabilities, which it has consistently maligned for the past few years. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko was quoted on April 9 as having appealed to "international observers" to reject appeals for a rerun of the Moldovan ballot or a recount of the votes.

The absence of any one of the leaders of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia, for whatever reason, from the May 7 summit in Prague would seriously undermine the EU's Eastern Partnership. (The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, more distant from the EU, have a longer leash). The absence of more than one could be fatal for the project.

Should the Eastern Partnership fail, the EU's global reputation would suffer a body blow, for it is the "soft power" component the bloc aspires to contribute in hotspots like Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East.

The ability to project soft power relies on a proven track record. An EU unable to administer that power to countries on its own borders would be in no position to exercise global authority.

An EU ambassadors' meeting in Brussels on April 7, at the height of the Moldovan unrest, provided a good indication of how far the bloc is from being able to implement a cohesive foreign policy. According to an account of the meeting relayed to RFE/RL, the ambassadors admitted they did not have enough information on what was happening. Consequently, much of the debate was highly abstract and undecided over whether or not Chisinau should be a sent a stronger signal of engagement.

With ideas and information in short supply in Brussels, it falls to the individual member states to make decisions. This means, unavoidably, that Paris, Berlin and the other capitals involved will resort to direct, bilateral contacts bypassing Brussels-- a tendency likely to be facilitated by the debilitating governmental crisis in the current holder of the EU presidency, the Czech Republic.

As a result, the locution "the EU wants" is liable to remain an empty formula for the foreseeable future. The EU may have objective interests, but the course it takes on any issue remains a function of the contingent balance of power among its member states.

For this reason, the EU's eastern policy is an easy target, and all that Moscow has to do is pull the trigger.

Ahto Lobjakas is a frequent contributor to RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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