Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the “five Mogherini principles.” These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.
“Selective Engagement” as the Foundation of the “New Normal”
It was, of course, through compromise that the European External Action Service was able to prevent a split from forming within the European Union on a crucial issue, which turned out to be a historic moment for the organization. We should note in passing that Brussels has thus far been unable to reach a similar consensus on other issues that are of fundamental importance to the European Union, such as the issue of Kosovo, the Israeli–Palestinian settlement, the civil conflict in Venezuela and the expansion of the European Union itself.
In terms of a specific policy, the most significant strategy of the European Union is the fourth of its five guiding principles – “Selective Engagement with Russia.” On the whole, “selective engagement” appeared to be a reasonably logical approach given the “post-Ukrainian reality.” Europe could not conceivably go back to cooperating with Russia the way it had done in the past, turning a blind eye to the dramatic events in Crimea and Donbass, as this would mean it was somehow condoning the “aggressive behaviour of the Kremlin.” Nor was it inclined shut itself off from Moscow completely with another cordon sanitaire, as the latter was key to solving numerous issues of European politics.
The judicious decision was thus made to work with Russia only when and where it would serve the specific interests of the European Union. Mogherini’s statement touched upon potential points of contact with the Russian side, including Iran, Syria, the Middle East as a whole, migration, the fight against terrorism and climate change. “Selective engagement” can be compared to a “buffet” in a restaurant, where patrons serve themselves from a wide selection of dishes instead of being offered a set meal from the menu.
As far as we can tell, the principle of “selective engagement” was mostly supported in Moscow, albeit with little enthusiasm. Generally speaking, cooperation between Russia and the European Union was primarily selective before 2014 anyway, and the prospect of creating a unified “Greater Europe” had more or less fizzled out by the end of the 2000s. This is why, three months after the “five guiding principles” had been announced, the Russian side presented President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of proposals regarding possible areas of “selective engagement” during his visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Of course, the proposals that had been prepared for Juncker primarily reflected the interests and priorities of the Russian side. Thus, there was already friction about who would put on the spread for the “buffet” and who would fill their plates. Nevertheless, cautious hopes were expressed in 2016 that the new approach could indeed work, at least for a transitional period.
Four years down the line and we have no option but to conclude that the principle of “selective engagement” has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.
It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians or public officials or even single out individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure, of “selective engagement.” These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.
Why Mogherini’s Fourth Principle Failed
First of all, there is nothing close to a consensus on either side as to what degree of “selectivity” would be optimal for engagement. There are two distinct camps in the European Union. The first is made up of those who advocate the “historical reconciliation” of Russia and Europe, while the second consists of those who want to stand up to the “Putin regime.” This division remains. Little has happened in the past six years to convince either camp to change its tune or alter the balance of powers between Europe’s “hawks” and “pigeons.” Neither Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, nor the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, nor the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2020 managed to shift the equilibrium in Brussels.
This is why the European Union merely continues to renew the 2014 sanctions, each time announcing a victory for “European unity.” Agreeing on such an important and very specific issue as the feasibility of building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has proved impossible. Perhaps this is why the substantive content of the “selective engagement” with Moscow has never been brought up as a topic for serious political discussion in Brussels. After all, any discussion in this vein would inevitably jeopardize the much-vaunted “European unity,” laying bare the fundamental incompatibility of opinions within the European Union regarding the state of and prospects for relations with Moscow.
While a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle has raged among individual EU member states for the last four years in Brussels regarding the limits and possibilities of “selective engagement” with Russia, in Moscow, the concept of “selective engagement” continues to be a field of an equally fierce confrontation of influential institutional and group interests. Europe does not have a consistent long-term strategy with regard to Moscow, but Russia does have such a strategy with regard to Brussels.
In some cases, the confrontation between Moscow’s “Europhobes” and its “Europhiles” even spills over into the public space. For example, existing official and semi-official assessments of the impact of the EU sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions on the Russian economy, as well as estimates regarding the success of the import substitution strategy vary greatly, from the clearly alarmist to the unabashedly triumphant. If the parties cannot work out their own positions on the matter, then how can we expect them to find common ground in negotiations with one another?
What is more, Russia and the European Union are very different players on the international stage, with different comparative advantages and different sets of instruments of power and influence. Significant asymmetries of both interests and opportunities between the “Russian elephant” and the “European whale” are inevitable. And this makes it extremely difficult to find a “fair” balance of interests in each specific case. For example, Mogherini talked about the desirability of working with Moscow on the issue of North Korea, but what exactly can Brussels offer Moscow in this area? Moscow, for its part, is trying to get the European Union to recognize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an equal partner; however, the economic potential of the EAEU is minuscule compared to that of the EU.
Moreover, while Moscow takes pride in its sovereignty and the fact that it can make independent decisions, the sovereignty of the European Union is limited one way or another by the one-sided nature of its relations with the United States. And this means that attempts to create a balance between the European Union and Russia will ultimately turn into a far more complicated game involving the decidedly scalene Brussels–Moscow–Washington triangle. Even if there is still some hope for the “Russian elephant” and “European whale” to come to an agreement, the “American tyrannosaurus” will do its best to make sure that does not happen.
Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues in the here and now. For example, offering mutual concessions on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal or resolving issues related to the de-escalation of the Libyan Civil War are acceptable solutions. These areas can, to a certain degree, be isolated from the general background of relations, while at the same time preserving individual islands of cooperation in the vast ocean of confrontation.
But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic in nature. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in stability in neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a common vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a shared view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.
Nikolay Chernyshevsky vs Immanuel Kant
Anyone in Russia who has at least the vaguest memories of reading Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel What Is to Be Done? at school ought to remember the theory of “rational egoism” that he loved so much. Nothing can be done about a person’s inherent egoism, and there is no point hoping for them to change their nature and suddenly become selflessly altruistic. Chernyshevsky was a militant atheist and categorically rejected the existence of Kant’s “moral law” in such people.
However, according to Chernyshevsky, people do not come into conflict with one another because of egoism as such, but rather because of how they perceive their own interests. Most people are so focused on achieving their near-term goals, serving their basic instincts and acting in a reactionary manner that they not only ignore the interests of those around them, but also effectively neglect their own longer-term ambitions. This inevitably impacts both the egoist’s environment and the egoist himself.
“Rational egoism” proposes articulating these interests in a “rational” manner, that is, by taking the interests and wishes of others into account and building a rational hierarchy of diverse desires, propensities and personal tasks – all without denying a person the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Reason softens the most dangerous and destructive manifestations of egoism without encroaching on the fundamental features of human nature.
As applied to international relations, the theory of “rational egoism” could be interpreted as “enlightened realism.” An analogue of Kant’s “moral law” in this case would be the unity of fundamental values between Russia and the European Union. However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead. That is, not on non-dogmatic religious views of Immanuel Kant, but instead on the atheist rationalism of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.
It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.
Why We Need “Enlightened Realism”
The noun realism in this formulation implies a sober assessment of the specific moment we are experiencing, as well as the constraints associated with it. We cannot go back 20 years to the “honeymoon” period of Moscow–Brussels relations. And even if we could, it would only mean a return to a situation of “bad infinity” and the very same problems that continued to pile up and eventually led to the 2014 crisis. “Realism” forces us to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, we will not be able to find a solid institutional basis for developing relations that is acceptable for both sides in the foreseeable future.
Relations between Europe and Russia are going to be shaky for a long time to come, regardless of the paths of political transit that have already been embarked upon in the East and the West. Irrespective of who will be in power in Moscow and Brussels five or ten years down the line and regardless of whether or not we can reach a fair and satisfactory solution to the “Ukrainian issue” during this time. The difficulties are caused by differences in geographical location, historical experience, existing traditions and the psychologies of the respective peoples. We cannot merely draw up some kind of framework agreement or charter to get past the crisis; this did not work in the past, and it will not work now.
The noun enlightened places the concept of “realism” into a certain framework. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump can be characterized as “realistic” (and also pragmatic, transactional, self-centred or cynical – underline as necessary). However, Trump’s “realism” is in no way “enlightened.” “Enlightened realism” means that the sides should take both their tactical and immediate interests, as well as their strategic and long-term needs, into account.
Foreign policy decisions should be made not only with a view to the next presidential campaign or how the general public might react, but also with an understanding of the strategic challenges, opportunities and priorities facing the sides. The further into the future we are prepared to look, the greater the number of areas of common interest between Russia and the European Union we will find.
What is more, “enlightenment” implies that the parties have to be mindful not only of their own interests, but also of the interests of the system of international relations as a whole, since the destruction of this system does not bode well for Russia or Europe. No tactical victory can outweigh the strategic costs associated with the destabilization of the global system, the breakdown of international organizations, the degradation of international law, and the transition to a “game without rules” where “every man” is “for himself” in world politics.
This understanding is especially relevant today, when other leading centres of power in world politics (the United States, China and India) are, for various reasons, not ready to bear the responsibility for preserving regional and global stability. It is in these conditions that Europe and Russia are inevitably assuming greater responsibility for maintaining peace and resolving conflicts in such regions as the Middle East and North Africa.
Let us stress once again that we are not talking here about abandoning “selective engagement” once and for all. Engagement will continue to be selective for the foreseeable future, as the only alternative would be no interaction whatsoever. The task right now is to give this engagement a new depth, greater clarity and a fresh perspective. Figuratively speaking, we are talking about moving from two-dimensional interaction to three-dimensional interaction, or, in other words, leaving the rowdy market square where narrow-fisted buyers haggle prices with dodgy traders for the tranquillity of university laboratories where we can start designing the future European and world order.
This will require a qualitatively different level of interaction between the two sides both at the level of political leadership and at the level of diplomatic missions, ministries of economy, independent experts and non-governmental organizations. Not a return to the rather meaningless biannual EU–Russia summits, but the beginning of practical work on the implementation of large, forward-looking joint projects.
The only way that the principle of “enlightened realism” can work in the engagement between Europe and Russia is if the sides endeavour to apply it to themselves first and foremost, and then to the other party. After all, “enlightened realism” is not about making concessions to the other side or surrendering one’s position. Rather, it is merely a more extensive and less opportunistic understanding of one’s own interests. Right now, both Brussels and Moscow are following in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s famous words: “[T]he nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.”
From our partner RIAC
Digital COVID-19 vaccine passports have arrived- why they are a bad idea
With the arrival of the first batches ofCOVID-19 vaccines at various countries, there have been a number of statements by public officials and corporate executives who are calling for a global “vaccine passport” which will offer those who get vaccinated freedom to travel and the ability to enter venues, restaurants, sport events and even schools.
The framework for the implementation of a global vaccine passport has already been established by the Commons Project, a non-profit organization backed by the World Economic Forum and the Rockefeller Foundation. Some of its key people are former Bill Clinton aide Paul Meyer, former Engineering VP of Google Alan Warren and Hong-Kong based investor Jennifer Zhu Scott.
The Commons Project has created the Common Pass, a mobile application in which people will register when they get the vaccine from certain vaccination sites. In order to board a flight or enter a restaurant a person will have to scan a QR code provided by the Common Pass that will contain their vaccination status. If they are not vaccinated they will be denied entry.
The Common Pass is already active; it was recently tried on flights of United Airlines & Cathay Pacific, where it was used as a platform to register traveler’s Covid-19 test results. Four more companies (JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines and Virgin Atlantic) have decided to use it.
In the future, the Commons Project aspires to extend the use of the Common Pass to venues, stadiums, public transport and even schools, while there is also a strong possibility that it may be applied to other industries such as hospitality and entertainment. UK’s vaccination minister Nadhim Zahawi, recently said that restaurants, cinemas and bars might effectively ban those who are not vaccinated.
If the Common Pass is established as a global vaccine passport, millions of people from different countries will be forced to give their personal health and travel information to a private entity in order to have the ability to travel, go to school, attend a concert or go to a club. Through the use of the Common Pass people will basically be coerced into getting vaccinated, while there are also serious privacy concerns.
But even though there has been a campaign by the media to portray those who are skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines as a minority of “crazy anti-vaxxers” that reject any kind of vaccination, this is simply not true.
In fact a large part of the global population hesitates to get vaccines that have been developed within 10 months when it normally takes 10 years. Especially younger people without health issues who face minimal risk of getting seriously sick from COVID-19 feel that a potentially unsafe vaccine poses a bigger risk to them than the virus itself.
After all, no one can deny that, because of the pandemic, compromises on safety were made during the development of the vaccines. The clinical trials for most of the vaccines were completed after the mass production had already started and they lasted few months instead of the standard 5-9 years, while pharmaceutical companies have been given immunity by western governments from liabilities regarding potential unknown serious side effects of their vaccines.
In this uncertain environment, corporations and governments trying to vaccinate the whole population by imposing coercive measures such as digital vaccine passports will only add to the skepticism against the COVID-19 vaccines. Moreover new issues of privacy and the handling of personal health data from private entities will arise and will complicate even more the discussion around the pandemic, while also undermining further the confidence of the people in existing institutions.
Besides, what exactly is the point of such draconian measures when, as the England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam has said, the vaccination of just the high risk groups is enough to eradicate the 99% of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19?
Greece and UAE’s Strategic Cooperation: A New Regional Equilibrium in the Making
The agreement on Joint Cooperation in Foreign Policy and Defence between Greece and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a milestone for bilateral relations and for the wider region. It was signed during the official visit of the Greek prime minister to the UAE on 18th November 2020. The agreement seals the determination of both countries to enhance their strategic partnership in the domain of defence with the aim to foster cooperation and jointly address common challenges and threats.
It is in this context that the agreement contains a mutual defence clause or else a mutual military assistance clause that equals to a common defence doctrine as it foresees that in case either country is threatened or attacked, both are committed to contributing to the defence of the other to ensure their sovereignty and territorial independence.
The clause contained in the agreement on Joint Cooperation in Foreign Policy and Defence has a purely defensive character and is the maximum that can be achieved between two countries that do not share common borders. For the implementation of the agreement, a regular consultation mechanism has been instituted at the level of Foreign Ministers, while a Supreme Joint Committee between Greece and the UAE is to be established.
The agreement also foresees the stationing of military forces of one country in the territory of the other, and the exchange of classified intelligence information. This provision comes to institutionalize the stationing of military forces of Greece, a member state of NATO and the EU, and of the UAE, a member country of the Gulf Cooperation Council to each other’s territory. It is noteworthy that at the height of the Greek-Turkish crisis in August 2020 when seismic vessel Oruc Reis conducted surveys in maritime areas that partly fall within the Greek continental shelf, the United Arab Emirates relocated four F-16s to the Greek island of Crete, where they were stationed for two weeks and participated in joint air exercises with the Hellenic Air Force.
The value of joint military exercises between Greece and the UAE is significant especially when taking into consideration that the Emirati armed forces are one of the most modern in the region that are technologically equipped with state-of-the-art weapons systems. The UAE’s Air Force has 68 Mirage 2000 French fighter jets and 78F-16 American fighter jets; its Navy has 11 corvettes, and the government of Abu Dhabi is the first in the world that has acquired the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-aircraft system of Lockheed Martin. The system is designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach. In total, 100,000 people serve in the UAE Army, Navy and Air Force.
An additional agreement for the training of technicians from the UAE in the Greek Aviation Industry is to be finalized soon. The Armor Training Centerin Avlona is scheduled to host Emirati technicians, due to its proximity to the technical base of the Greek Aviation Industry in an area of about 90 acres within which all necessary infrastructure and facilities will be constructed.
The Greece-UAE agreement on Joint Cooperation in Foreign Policy and Defence has been concluded in view of broader regional security arrangements and intends to counter Turkey’s assertive behaviour and expansionism that extends from the Arab (Persian) Gulf and Syria to Libya and the East Mediterranean Sea. Already, the UAE participates in the 3+1 formula consisted of Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece along with France and regularly discusses regional crises that threaten peace and stability including developments in the East Mediterranean.
The Joint Declaration adopted by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates in May 2020clearly criticized Turkey for its pirate behaviour and gunboat diplomacy that aim to advance Neo-Ottomanism. As known, Neo-Ottomanism is the vision of contemporary Turkish foreign policy whose scope is to restore Ankara’s influence in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire and thus turn Turkey into a leading power in the East Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
Acknowledging Turkey’s expansionist strategy in the broader region, the UAE, Greece, Egypt, France and Cyprus denounced Turkish illegal activities in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters, that plainly violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They also condemned Turkey’s continuing violations of Greece’s territorial waters and airspace as well as Ankara’s military interference in Libya urging Turkey to fully respect the UN arms embargo, and to stop the influx of foreign fighters from Syria to Libya.
These developments that constitute a threat to the stability of the broader region and of Europe accelerated the cementing of regional defence and diplomatic arrangements. The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel constitutes a cornerstone of peace-making and regional partnerships. So does the UAE-Greece agreement on Joint Cooperation in Foreign Policy and Defence. The joint agreement and the mutual defence clause ensures the ability of both countries to exercise self-defence in accordance with article 51 of the UN Charter that explicitly recognizes that a UN member state has the right to legitimate defence not only in the event of an armed attack against it, but also in the event of a “threat of use of force”.
Especially when it comes to Greece, Athens is entitled to defend itself especially when taking into consideration Turkey’s timeless provocations and military escalations that are evidenced by: (a) the establishment of the Aegean Army in the ‘70s with an offensive posture, (b) the invasion and occupation of part of Cyprus, (c) Turkey’s repeated violations of Greece’s territorial waters and airspace that are estimated at around 7,000 only for 2019, and (d) the casus belli proclaimed by the Turkish Parliament in case Greece extends her territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles.
The multiple crises triggered by Turkey across the broader region haven given the opportunity to Greece and the UAE to display their large regional alliance network. Greece and the UAE along with like-minded and western-oriented regional countries coordinate policies; The ultimate goal lies in stopping Turkey from acting like a neo-ottoman pirate state in the East Mediterranean.
Great Powers Competition in Moldova
Moldova is the forgotten epicenter of tensions between the West and Russia, located between Romania and Ukraine, with no direct access to the sea since the territorial changes of the Soviet era. This country of 3.3 million inhabitants for 33,846 square km is plagued by ethnic divisions with Gagauzia and Transnistria, two territories diplomatically close to Moscow. Both the Kremlin and Brussels are reluctant to integrate Moldova into their respective zones of influence due to several elements detailed in this article, which has led to a political situation that has alternated pro-European and pro-Russian governments since the end of the Cold War.
Confirming this unstable political context, Maia Sandu, a pro-European Moldovan stateswoman, was elected president of the country on November 15, 2020, succeeding pro-Russian Igor Dodon. However, this election should not lead to a rapprochement between the West and Moldova, as the major powers are accustomed to considering the country as a political no man’s land, in contrast to the other members of the Eastern Partnership.
The Kremlin’s Reluctance to Take a Proactive Approach in Moldova
For Moscow, the lack of access to the Black Sea makes Moldova less strategically important than other countries in the region. As such, the Kremlin was more active in Crimea and Georgia with the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in contrast to Moldova, where no noticeable change has taken place in Transnistria since 1992.
This situation is paradoxical because a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could confer many strategic advantages on the Kremlin. In this respect, better Russian-Moldovan relations would thus hinder any possible advance of the European Union and NATO in Molodva, and could also force Ukraine to reconsider its diplomatic approach vis-à-vis the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moreover, the strengthening of military cooperation between Moscow and Chisinau would increase pressure on Romania, which is favourable to Moldova’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Moscow’s cautious approach is all the more paradoxical given that Russia has sympathisers in Moldova with the two territories of Transdniestria and Gagauzia, Tiraspol and Comrat, wishing for rapprochement and even integration within Russia.
For Transnistria, which has been de facto independent of Moldova since the end of the Cold War and whose desire for integration into the Russian Federation was demonstrated by the 2006 referendum with 97.5% of the votes in favour, a diplomatic rapprochement between Moldova and Russia could improve relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau.
On an economic level, if Moldova joins the EEU, Transdniestria could be taken into account, with Chisinau considering it as part of its territory and Tiraspol having an economic interest in aligning its standards with those of Russia.
On the military level, an increased influence of the Kremlin in Moldova would make it possible to negotiate the integration of Chisinau into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). If this were to happen, the Kremlin could reduce the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in Transdniestria. In effect, if Moldova joins the CSTO, Moscow would become the protector of Moldova and de jure of Transdniestria, as this territory is a part of Moldova in accordance with Russian, Moldovan and international law.
The withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Transnistria, who are monitoring the contents of Soviet military equipment warehouses, is a source of tension between the West and Russia. In November 2008, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its forces in accordance with the commitments made at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. The UN General Assembly adopted a similar resolution (document A/72/L.58) calling on the Russian Federation to pull out of Moldovan territory in June 2018.
With Moldova close to Russia, Russian peacekeeping troops would be given the opportunity to withdraw or reduce their numbers, thus easing tensions between the international community and Russia. For the Kremlin, this would also allow it to optimise operating costs and allocate this budget to other peacekeeping operations, including the Nagorno-Karabakh troops, which have been operating since November 10, 2020.
The second pro-Russian territory of Moldova is Gagauzia, which extends over 1,830 square kilometres divided into four non-contiguous zones, grouping around fifteen communes into three districts. Unlike Transnistria, which is de facto independent of Chisinau, Gagauzia is incorporated into Moldova. The inhabitants are initially Turkish-speaking, largely Russified during the 19th and 20th centuries, and now culturally distinct from the Turks.
The Russian-speaking Gagauzs wish to move closer to Russia because they have little advantage in learning Moldavian (Romanian language). Historically, Russia appears to be a country that protects Gagauz interests, a fact that still permeates relations between Moscow and Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia) and bears witness to Moscow’s soft power in this territory.
Comrat is in favour of strengthening the influence of the Kremlin in Moldova in order to promote the Russian language against Romanian, but also to restrict the influence of Bucharest, the fear of the Gagauz being integrated into a “Greater Romania” which would not defend their interests.
Given these elements, and despite the strategic advantages that a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could bring, Moldova remains a political no man’s land for Russia. Moscow’s reluctance to become more involved stems from several factors, the main one being the economic health of the country, the poorest on the European continent with a nominal GDP of $4,498, which means that integration into the EEU would not strengthen the latter’s economic power, making Moldova dependent on other members.
Enlargement of the CSTO into Moldova would lead to a deterioration in Moscow’s relations with the western world, particularly with Romania, and would have repercussions for all the countries of the Black Sea, which could encourage certain states such as Georgia to speed up their rapprochement with NATO and the EU.
An Expensive Investment That Diminishes Interest in the Western World
Moldova is of little economic interest to the EU, with the only competitive sector being agricultural products due to the abundance of rare earth. In addition, the corruption of elites and the departure of young graduates hampers the emergence of new services and active civil society.
Chisinau invests a mere 0.4% of its GDP in its armed forces, with fewer than 6,000 soldiers relying on Soviet equipment, and therefore of little interest to NATO. Apart from the lack of military means, Moldova is a neutral state that does not wish to join an alliance (NATO or CSTO). A poll carried out in 2018 shows that 22% of Moldovans are in favour of a project to join NATO and 43% against it.
While Moldova’s integration into the EU would be a strong symbol and testify to the resilience of Brussels’ soft power in a post-BREXIT context, it would be expensive and the EU would have to invest considerable sums within the framework of the Eastern Partnership to enable Chisinau to meet the accession criteria.
Integration into the Schengen area would trigger a demographic crisis, with young Moldovan citizens having few opportunities at home. Consequently, the European Union prefers to adopt an attitude similar to that of Russia and consider Moldova as a political no man’s land.
In this regard, the result of the elections of November 15, 2020, with Maia Sandu attests to the influence of western influence in the country, but also highlights the lack of confidence in Dodon’s leadership, who has not managed to achieve a rapprochement with Russia during his term as President.
The EU-Moldova cooperation sought by Maia Sandu will struggle to emerge due to the lack of human resources in the country and the absence of infrastructure to export and import goods. Moldova has not had the financial means to modernise its road and rail networks since the fall of communism.
Romanian Ambitions in Moldova
Because of its cultural and linguistic proximity to Moldova, Bucharest would like Chisinau to move closer to the Euro-Atlantic structures of which Romania is a member, even considering going as far as full integration with the rebirth of a “Greater Romania,” which brought the two states together from 1918 to 1940. This prospect is not acceptable to the Gagauz and Transnistrians, but also to many citizens and Moldovan elites, as the country would become an impoverished region of Romania with no control over its future.
Romania’s proactive approach is a source of apprehension for Russian speakers and an argument in favour of Transnistrian and Gagauz separatism. Bucharest is especially influential because the administration has adopted a policy of “passportisation” in Moldova. Romanian citizenship is granted to Moldovans who apply for it and can prove that they have a Romanian ancestor, thus granting European citizenship with its benefits. In total, more than 726,100 Moldovan citizens have thus become Romanians since the end of the Soviet Union.
A facetious remark circulating in Moldova mentions that the country is going to join the European Union, with or without the agreement of Brussels, since there will soon be no Moldovans and only Romanian citizens.
Beijing’s Soft Power in the Black Sea
As in the rest of the Black Sea, the Chinese influence in Moldova has increased in recent years. Beijing is interested in this territory because of the lack of infrastructure and the prevailing corruption, which allows Chinese companies to offer all types of partnerships in exchange for various counterparts.
In 2015, the Chinese company SOE China Shipping Container Lines launched container transport services in the Moldovan port of Giurgiulesti — the country’s only harbour accessible to Black Sea vessels — via the Danube, after signing a terminal services agreement with the national operator. This investment enabled Chisinau to export its products abroad, especially as its economy was suffering from the Russian embargo on Moldovan wine imports. According to local companies, the international free port of Giurgiulesti should continue its development and become a logistics platform with a business park enabling Chinese companies to access the European and Eurasian markets.
Moldova has started negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing in 2017, removing barriers to the import of certain products and strengthening business exchanges. According to forecasts published by the Moldovan authorities, Moldova’s exports to China could increase by 39.85% and its GDP by 0.42% as a result of the FTA.
The most significant development took place in 2019, when Moldova concluded an infrastructure agreement with two Chinese contractors for the construction of nearly 300 kilometres of roads, at an estimated cost of $400 million. One road will surround the capital Chisinau and the other will link Ukraine to the north. Two Chinese companies — the China Highway Group and the China Railway Group Limited — will participate in this project, marking the first Chinese-led infrastructure project in Moldova. According to Chisinau, the projects will significantly improve traffic and contribute to overall economic growth. A total of 12 major Chinese companies also participated in the Chisinau Business Forum in April 2019, underlining their commitment to increase investment in the country. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the Chinese authorities announced that the debt of 77 countries, including Moldova, had been temporarily suspended.
Beijing’s choice to focus its attention on Moldova is explained by the country’s non-alignment, but also by the reluctance of Moscow and the European Union to become more involved. China is, therefore, meeting no resistance from the Russians or westerners.
For the Kremlin, Chinese investments in the region could harm the ambitions of Brussels and Washington in Moldova, China being an ally of Russia. While for westerners, China was providing considerable aid to the EU by modernising infrastructure, which could bring Chisinau closer to Romania and the EU because of the weakness of Chinese soft power, cooperation between Beijing and Chisinau is confined to the economic sector.
No Man’s Land or Chinese Gateway to the Black Sea?
In conclusion, Moldova is one of the epicentres of the tensions between the West and Russia, but the latter are reluctant to increase their involvement because of the unfavourable economic context, as well as the lack of direct access to the Black Sea.
For the EU and NATO, the results of the recent elections should, in theory, lead to a rapprochement, but in practice Transnistria and Gagauzia will hinder the most ambitious projects. Romania is called upon to play a leading role in this rapprochement, but the divisions between Bucharest and Chisinau are a reality to be taken into account and the rebirth of a Greater Romania seems unlikely.
Russia has a strategic interest in increasing its influence in Moldova by integrating Chisinau into the EEU and the CSTO, but this would encourage other Black Sea countries such as Georgia to draw even closer to the western world. Moreover, the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria and the pro-Russian position of Comrat allow the Kremlin to remain present in the region, independently of Chisinau’s diplomacy, which does not encourage Moscow to develop a pro-active policy.
Beijing’s economic diplomacy seems to be producing results and bringing the two states closer together. In this respect, China has succeeded in modernising the Moldovan infrastructure despite obstacles rooted in corruption. This makes Moldova a potential laboratory for Chinese soft power and indirectly benefits both westerners and Russians.
In view of the results of the November 2020 elections, it seems appropriate to pay attention to the rapprochement between Russia and Transnistria, a process that could be accentuated if Maia Sandu confirms her pro-western policy. Gaguzia could gain in importance, as a move towards the EU and NATO could lead to the resurgence of separatism in this region.
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The European Borders of the USSR», Office of research and Reports, 1955
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict to National and International Order in the 1990s: Geographic Perspectives», Rapport de conférence, 1995
LAMBERT Michael, Stratégies de mise en place des Soft Power européen et russe en Moldavie après la guerre froide, Études de l’IRSEM n° 40, 2015, 94 pages (www.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/393969/5890290/file/Etude_IRSEM_n40.pdf)
LAMBERT Michael, Comprendre la présence militaire russe en Transnistrie, Revue Défense Nationale 2019/3 (N° 818), pages 107 à 112.
KLEIN Margarete, Russlands Militärpolitik im postsowjetischen Raum. SWP-Studie, 2018
BABAN Inessa, «The Transnistrian Conflict in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis», Collège de défense de l’Otan 2015, Research Paper n° 122, 12 pages (www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=468).
KLIMENKO Ekaterina, «Protected Armed Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space and their Impact on Black Sea Security», SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security n° 2018/8, décembre 2018, 28 pages (www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-12/sipriinsight1808_0.pdf)
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