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Great Powers Competition in Moldova

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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.

Resources

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)

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

Europe

NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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