Emerging trio in the post-Soviet scene?

moldo ukrDealing with Russian involvement and implementing reforms – that is the main advice the members of the European Parliament gave to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in its resolution on January 21st 2016. With a special focus on the war in eastern Ukraine, the deputies urged these three countries to move toward democratic transformations and efficient government work.


The resolution analysed the progress made by these countries after signing the Association Agreement and served as recommendations for the states. The three, along with Azerbaijan, have been the founders of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development aimed at economic and political co-operation and dealing with frozen conflicts. The organisation had been largely inactive since 2008 when the last GUAM Summit took place, the same year Russia gave military assistance to Georgia’s breakaway regions.


With Azerbaijan shutting itself to the West and democracy, GUAM no longer functions the way it was modeled to, and the remaining trio has distanced itself from the fourth founder. The latter three states, on the other hand, share many similarities in external affairs dealing with Russian involvement in their territories, economic problems and signing the Association Agreement. These countries’ ties and common goals are leading to a re-evaluation of GUAM and focusing on possible ways they might launch an efficient co-operation together.


Black Sea trio instead of dysfunctional quartet


“GUAM formally continues to exist, but in reality, it was reborn within the Eastern Partnership project,” says Ernest Vardanean, a political expert and lecturer at Moldova State University. Both organisations deal with frozen conflicts, forming an energy corridor from the Caspian Sea to the EU, and are oriented on working with the EU instead of with Russia. However, Azerbaijan’s new realities as well as the very existence of the Eastern Partnership have downplayed GUAM’s importance.


“From the very beginning, it was not clear what the purpose of GUAM was,” says Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science at Tbilisi State University and a director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think-tank. “It’s true the organisation was formed to deal with the conflicts, but GUAM was never constitutionalised enough,” he continues. Since GUAM no longer functions properly, Kakachia does not see the point of reviving it.


Instead, he suggests forming a new group, a Black Sea Trio which would work similarly to the Visegrad Four. It does not have to be a formal organisation from the very beginning, but it should start out with high-profile meetings once or twice a year which would strengthen co-operation between the three states.


“It is essential for the countries to show that they are the exception to the norm within the Eastern Partnership and make the EU see them like it did the Baltic states,” says Kakachia. Therefore, the trio’s goal should be promoting its pro-European initiatives as well as breaking stereotypes which exist about the countries within and outside the EU.


Making Eastern Partnership more substantial


Close ties between the three countries are necessary for a bigger influence; however, they do not need a new organisation, believes Evgen Magda, a political expert and executive director of the Centre for Social Relationships in Ukraine.


“GUAM’s example has been topical during the previous decade since it worked during different historic circumstances. It was relying on Caspian oil, but this scheme does not work anymore,” he explains. Without Azerbaijan and oil, there is no economic interest in the organisation.


Magda believes that instead of forming a new organisation, the trio has to elaborate on its common interests within the Eastern Partnership’s framework. “There is a necessity to fill this organisation with something meaningful so the co-operation becomes efficient,” he says. Magda advises against uniting for the sake of being against someone (like Russia), and instead, looking for other links between the countries.


However, being victims of Russian aggression can be a strong unifying factor, believes Ruslan Sevcenco, Vice Director of the Institute of Effective Policy in Moldova. This link can be strong enough for greater ties, but still within the existing Eastern Partnership. “The trio needs to show the EU they are interested in strengthening their work with the organisation,” suggests Sevcenco.


Developing emotional solidarity between the people


“The 2008 War in Georgia and current crisis in Donbas have led to even closer ties between Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau, and further strengthening of the partners’ relations depends not only on the regional context, but on the successful implementation of the reforms in each country,” says Vardanean. He adds that it also depends on the EU and its readiness to accept the three countries working together.


Co-operation between the trio also depends on the political and emotional solidarity that exists between the societies, Kakachia believes. “There are many positive attitudes between the people in Ukraine and Georgia, but less so when it comes to Moldova”. The expert suggests having targeted policies and acts which involve the entire societies changing the situation. By this, he means forming a platform for the civil societies in the three countries where people might be able to communicate, share and learn more about their neighbours while breaking national stereotypes.


Both experts agree that the societies do understand why their neighbours matter, and the histories of conflicts make people relate to each other’s states. “Moldovans remember the war in Transnistria in 1992, so they took the events in Georgia in 2008 and the war in Donbas very painfully,” says Vardanean. However, Russian propaganda influences Moldova strongly because of the 51 per cent of the Crimean population which was in favour of Crimea’s annexation. On the other hand, there is a strong pro-European movement which also gives Moldova chance to construct stronger ties with Ukraine and Georgia as colleagues within the EU quest.


Reformers in one country, wanted in another


After electing a new government, Ukraine had no high-profile meetings with Georgia’s leaders, and the foreign relations between the two countries have been rather awkward. Since Ukraine has hired some of Georgia’s former officials including Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president (2004-2013), who is now wanted in his home country, there have not been any top-level meetings between the leaders of these two countries.


Moldova’s relations with the two countries are not as complicated; however, it has much smaller ties with Georgia, and is often overlooked by a much bigger Ukraine. “Ukrainian officials do not have a vision or understanding in which they can actually lead the trio to promote its goals,” says Kakachia. He names this lack of political strategy as one of the main reasons the three countries do not co-operate enough. The lack of information about the ties between the three countries shows how little attention is paid to this issue on a higher level.


“The countries need to work more together, and the initiative needs to come from the trio,” says Leonid Litra, Moldovan expert and senior researcher at the Institute of World Policy in Ukraine. He adds: “There are informal meetings between the representatives of Eastern Partnership countries where the trio has to suggest strengthening the co-operation”. Ukraine could take a lead in this situation, but the most important thing is to have a common understanding and desire to work together.


Thus, the countries need a clear vision on how to co-operate within the EU framework, and Ukraine should take the lead as the biggest economy. “If the countries promoted themselves together, they would be able to impact the EU more and have greater chances of being heard by Brussels,” says Kakachia.


Co-operating when geopolitics are against you


The current political situation is difficult due to Russian aggression in Ukraine and instability in Moldova. Georgia remains the safest country in the trio; however, its history with Russia also leaves it in a difficult position.


Despite that, the Moldovan government is Ukraine-friendly in terms of policies, says Litra, and the same applies to neighbouring Romania which has special relations with Moldova. This paradigm is very new and positive for Ukraine. Georgia, too, maintains friendly policies towards Ukraine in spite of the wanted Georgians helping govern Ukraine.


Therefore, there are positive shifts in the countries’ politics in which they are developing more positive attitudes toward each another. For instance, Ukraine is already using Georgian political models in various areas, and it is following Moldovan ways in terms of the Schengen progress.


“It may be difficult to have unity in the trio, but the states should begin with small steps,” says Kakachia. He suggests working together in international meetings as well as using foreign allies to promote the three countries and their goals. Having a platform for political communication can be a start.


Another way is stronger economic ties with one another. “This co-operation is not something on the economic agenda; but the countries should look for common economic spheres and develop them,” says Barrie Hebb, the Head of the Mission of Economic Support Programs at PIN/MANTRA. As an example, he suggests mutual work in the farming industry.


Another example would be the transport routes between the countries. A new one has already been launched from Ukraine to China, and it involves Georgia and Azerbaijan. It has been constructed as a faster way to transport goods from Europe to China, and also excludes Russia due to the trade wars. There is also an idea about building good road infrastructure from Odessa to Romania through Moldova. The example shows how economic reasons can strengthen political ties and co-operation between the area’s states.


The question remains whether the Association Agreement is the main thing that currently unites the three states. Without enough co-operation, the countries keep on having totally independent politics which do not involve one another. However, an effective trio – in case it does manage to emerge in the region – may serve as an instrumental tool in dealing with the local crises and influencing the EU. So now it’s up to the political elites and their mutual interests.


Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian journalist. She published, among others, with Kyiv Post and The Day.