The autumn is warming up in eastern Europe. While the European Union is preparing to hold a summit later this month in Vilnius with the countries of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), Moscow is doing its best to derail EU relations with each of these nations, and attract them to its new hegemonic project, the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU). While the whole world seems to take the decline of a united Europe for granted, Russia appears anxious to prevent EU advances into the post-Soviet space.
The weakest link gave way in September. Armenia, whose economy is broadly controlled by Russia, had managed to cover quite a lot of distance in the negotiations with the EU, but then Russia brought its arguments to bear, and Armenia announced its intention to join the ECU. Moscow has less influence on Azerbaijan, but in this case not much Russian pressure is required: with the gas contracts coveted by Europe and its so-called "caviar diplomacy," consisting of purchasing the votes of western parliamentarians with gifts to defuse criticism of its regime, Baku can easily obtain what it needs from the EU without any significant concessions in terms of democratization.
Until lately, Georgia and Moldova had been much more explicit in their Europeanism. But the new Georgian prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, does not conceal his intention to jail President Saakashvili as soon as his mandate ends. Russia has made it clear that such undemocratic behavior would be no impediment to Georgia's joining the ECU. Moldova fears Russia may step up the pressure after threats to its exports, and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin's ill-natured joke on his visit to Chisinau about the Moldovans "freezing in winter," in reference to their acute dependence on Russian gas.
The Russian regime's experts speak jauntily of the EU's terminal decline
The prize most desired by both sides, Russia and the EU, is Ukraine, not just for its size and strategic position but also for its incomparable symbolic value. Here the competition between Russia and the EU is interlayered with Ukrainian internal politics, and not always obviously. President Viktor Yanukovich refuses to obey Brussels' demand to release his rival Yulia Tymoshenko from jail, where the former prime minister is serving a sentence for having reached gas-purchase agreements too favorable to Russia. Ukraine said no to the Customs Union proposed by Moscow and the country's elites, and the captains of industry seem set on sticking to the aim of signing an agreement with the EU, which will leave the country's economy exposed to hard competition. Not everything depends on Russian maneuvering: one must never lose sight of the capacity of these same Ukrainian elites to ruin plans - their own and others' - with their interminable fights and grandstanding.
The Russian regime's experts speak jauntily of the EU's terminal decline, but Russian diplomats and politicians are working overtime in the geopolitical competition for the East of Europe. The Kremlin, its security apparatus, and its accomplices from the economic oligarchies, are worried about EU encroachment, and rightly so. Unlike the anti-missile shield and the enlargement of NATO, the political transformation necessarily involved in any close association between the EU and Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, not only threatens Russian influence outside its frontiers, but also the Russian regime itself. For Russians the link with these countries is not just sentimental or a factor in international politics, but also a matter of domestic relevance. A plural, democratic Ukraine, in particular, would be a window that would constantly let winds of plurality into an ever more authoritarian Russia. To derail at all costs the Europeanization of these countries - Ukraine in particular - is in the long term a question of survival for the system that Putin has set up.