“The EU should leverage the diplomatic aspect of the Community to amplify the pro-European message in its eastern neighbourhood. While keeping Georgia close is crucial, so is integrating Armenia and Azerbaijan into a virtuous circle of mutual concessions is essential for establishing a lasting peace in the South Caucasus and neutralising the destabilising influence of Russia…”
The geopolitical environment in Europe has irreversibly changed after more than a year of military aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine. During this period, the EU introduced 10 sanctions packages against Russia. Since 2014, individual and sectoral European sanctions have targeted 1,473 regime representatives (officials, politicians, oligarchs, journalists, etc.) and 207 entities, with financial and reputational costs for Russia's external trading partners. Financial resources worth more than €320bn have also been frozen, belonging to the Russian Central Bank (CBR) and to oligarchs and facilitators of the regime of Vladimir Putin respectively. To prevent sanctions circumvention, the EU created a new sanctions enforcement function (led by David O'Sullivan) and launched the Sanctions Coordinators Forum (EU, February 2023). At the same time, there is a detoxification of the European public space from Russian disinformation by banning pro-Kremlin TV stations (NTV/NTV Mir, Rossia 1, REN TV, and Pervîi Kanal) and other sources of Russian propaganda media (Sputnik and RT). Direct energy dependence on Russian hydrocarbons has also been minimised. If any continues to reach the EU (oil), then with economic losses and through intermediaries (India, etc.) or in a liquefied state (natural gas). In December 2022, around 13% of the gas imported by the EU came from Russia, up from almost 54% at the beginning of 2021. In addition to punishing the Russian elite and state for crimes committed against Ukraine, the West is preparing legal grounds to be able to judge and punish the leadership led by Putin, by international courts (UN, March 2023).
The ongoing decoupling process between the EU and Russia has brought significant changes to the regional power dynamics. This shift has prompted a comprehensive re-evaluation of relations with Russia, not only within the EU but also in its broader neighbourhood. The primary criterion that separates the EU and its European allies from other regional players leaning towards Russia is solidarity with Ukraine. The Ukrainian factor, coupled with Russian aggression, has been instrumental in the establishment of the European Political Community (EPC). Initiated by France and implemented during the Czech presidency of the EU Council (July-December 2022), the EPC serves as an intergovernmental and non-legally binding geopolitical platform. Its official objective is to foster dialogue and co-operation in the realms of security, stability and prosperity at the European level. This initiative aims to consolidate a "circle of friends" for the EU, prioritising solidarity with Ukraine and collectively addressing Russia's aggressive actions.
CPE – a geopolitical aid tool in the EU's neighbourhood?
The decision to organise the second meeting in Moldova on June 1 (with the following ones in Spain and the UK) has a more complex geopolitical connotation. Had it not been for the threats of frequent Russian airstrikes, the CPE meeting would have been held in Ukraine. However, the organisation of the event in Moldova, at a negligible distance from the breakaway region (Transnistria), where Russian military forces are deployed, shows the ambition of the EU to signal Moldova's adherence to its geopolitical area. This shows that the EU wants to avoid creating a convenient status quo for Russia in a new EU candidate state. Moldova already receives political-diplomatic and financial help from the EU and its member states (Romania, Germany, France, etc.) to overcome the indirect consequences of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the EU helps the government in Chisinau to confront destabilising actions, co-ordinated by Russia, which would be interested in the pro-Russian opposition capitalising on the unpopularity of the pro-European government (around 25% of public support).
The hosting of the European Political Community (EPC) in Moldova provides an opportunity for European actors to underscore the broader impact of Russian influence beyond Ukraine. The Moldovan case serves as a vivid example that Moscow's objectives extend geographically. Given the vulnerability of the Moldovan state to various forms of Russian hybrid warfare (disinformation, energy blackmail, etc.), reaffirming EU support for Moldova directly through the EPC platform could be used to exemplify a certain efficiency of the European foreign policy in the eastern neighbourhood. This act also constitutes a certain responsibility on the part of Brussels for the internal situation in Moldova. Therefore the failures of the current Moldovan government will leave traces of the legitimacy of the EU.
Moldova's close proximity to Ukraine ensures that the Ukrainian issue remains a prominent topic of discussion during the European Political Community (EPC), expanding the attention of political leaders from 44 countries, the EU and international journalists covering the event. Given this geographical proximity, a significant portion of the CPE discussions are expected to focus on Ukraine, particularly if there are significant developments such as a Ukrainian counter-offensive in May that could have an impact on the situation on the ground. This attention can help counter signs of fatigue surrounding Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine. Undoubtedly, one of the main beneficiaries of hosting the event will be the ruling party in Moldova, specifically the Action and Solidarity Party and President Maia Sandu. They recognise that the location of the event enhances their credibility and provides a significant image boost from the EU. Geopolitical issues and relations with the EU are likely to play a crucial role in determining the winners of the upcoming Moldovan election cycles in 2024-2025.
The problematic issues on EPC's agenda: Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions
The European Political Community is in its infancy and cannot yet represent a solid "geopolitical club" against malign Russian influence in Europe. In the eastern neighbourhood of the EU, in addition to the Russian war against Ukraine and Belarus's strategic alliance with Russia, there are other geopolitical issues. Azerbaijan uses aggressive and revisionist rhetoric against Armenia's territorial integrity, blocking the corridor with the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ongoing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are putting the EU in trouble. The non-resolution of the historical disputes between these states and rather their exploitation by Russia throughout the post-Soviet period does not allow the establishment of a credible and sustainable dialogue. Regardless of whether they aim to establish peace, the diplomatic efforts of the EU, and in particular those of the President of the European Council Charles Michel, are gradually losing their legitimacy because they do not produce effective solutions. Despite the launch of the EU Civilian Mission in late February and its operational status since March, it may not be deemed as a fully effective tool to deter or prevent military actions carried out or intended by Azerbaijan. In fact, despite the existence of the EU Mission in Armenia, military incidents continue to take place on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Baku's behaviour could be attributed to the lenient stance and cautious criticism from Brussels, especially considering the intensified strategic energy relations between the EU and Azerbaijan in the absence of Russian gas. With the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russian hydrocarbons affecting the regional and global energy market, Azerbaijan has a stronger motivation to disregard EU concerns. The energy dependence on foreign markets and the strategic objective of diversifying gas sources neutralise any potential EU assertiveness towards Baku. Drawing from the lessons learned in Ukraine, it is crucial for European institutions to recognise that authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe with significant energy potentials, such as Russia or Azerbaijan, may have revisionist appetites based on historical arguments in relation to their neighbours. During the EPC reunion in Moldova, the EU needs to demonstrate its politico-diplomatic contribution to achieving genuine peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan while concurrently developing a less transactional "energy pact" with Baku to maintain an effective balance of interests in the region.
The situation in Georgia: an early warning geopolitical signal in the eastern neighbourhood?
Another pressing issue on the EU's agenda in its eastern neighbourhood is the emergence of authoritarian tendencies in Georgia. The rise of "Orbanisation," characterised by a Hungarian-style Euroscepticism, is becoming increasingly evident in a country where support for the EU and Nato stands at around 80-90% (IRI, March 2023). On the one hand, the ruling government in Tbilisi ("Georgian Dream"), which has been in power for over a decade, claims to have a pro-European agenda and aims to meet the EU's conditions for candidate country status, similar to the progress made by Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022. However, on the other hand, representatives of the ruling party often resort to aggressive and derogatory rhetoric towards EU officials and Members of the European Parliament, accusing them of interfering in Georgia's internal affairs.
Furthermore, the government's parliamentary majority has attempted to pass restrictive laws targeting civil society and the media, which heavily rely on external funding sources for over 20% of their budgets. Although the "foreign agent" bill was ultimately withdrawn following pro-EU and anti-Russian protests (Politico, March 2023), the domestic and Western public still perceives it as inspired by similar legislation implemented by Putin's regime. This case has reinforced the perception that the Georgian government is moving closer to Russia rather than the EU, while the population is moving in the opposite direction. The ongoing image crisis faced by the Georgian authorities has worsened due to veiled or direct accusations suggesting that Ukraine and the EU are conditioning the country's European trajectory by opening a new front against Russia. The rapid intensification of economic ties with Russia once again underscores the risks associated with re-establishing old dependencies. The geopolitical intentions of the Georgian government raise doubts and uncertainties.
The EU faces a significant dilemma regarding the granting of candidate country status. If it is not delivered in 2023, the opposition could exploit this as a campaign issue in the 2024 elections to gain power. Given the fragmented nature of the pro-EU vote and the existing political polarisation, the government could use the non-candidacy status as a means to blame the opposition and the EU for allegedly abandoning the pro-EU population. The upcoming EPC meeting provides a political opportunity for the EU to emphasise the importance of full compliance with the 12 conditions, with a particular focus on justice and civil society. While reducing the influence of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is crucial for the functioning of Georgian democratic institutions, the EU's condition regarding the adoption of de-oligarchisation legislation should be disregarded during the assessment, as it can potentially become a dangerous political tool against the pro-EU opposition in Georgia.
In lieu of conclusion…
The upcoming reunion of the European Political Community in Moldova marks a significant milestone as the first such event in the EU's eastern neighbourhood. Given its proximity to Ukraine, the focus of the gathering will primarily revolve around reinforcing Western solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russian military aggression. Concurrently the EU will officially launch its civil mission in Moldova, representing the second European mission in the eastern neighbourhood since the establishment of the EPC in 2022. The threats originating from Russia have significantly expanded the EU's defence and security policy in the Eastern Partnership, particularly towards Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia.
While the European Political Community plays a vital role in fostering closer ties, it remains challenged by the varying levels of commitment to a pro-Western orientation among the participating states. Moreover, the Community lacks clear-cut tools beyond providing a diplomatic platform. Consequently the EU will need to utilise bilateral instruments to consolidate its engagement in the region, recognising that they may prove inadequate in resolving long-standing interstate conflicts rooted in the (post-) Soviet era. It is crucial for the EU to leverage the diplomatic component of the Community to amplify the pro-European message in the eastern neighbourhood. The EU should leverage the diplomatic aspect of the Community to amplify the pro-European message in its eastern neighbourhood. While keeping Georgia close is crucial, so is integrating Armenia and Azerbaijan into a virtuous circle of mutual concessions is essential for establishing a lasting peace in the South Caucasus and neutralising the destabilising influence of Russia.