How will Russia react on EU’s association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine?

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Maksym BugriyNon Resident Fellow, Jamestown Foundation

It looks like Russia may apply economic sanctions against Ukraine and theree are even indications that it may do so unilaterally without the consent of other Customs Union measures. Russia objects foremost against aleged “re-export” of EU goods to Russia – an allegation in fact of little sense as such practice could well be prevented. Russia also threatens to end natural gas transit through Ukraine as part of the agreement is on energy goods that confirms thhat Ukraine is subject to the EU energy rules.

On the other hand, trade statistics indicate that for the fitrst 4M of 2014, Ukrainealready reduced exports to Russia by 23%, to Belarus by 27% and Kazakhstan by 58%. Therefore it may be the case that the potential to use further Russian sanctions is in fact not so high.

Surprisingly, the Russian government negates the fact that Russia could actually profit from Kyiv’s EU integration, but this may change in the future if “liberals” win over “hawks” in Vladimir Putin’s inner advisors circle.

Ievgen VorobiovAnalyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Finalizing the signature the Association Agreement with Ukraine is important for two reasons. Internally, it will draw a line on the period of turbulent shift from the Yanukovych ruke to Euromaidan’s victory (which started with demands to sign the Association Agreement 7 months ago, a fact easy to forget with all that Ukraine has gone through). In that sense, it will be a moment of “closure” for some Ukrainians, primarily those who perceived the struggle on the Maidan as the struggle for European values rather than the struggle against the corrupt, authoritarian regime. For this people, the signatures in Brussels will also be the confirmation that Poroshenko puts his money where his mouth is, when it comes to the European integration.

In terms of Ukraine’s foreign-policy priorities, the Agreement will serve as an artificial “coalition-builder”, perhaps similarly to the way it is in Moldova. With the agreement signed, the parliament will find another alibi to resist the dismissal: the need to ratify and then to implement the Agreement’s provisions. At the same time, the signature of the Agreement will pose a question to be answered by Ukraine’s elites in the months to come “What kind of price is Ukraine ready to pay for making this heap of paper a reality?”.

One such price tab will be issues immediately: following the signature of the Agreement, I expect Russia to introduce selective trade restrictions against Ukraine’s exports, even bypassing the Eurasian Economic Commission. In doing so, Russians will use a number of pretences: from trade displacement to unequal competition.

Florent ParmentierProgramme Director chez Sciences Po

This document is a significant step, as it gives a toolbox to local powers to give an impetus to reforms. It is a game-changer if the local leaderships have the will to confront vested interests… Always a difficult task. It is important for the EU as it shows that the Eastern Partnership is still alive, though the Europeans will probably have to work and cooperate more intensively in the framework of the OSCE. We have to consider the EU and the OSCE as a continuum now, the same way EU and NATO were in the 1990s in Central Europe. Otherwise, we may expect great desillusions for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

As regards destabilization, Georgia and Ukraine have already lost a sizeable part of their territory. For Moldova, Russia has used Transnistria as a threat towards Moldovan political leaders; however, the status quo now is favourable to Russia, as Transnistria has contracted a huge debt vis-à-vis Russia that Moldova should pay for. A recognition of the independence of Transnistria now would hamper the chance of the Moldovan’s Party of Communists to come back to power through the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Jörg ForbrigSenior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe, Director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy, German Marshall Fund

The association and free trade agreements can be a stepping stone towards the European integration of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Although the agreements do not promise or imply eventual EU membership, the adjustments they require from the three countries and the enhanced co-operation they entail with the EU are all part of the normal path towards EU accession. Effectively, the agreements represent a small portion of the much larger package of reforms that are expected from any country that wants to accede to the EU. In this sense, the association and trade agreements are an important test case – for the three countries to demonstrate their willingness and ability to undertake far-reaching reforms, and for the EU to provide Eastern neighbours with all the assistance necessary for such reforms and adjustments to EU standards. If the implementation of the agreements indeed succeeds and start to pay dividends, this may set in motion a very positive dynamic. Eastern neighbours, both elites and people-at-large, would see the benefits of reforms and closer ties with Europe, and ask for more. The EU, in turn, could point to successful reforms and sell an EU membership perspective more easily to its own reluctant citizens. In combination, and always dependent on successful implementation, this may gradually take Eastern neighbours closer to, and one day into, the EU.

Russia will certainly not remain passive as Eastern neighbours move closer to the EU. In the best case, it may accept the signatures under the association and free trade agreements, hoping that the three countries will fail to implement them and that they would eventually become estranged from the EU. Worse, and more likely, Russia will roll out retaliatory measures already following the signatures. All three countries will face Russian efforts at de-stabilisation, with all the ingredients it used in Ukraine: political meddling, support to separatist sentiments, the energy weapon, trade wars, pressure on migrant workers, propaganda campaigns, and discreditation of governments. Neither of the three countries slated to sign association and trade accords with the EU will be able to withstand those pressures on their own, and all of the will need EU support to fend off Russian interference. The big question is whether the EU will muster the commitment to the three countries to shield them from Russian pressures.

Dorina BaltagPostgraduate Researcher, Centre for the Study of International Governance, Loughborough University

Today the European Union on one side and Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine on the other are further institutionalising their relationship through the Association Agreement. This is an important step in the relationship of both the European Union and the three neighbours as the Agreement deepens political association and economic integration that implies reciprocal obligations and rights, a new phase in their relationship. It shows the growing responsibility of the partners as well as an implication of the EU in supporting these countries in undergoing political and economic reforms. To a certain degree it is comparable with the 35 chapters that a candidate countries has to negotiate: whereas structured differently, the AA comprises almost all issues incorporated in the 35 chapters.

One must take into consideration two big challenges, which stem from the internal and external environment. Internally, we need to keep in mind that the Association Agreement is a highly ambitious document that expects a wide range of reforms to be implemented by Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine; a high degree of participation in EU programmes and in regional development, cross-border and civil society cooperation. Hence the internal challenge for these countries is to perform well, to successfully implement a reform agenda aimed at regulatory approximation to the EU, political association and economic integration. Externally, these countries constantly face the external pressure from Russia in a number of ways: economic embargoes, aggressions, political threats, fostering instability in the region. In this sense, the role of the European Union is very important: an increased diplomatic actorness to help these countries design strategies of cooperation with the EU as well as design its own (common) strategic diplomacy towards Russia will be key.

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