The Eurasian Economic Union’s growth is not good for democracy in the region

In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan officially became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia in the Russia-led European Union rival. The expansion of the EEU could spell trouble for the democratization of Eurasia.

The EEU itself is a new institution, formally coming into existence on January 1, 2015. Loosely modelled, in concept if not yet execution, on the EU, it grew out of the Eurasian Customs Union that had been founded on January 1, 2010 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—which itself was the result of a series of customs unions created by various Eurasian countries in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s—and seeks regional integration on a political and economic level.

Unlike the EU, the EEU is not held back by the necessity of considering the democracy and human rights records of potential members, as the Freedom House Freedom scores for the founding members are a  6, 6.5 and 5.5, respectively, all “Not Free.” In addition, as Russia has by far the largest and most robust economy in the region, with a GDP roughly nine times that of Kazakhstan and twenty-nine times that of Belarus, and the economies of the other countries are already so dependent on Russia, any attempts at integration will be dominated by Russia and, as a necessary consequence, Putin. Russia’s economic preponderance, codified by the EEU, will give it much greater leverage over its neighbors. Uzbekistan’s heretofore hesitancy to joining the EEU, fearing direct Russian influence over its affairs, evidences that other countries in the region are aware of this risk. Yet even here, the already established economic dependence is working against Uzbekistan: in late 2014 Russia simply wrote off $865 million dollars of Uzbekistan’s debt, with the goal of developing ties between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the European Union to court post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and bring them into direct association with the EU via programs such as the Eastern Partnership, support for European institutions is down in several key target states. In Moldova, for example, seen as one of the leading lights of the Eastern Partnership—and one of the most successful Eastern Partnership countries in terms of reform—support for the European Union hovers around only 40 percent. In 2007, 78 percent of Moldovans supported the EU. The recent protests have cast further doubt on Moldova’s chances for a successful integration with Europe; while the protestors themselves are not openly pro-Russia and have valid reasons to protest, the collapse of the fragile pro-European coalition could see pro-Russian political groups profit, with two of the most vocal supporters of the protests, the Socialist Party and the Patria Party, holding pro-EEU positions.

At the same time, support for the Russia- and Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is growing in the region as a whole. Armenia, one of the Eastern Partnership countries, has already joined the EEU, acceding in January 2015. In a poll carried out by the Moldovan Institute for Public Policy, 50 percent of respondents favored integration with the EEU, versus 32 percent that favored joining the EU. Although support for the EU in Georgia, one of the most Euro-centric countries in the region, remains high at 68 percent, 31 percent of Georgians now favor joining the EEU, up from 16 percent only last year.

That support for the EEU is rising even in countries with relatively competitive democratic institutions is deeply troubling. Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are countries that, while perhaps not yet on the level of the strongest Eastern European democracies, have slowly been taking the necessary steps to establish certain democratic and pluralistic norms that are not often found in the region.

The lack of conviction of the EU initiatives and the unwillingness of EU politicians to make any promises about the chances for Eurasian countries to join the EU, both in evidence at the May 2015 EU summit in Riga, puts these trends in an even more worrying light. The difficulty of joining the European Union potentially makes the EEU a more satisfying prospect for populist politicians looking for successes to sell to their constituents.

In creating the EEU, Putin has found a vehicle for binding post-Soviet countries more tightly to Russia. Although the EEU’s founding members were countries already linked to Russia and Putin, the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and the increase in support for the EEU in Georgia and Moldova shows that other countries in the region are being convinced by Russian rhetoric. The greatest danger if these countries fall under greater Russian influence is not only that they will move further away from Europe, but also that Putin will be able to influence their politics more directly and so any democratic gains they have made in the past few decades will be lost for good. 

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Freedom House Reports Alarming Authoritarian Pushback in Eurasia’s Nations in Transit

On June 23rd Freedom House—an independent democracy and human rights watchdog organization—released its annual Nations in Transit report. Nations in Transit (NIT) studies the state of democratization in 29 countries from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The NIT is also one of the few highly respectable and reliable quantitative measures of democracy, which for 20 years now has served as an important point of reference for scholars and organizations all over the world. FPRI’s own Project on Democratic Transitions relies heavily upon Freedom House’s NIT measurements for its research and publications.

Freedom House’s findings shed further bad news about the state of democracy in Eurasia this year. The title of the 2015 report warns that “Democracy is on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia.” As the report’s project director Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska states in its executive summary:

When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only three countries—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes.” Since 2000, however, the number of such regimes has more than doubled, and Eurasia’s average democracy score has fallen from 5.4 to 6.03 on a 7-point scale.

Looking back at the post-communist world 20 years ago, it is impossible to believe that the region is more authoritarian now than it was during the era of failed states, rampant corruption, and civil wars. But while the region is better off today than it was in the 1990s, it is no secret that 20 years ago the democracy-promotion community exercised an excessive amount of wishful thinking when it dealt with the countries of post-communist Eurasia. This wishful thinking often refused to acknowledge that there was no actual “democratization” happening in some of those states, labeling them as “slow democratizers,” “would be democracies,” or “nascent democracies.” In the early 2000s, when these “slow democratizers” never democratized, the democracy-promotion community had to finally come to terms with the reality and adjust its “labeling system.” This is why Georgia, for example, practically a failed state throughout the 1990s, continued to receive the same NIT democracy scores throughout the 2000s as it did in the late 1990s, although it had become a rapid and successful reformer.

That said, even with today’s sober approach to understanding democratic transitions, the recent regression in post-communist Europe and Eurasia is obvious to people who closely examine the region. As Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska says, “Over the last 10 years in particular, authoritarian leaders who paid lip service to democratic reform have systematized their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretense of inclusive politics.”

Alarming Key Findings

The key findings for this year’s NIT are alarming to say the least:

  • Russia has earned its largest ratings decline in a decade, “as the Kremlin stepped up suppression of dissent at home while seeking to destabilize the new government in Ukraine.”
  • Hungary completely fell out of the category of “consolidated democracies.” It is now considered a semi-consolidated democracy—joining EU newcomers (relative to Hungary)—Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, to name a few, who have long belonged in this category.
  • Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus continue to be in dire conditions under consolidated authoritarian rule. Azerbaijan in particular has experienced serious backsliding as the Aliyev regime has become unapologetic about punishing dissent and resorting to severe human rights abuses to avoid opposition.
  • We have also seen the fear of Russian propaganda translate into government actions limiting the voice of free media in the Baltics—previously frontrunners in securing media freedom. “Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania struggled to come up with adequate responses to Russia’s propaganda onslaught,” resorting to unorthodox approaches to solving the problem, like banning some of the Russian propaganda TV channels.

Hard Questions, Impossible Answers 

To honor of the release of the NIT 2015, Freedom House held a panel discussion on June 23rd. The panel, moderated by NPR’s David Greene, included Will Englund (Washington Post), Tim Judah (The Economist), and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska (Freedom House). Some of the major themes of the discussion included the rise of Russia as a major aggressor in the region, the strength and impact of its propaganda machine, and the decline in democracy’s popularity as people are increasingly more willing to choose stable authoritarianism over “freedom” in anarchy (as we have seen in many of the Arab uprising countries).

The conditions for democratic consolidation are less than favorable in today’s Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Approximately 80 percent of Eurasia lives under some form of authoritarian rule. Russia has quickly moved away from its role as an important ally to the West and is now a dangerous aggressor. Hungary is no longer a consolidated democracy. Previously pioneers of democracy, the Visegrad Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) are now facing major internal struggles. Euroskepticism within the EU is combined with uncertainty over economic conditions and serves to weaken the EU’s image abroad. Its decision-making mechanisms are complex and inefficient, preventing it from taking a strong stand against authoritarian pushback. To the question of what the EU can do to avoid further regression in Hungary, Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska said that the EU’s options are limited as it does not have too many tools in-between doing nothing and resorting to expulsion. Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska added that watching Hungary regress so quickly after so much initial democratic progress is “demoralizing”. While it had been slowly regressing for the past seven years, even five years ago no one questioned Hungary’s democratic aspirations. Today it is no longer a consolidated democracy. Moreover, its regression is showing diffusion effects on Slovakia where we may soon see the same type of regression.

The panelists added that just as alarming is the rapid regression in Azerbaijan. The regime has become more and more intolerant of criticism and impervious to international pressures. Azerbaijan enjoys the privileges of being an ally to Europe and the US. Whether it is politicians going on very expensive holidays to Baku or Lady Gaga performing at the Olympic games, the West’s actions towards Azerbaijan have only served to further legitimize the corrupt Alyev regime. For economic and strategic reasons the West is not doing much about its regression, and this is in turn leading to a dramatically negative shift in Azerbaijan. The situation is reminiscent of Kazakhstan, but the Aliyev regime in Azerbiajan has enjoyed a lot more “success” in openly practicing authoritarianism while also enjoying the West’s support.

Mr. Englund, a long-time Russia reporter, expressed concerns over Putin’s success at giving human rights a bad name. For many Russians it is a concept mostly viewed as a decadent western ideal that has nothing to do with them. The discussants also expressed their concerns over the decreasing popularity of democratic values and the growing support for authoritarianism as a means to stability. Since the dramatic failures of the Arab uprisings, the Eurasia region has seen a rise in the “fetishization” of stability, which is now a lynchpin to most authoritarian regimes. The pragmatic voters are choosing the “known evil” over the unknown one in fear of ending up in a Syria-like scenario, believing that “the alternative is worse.” In this vein, the discussants stressed the need for combating this narrative by ensuring that Ukraine’s transition becomes a successful one. If the West is to support Ukraine’s democratization, its economic stability and territorial integrity, the results will speak for themselves; this will be an outcome more powerful than anything RT (formally known as “Russia Today”) may be propagating.

While there was consensus on the importance of the West supporting Ukraine and ensuring its success and stability, many of Mr. Greene’s hard questions were often met with brief, inconclusive responses, not due to the discussants’ incompetence, but due to the daunting nature of the questions. Is it ok to restrict media freedoms in order to control Russian media propaganda (i.e., the recent case of the Baltics)? How do we respond to the rise of authoritarianism that is flourishing at the expense of democracy’s popularity? What do we do about the rampant human rights abuses throughout our strategic partner states in Central Asia? How do we deal with the weakened EU? Are we to simply come to terms with the fact that some countries, like Ukraine, will always be “stuck in the middle,” serving as “buffer zones” between Russia and the EU? If we cannot fight to promote democratic values in a country, and if we are to accept that some countries are always going to be caught in the middle, what are we doing talking about them? These were some of Mr. Greene’s panic-inducing questions that left the audience pondering long after the event was over.

Perhaps in a way, the ambiguities of this discussion reflect the current state of mind in Washington; democracy is in serious trouble: not only are the Western liberal values losing global support, but even basic human rights and freedoms are being violated on a regular basis. We are in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian pushback in Europe and Eurasia, and the new and fragile democracies that the West invested in so heavily are now at risk. We have plenty of tools to carefully study and understand these problems, take Freedom House’s excellent NIT report as one example, but we are unsure as to what exactly our role and responsibility may be in resolving these problems going forward.


Author’s Note

The good news is that if these are the questions on the minds of FPRI’s readers, one needs to go no further than its Project on Democratic Transitions. For the past 10 years we have dedicated our time and efforts to analyzing what the West can do to help spread democracy, what it has done in the past, how successful its efforts have been, what lessons can be learned from our previous successes and failures in assisting democracy abroad, and when, where, and how it can be done better in the future. These are some of the questions that our October 2014 conference dealt with at length, and our forthcoming (Winter 2016) book entitled “Does Democracy Matter?” will explore in greater detail.

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Romania and Moldova in Political Crises Yet Again

Continuous political stagnation is a part of everyday life in Europe’s east it seems. But sometimes that stagnation gives way to a full on crisis: often having something to do with corruption and/or the lack of political compromise. Thus it comes as no surprise that Moldova and Romania are in the midst of political crises yet again.

It was less than a year ago that Moldova and Romania made important positive strides towards achieving greater stability and democratic consolidation. Romania elected a new president who was promising a change of pace from the scandal-ridden political scene. Severe political infighting between President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta had become a normal occurrence, frequently bringing the country to a political standstill. At the same time, to the east of Romania, its friendly neighbor and longtime ally Moldova withstood major Russian pressures as Moldovans made a pro-Western choice, giving three pro-EU parties an opportunity to form an effective coalition government. However, both countries are currently facing political crises—Moldova more so than Romania—that continue to challenge their hopes for democratic consolidation and political stability.

Romania’s Prime Minister Wrapped in Corruption Scandal

This past fall Romania made important strides towards consolidating its democracy. (Freedom House, for instance, currently rates Romania as a semi-consolidated democracy—see ratings table below.) But while Romania is a member of the EU it is not a member of the Schengen area nor of the Eurozone, and thus still has a long way to go before it achieves deeper EU integration. In November 2014 Klaus Iohannis emerged the winner of Romania’s presidential elections with 54.5 percent of the votes. Iohannis is an ethnic German and a former mayor of Sibiu, a well-off town in the region of Transylvania. A member of the center-right bloc via the Christian Liberal Alliance, he brings a proven track record of success in economic reform and development to the table—two things for which Romania is currently desperate. Iohannis’ pre-election campaign was based on a promise of a “normal Romania,” free of the lies and scandals that the previous government of rivals—President Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta—was characterized by.

Ponta did run for President in 2014 and it was expected that had he won he would have reoriented Romania more closely towards Russia and China, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In addition, his political career has been connected to plenty of scandals in Romania—including his attempts to impeach President Basescu in 2012

Now Ponta finds himself involved in another scandal, but this time he is at the center of it: he is being investigated for charges of money-laundering, forgery, and tax evasion. This new scandal in Romania’s politics has also revealed that Ponta and Iohannis aren’t exactly going to be playing nice. President Iohannis has called for Ponta’s resignation, but Ponta continues to claim innocence. Moreover, earlier in June the Romanian senate voted by a large majority against lifting Ponta’s immunity so that criminal investigation could take place. It is clear that Ponta continues to enjoy the support of the parliament, where his own Social Democratic Party occupies the greatest amount of seats. President Iohannis criticized this move, stating “it is conclusive proof of huge irresponsibility and defiance towards the public, because the majority MPs are obstructing justice and will destroy the parliament as an institution, harming the image of Romania, in order to save one person.” The president added: “I furthermore consider the key to getting out of this situation is the resignation of Mr. Victor Ponta as prime minister.”

Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta

While President Iohannis may be keeping his promises and working hard towards driving Romania towards normalization, Ponta, with his strong hold over the parliament, is bound to complicate things for him in the near future. Thus despite Iohannis’s best intentions, Romania is far from achieving normalcy any time soon.

Moldova’s Minority Coalition Government

In November 2014, Moldovans made an important choice and voted for pro-EU parties. This was possible despite the well-oiled Russian propaganda machine that was working overtime to sway the Moldovan voters to support the pro-Russian parties. However, the pro-Western parties only won the election by a small margin as the Pro-Russian Socialist party came in first with 21 percent of the vote, and the Communist party came in third with 18 percent. A pro-EU government could only be made possible if the other parties formed a strong coalition. Thus Moldova entered 2015 with a great deal of uncertainty–after all, the pro-Western parties do not have a very good track record of effective coalition forming. It appeared that Moldova had overcome the vast external pressures (stemming from Russia), but achievement of true progress was now entirely up to the domestic political scene. This opportunity, however, was quickly squandered; after losing two months in negotiations, a minority government composed of pro-Western parties, yet dependent on Communist Party votes, was formed.  

The Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM, 23 seats), the Democratic Party (PDM, 19 seats), and the Liberal Party (LPM, 13 seats, previously a part of the pro-Western governing coalition), had engaged in lengthy coalition negotiations in hopes of forming a pro-Western coalition government. The negotiations ended leaving the Liberal Party out, as its demands were not satisfied. PLDM and MDP ended up forming a coalition called the Political Alliance for a European Moldova (APME), but a minority one with only 42 seats in the 101 seat parliament. The next party with most seats in the parliament is the Socialist Party (25 seats), but with their blatant pro-Russian orientation, they are not expected to side with any other parties in the foreseeable future. (The Socialist Party, which was founded by former Communist Party members, is strongly pro-Russian and advovates abandoning the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining Russia’s “Eurasian Customs Union.”) This left the coalition government relying on the Communist Party’s (20 seats) support during the vote of confidence as well as in the process of ruling the country.

The Communist Party, while moderate compared to the Socialist Party, has been the main troublemaker in Moldova’s domestic politics since the country’s independence. It has repeatedly prevented opposition parties from forming strong coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, primarily thanks to the Communist Party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. Thus any progress that may come as a result of the new government being in place is going to be slow and modest at best. The PLDM was charged with the task of a appointing the new prime minister–the Moldovans only participate in parliamentary elections; both, the president and the prime minister are appointed by the parliament. As a surprise to many, they chose to appoint a businessman and a newcomer to politics–Chiril Gaburici. Moldova therefore entered 2015 in an unfavorable political conditions, entirely thanks to the complexities of the relationships within the domestic political scene.

Another Corruption Scandal for Moldova

To add insult to injury, Moldova’s Central Bank recently discovered that one eighth of Moldova’s GDP, or $1 billion, has disappeared from Moldova’s banks. It turns out that in November 2014, the county’s three biggest banks gave out mysterious loans worth almost $1billion. The deals went sour and “the Government was forced to throw $870 million worth of emergency loans at the lenders to save them from bankruptcy.” The Business Insider called it one of Europe’s worst ever banking crises.

Moldova’s newly appointed Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici has harshly criticized the state prosecutors and the Central Bank chief, who have so far failed to properly investigate the case. As angry Moldovans protested in the streets, Gaburici called for the resignation of these individuals. However, in turn, he found himself being questioned by the state prosecutors over his suspicious school certificates. Gaburici announced his resignation on June 12th, stating that he is not a politician and is unwilling to deal with political maneuvering. State prosecutors have now opened a case against him over the forgery of school documents to gain entry to higher educational establishments.

Moldova’s now former Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici

As the political scandal unfolded, a previously scheduled International Monetary Fund visit had to be cancelled. The IMF visit was crucial for Moldova’s financial stability—as it appears impossible for the country to dodge a looming bankruptcy without substantial help from the IMF.

With the backdrop of this major scandal, Moldova carried out its local elections on June 14th. The disheartening events resulted in a low voter turnout—49 percent. However, as a surprise to many observers, 25 municipalities voted for pro-Western parties, and 7 municipalities elected pro-Russian candidates. While the results were in favor of the pro-Western parties, they will have to form a coalition in order to carry out effective policies.

Moldova’s Politics: A broken political system or successful practice of political pluralism?

Among its fellow hybrid regimes in the EU’s east (e.g., Georgia and Ukraine), Moldova has been the frontrunner in terms of EU integration. Georgia and Ukraine were denied a visa-free regime with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga this past May due to their failure to meet the conditions set out by the EU Association Agreement that they signed in 2013. Moldova, on the other hand, has been enjoying the benefits of EU visa liberalization since spring 2014. While Moldova is just as impoverished as Georgia and Ukraine, its European path is much more certain and even inevitable. This is not to say that the threat that Russia poses on Moldova isn’t existential. However, if one must find exactly what is keeping Moldova from (1) joining its close ally Romania and becoming a member of the EU and (2) achieving economic stability and democratic consolidation, one must look no further than Moldova’s domestic political scene.  

Can Russia really be blamed when the Moldovan pro-Western parties have proven to be so feckless, unreliable and unwilling to compromise? The failure of Moldova’s pro-EU parties to stand united in pursuing Moldova’s European-integration agenda continues to create endless political stagnation. Additionally, the rampant corruption is a major factor in handicapping Moldova’s political system. The frequent collapses of weak coalition governments and the endless resignations of leaders over corruption scandals are leaving the voters frustrated to the point of being pushed into the arms of the pro-Russian parties. Once the president accepts Gaburici’s resignation, the minority government will have to somehow gather support for a new nominee. If this fails, another parliamentary election may be in order, and it is likely that the disheartened Moldovans may not give the pro-Western parties yet another chance. This could in turn spiral Moldova’s domestic political climate out of control, and should the country willingly end up in the Russian orbit, there is very little the EU could do about it.

On the other hand, this seemingly diseased political system in Moldova has kept the country from experiencing any sort of authoritarian backsliding, in a region marred by democratic erosion. While Moldova’s democracy may not be consolidated, its system of political pluralism has managed to maintain the balance of power so far. It has been a very long time since we’ve seen any signs of rising authoritarianism in Moldova. In 2012 Georgia experienced the first ever peaceful transfer of power from Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition. This was a remarkable milestone for Georgia. Previously, since its independence all transfers of power had either been forced or as the result of popular uprisings. Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s modern history it only experienced a peaceful transfer of power once—and even that one instance turned out to be detrimental to the country’s democratic aspirations, as it brought President Yanukovych in power. 

By contrast, since independence Moldova’s semi-parliamentary system has worked effectively, allowing continuous peaceful transfers of power. While this has not secured democratic consolidation for Moldova, it has prevented the over-concentration of power in any single individual’s hands. Arguably, out of the three hybrid regimes, Moldova is the least likely to become an authoritarian or even semi-authoritarian state in the foreseeable future. In sum, all Moldova needs to achieve stability and prosperity is to get out of its own way. 

How does Moldova measure up with its fellow Hybrid states?


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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.


How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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Georgia and Moldova Remain Fragile as Russian Aggression Continues

We are upholding the principal that bigger nations can’t bully the small ones, by opposing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. (…) today it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tethers. That’s how America leads, not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

                                                                                        US President Barack Obama, State of the Union Speech, January 20, 2014

To be sure, Russia may be isolated, but Vladimir Putin is not retreating. His aggressive maneuvers continue to produce large numbers of military and civilian casualties in Ukraine every week, and there is no sign of improving conditions despite the fact that almost a year has passed since it all began. Ukraine is still in shambles, physically and economically. But how has the crisis in Ukraine affected Georgia and Moldova? Where do these small, fragile hybrid states stand today, and what challenges does their geopolitical location pose for them going forward?

First Ukraine, now Georgia: Russia quietly annexes Georgian territories

Once Georgia became independent from the USSR in 1991, ethnic conflicts broke out first in its South Ossetia region, and later in Abkhazia (in Western Georgia, bordering the Black Sea). At the time Georgia was considered a failed state, like many other former USSR states after they achieved initial independence. Thus its government was incapable of effectively resolving these conflicts with Russia-backed separatists. Both regions declared independence that was not recognized by any state other than Russia, who placed its “peacekeeping forces” in the de-facto republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then every Georgian government has unsuccessfully dedicated much effort and resources to resolving the frozen conflicts and reuniting with its breakaway regions. On the other hand Russia managed to closely integrate with both de-facto republics through many means – legal and illegal. The Russian government began handing out its passports practically to anyone who wanted one in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus creating a motive for long-term involvement there—its obligation to defend Russian citizens anywhere.

The frozen conflict with South Ossetia reached a new level of complication when a war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. While each side accused the other of starting the conflict and Georgia’s then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s reputation suffered a great deal over the war, the fact that Russia bombed undisputed Georgian sovereign territory—the city of Gori and its surroundings, located well beyond the borders of South Ossetia, remains unchanged.

The international response to the 2008 war was weak at best. Finally, after five days of war Poland and France brokered a cease-fire deal between the two sides. Once the bombing stopped the situation started to look frozen again, from the outside, but soon after the war ended the Russian “peacekeeping” forces began to build barricades to create a physical border between Georgia and South Ossetia.

While the 2008 war looked like an isolated incident for a while, there is now good reason to believe that this act was Putin’s way of testing the waters. The minor international outrage and lack of any meaningful punishment was what Putin hoped for and achieved. This laid the groundwork for the war in Ukraine later.

While the Ukraine crisis has rightfully been publicized, Russia’s recent moves to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia have gone practically unnoticed. Recently, as part of his larger strategy of expanding Russia’s borders as well as its sphere of direct influence, Putin made significant advances towards formally annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia (more so in the latter case). In late November 2014 he and the leader of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, signed the “strategic partnership agreement.” According to this document Russia and Abkhazia will join their military forces under Russian command. Additionally, Moscow promised to double its subsidies to Abkhazia to about $200 million in 2015. Moreover, Abkhazian leadership has agreed to integrate its trade laws with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Thus not only has Putin not given up on his expansionist policies, he is still actively pursuing the idea of the Eurasian Economic Union.

The EU, the NATO, Washington, and the Georgian government all condemned this agreement, but no other tangible moves have been made by either party.  The response was so weak that Putin’s government went on to draft another treaty, but this time with South Ossetia, and one that is comprehensive enough that it translates into de facto annexation.

Drafted in December 2014, this agreement is meant to “legalize South Ossetia’s integration with Russia.” Its clauses go well beyond the matters of military integration and include Russian takeover of South Ossetia’s border control, finances, economy, educational, healthcare, and social welfare systems. On the other hand the agreement removes borders and restrictions on movement of goods and people between Russian and South Ossetian territories. The language of this document in itself is all-encompassing, and once the terms of this agreement are implemented, Russia will have truly swallowed South Ossetia, likely irreversibly so.

In addition to this, Russia’s financial crisis and sheer incompetence of the current Georgian government have driven the country into economic turmoil. The Georgian lari devaluated and prices of goods and services have skyrocketed. While Georgia managed to achieve average GDP growth rates in 2014 (real GDP increased by approximately 5.9 percent), the year ended with massive panic among Georgian citizens as the lari continued to plummet to its lowest rates in the past 10 years. In theory the currency devaluation should encourage trade and foreign direct investment, but an array of reforms on foreign ownership of property, labor, and immigration laws adopted by the Georgian government in the recent years had already led to a decrease in investor confidence and ease of doing business in Georgia. Thus its GDP growth forecast for 2015 has already been lowered by 2 percent. The government’s inability to deal with public panic and offer timely explanation to what caused the lari crisis and how it can be resolved is worrisome. No apparent solution for the lari problem is in sight at the moment.

The looming economic crisis in Georgia is partly a result of larger shock waves. However, the loss of territorial integrity is a different issue altogether, thus it is particularly noticeable that Georgian government and media are free of any significant outrage over Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Moreover, the current Georgian government (but not the media or the public) has been very delicate so far in its expression of support for Ukraine or condemnation of Russia’s actions there. Whether the inaction is caused by fear of Russia, or general indifference, Georgia has experienced what looks like irreversible losses in the last year, and is entering 2015 in highly unfavorable conditions.

Moldova Makes pro-EU Choice, but Remains Very Fragile

This past November Moldovans had an opportunity to elect a new government. The Moldovan elections were highly publicized as the deeply polarized geopolitical conditions meant that the Moldovans were going to choose between Russia and the EU. The pro-Western parties prevailed, but no parliamentary majority could be achieved without forming a coalition. By mid-January 2015, almost two months later, a coalition agreement was finally signed between the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova and the Democratic Party of Moldova. The Liberal Party, previously a part of the pro-Western governing coalition that included all three parties, did not join the coalition. The next step for the coalition is to form an effective government.

Rampant political infighting, corruption, and lack of government effectiveness have kept Moldova in continuous political stagnation, keeping it from implementing much needed reforms in an effective manner, thus earning it the status of “Europe’s poorest country.” Therefore “choosing between the EU and Russia” was not such a straightforward decision to make for the Moldovan voters. While the latent anti-Russian sentiment was reinvigorated by the Ukraine crisis, the alternative to pro-Russian parties—the pro-Western coalition government that had been in charge for the past few years—began to lose its appeal as it became ensconced in continuous political turmoil.

Some of the most recent political scandals included the collapse of the coalition government led by Vlad Filat, who was accused of corruption and abuse of power; a parliament left without a ruling majority from February to May of 2013; and a rift within the ruling coalition that slowed down the implementation of much needed reforms. Finally, to quote a 2014 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) report:

The obstacles to any managed transformation in the country remain massive: the structural weakness of the Moldovan economy and thus its absolute dependence on stronger partners, the decades lost in political debate and continuous rearrangement of political loyalties, the unresolved Transnistrian conflict, and the structural havoc wrought by mass out-migration and brain drain. Consequently, any government’s scope of action is limited.

A closer look at the election results directly coincides with the high degree of uncertainty and division among the Moldovan voters. The pro-Russian Socialist Party came in first with 21 percent of the vote, with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in second place with 19 percent, and the still highly influential and popular Communist Party, led by Moldova’s former President Voronin, in third place with close to 18 percent of the votes. The Socialist Party, which was founded by former Communist Party members, is strongly pro-Russian and advocates abandoning the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining Russia’s “Eurasian Customs Union.” This is an idea that seems to appeal to at least 21 percent of the Moldovan voters. 

As the pro-Western parties were preparing to form a coalition, some expected the Communist Party to join in. However, this expectation was proven invalid when the Communist Party members filed a petition to declare the election results null and void. While the Communist Party is not officially against EU integration, and Voronin is not overtly pro-Russian, the problem posed by the party’s strong presence in the Moldovan parliament is two-fold: First, the Communist Party represents a Soviet-era relic (even retaining the hammer and sickle in its logo) that by definition cannot lead Moldova into the European Union nor facilitate the consolidation of its democracy. Second, the Communist Party has a track record of creating long-term uncertainty in Moldovan politics and destabilizing its government. The Moldovan Communist Party has repeatedly prevented opposition parties from forming strong and effective coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, thanks to the Communist party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. On the other hand, 18 percent of the votes represents a serious drop in support for the Communist Party compared to 39.34 percent which it received in the previous parliamentary elections in 2010. However, some commentators have suggested that the votes the Communist Party lost went to the more radically anti-western Socialist Party.  On the whole, the popular support for the Party per se has been steadily declining since the early 2000s. The Communists received about 50 percent of the votes in 2001, 46 percent in 2005, and 45 percent in 2009.

Besides the existing domestic challenges, Russian meddling in Moldovan politics continued to be an important factor in 2014. There has been much reason to fear that Moldova might become the next Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. In view of the Ukraine crisis, Moldova’s outlook for making major strides toward consolidating its democracy or achieving further EU integration without severe consequences has begun to look grim. The country had suffered under Russian pressure many times in the past, often economically due to Russian embargoes on Moldovan export products. In addition to this, most Moldovans speak Russian as well as Moldovan, and many of them have family members who work in Russia, and whose remittances greatly support the economy. Thus the degree of Russian influence on Moldova and Moldovans has proven to be so high, that moving closer into the EU orbit can be viewed as playing with fire. Considering the fact that Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria falls within Putin’s “Novorossya” agenda, the fear of a Russian takeover was legitimate until the Russian economic crisis began to unfold in December 2014, and became renewed this month as the Ukraine crisis began to take a new turn for worse.

At this point, if Russia were to formally annex Transnistria, it would have to exert serious military efforts that would yield an outcome of too little strategic importance at a very high cost. Directing its military actions against Moldova would mean picking a fight with Ukraine’s Odessa region (in south-Western Ukraine, on the Black Sea), and then invading the sovereignty of Moldova via Transnistria. This would be followed by additional Western scrutiny of a country that is already starting to show signs of breaking down under the pressure of falling oil prices—Russia’s undiversified economy relies on energy export profits as its primary source of income—exacerbated by the effect of Western sanctions. Using the logic of any democratic leader, invading Moldova would not offer a big enough net payoff for Russia, but Putin’s agenda has hardly ever proven to be aligned with a democratic leader’s logic, thus Moldova remains in danger as long as the Ukraine crisis continues. 

An unstable Moldova would remain highly susceptible to direct Russian influence, and undermine its ability to attain EU membership. This in turn would enable Russia to continue to meddle in Moldovan politics and exercise de-facto control over Transnistria, but also most importantly—continue to transport energy into Europe using the vital lines that cross the Moldovan territory. Thus, Russia keeping Moldova within reach via Transnistria (Russian “peacekeeping” forces are also well situated in Transnistria) is a savvy strategy Putin will keep up his sleeve as he continues to pursue his expansionist policies.

It was with this strategy in mind that Russia meddled in Moldova’s November 2014 parliamentary elections. In fact, a pro-Russian Fatherland party was banned from participating in the elections just one day before they were held for allegedly receiving Russian funding. This ban by the Moldovan government caused a major uproar among Russian officials, who warned that Moldova should tread carefully going forward and once again banned Moldovan exports to Russia.

However, there are important factors that could help make the case for Moldova’s potential European future. In November 2013, at the fateful Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius (the event that precipitated the still ongoing Ukraine crisis), in contrast to the Victor Yanukovich government, Moldova initialed and in 2014 signed the EU Association Agreement. Within this framework Moldova was granted visa-free travel rights to the Schengen  countries (which Georgia does not yet enjoy, although it also signed the association agreement). The citizens of Moldova have been benefiting from this important new arrangement since April 2014; an incentive that would be difficult to give up for closer ties with Russia, and benefits of which would surely outweigh any painful consequences of reoccurring Russian embargoes on Moldovan exports.

In addition to this, unlike Georiga, Moldova has a strong EU ally in Romania, where recent presidential elections served as encouraging news for Moldova as well as the EU. In Romania, the first round of presidential elections on November 3rd revealed Victor Ponta and Klaus Iohannis as the contestants for the runoff elections. In the second round of elections, Klaus Iohannis emerged the winner with 54.5 percent of the votes. Iohannis is an ethnic German and a former mayor of Sibiu, a well-off town in the region of Transylvania. He represents the center-right bloc via the Christian Liberal Alliance. Iohannis pre-election campaign was based on a promise of a “normal Romania,” free of lies and scandals that the Basescu-Ponta government was characterized by. Ponta’s candidacy was creating a high degree of anxiety among the pro-Western voters and commentators. It was expected that had Ponta won the elections, he would reorient Romania more closely towards Russia and China, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Historically and geopolitically speaking, Romania has reasons for wanting to lead Moldova into the EU. Romanian officials have on multiple occasions stated that it is in Romania’s strong interest to strengthen its ties with Moldova and support its EU membership aspirations. Thus stronger Romania is good news for Moldova as well.


In sum, both, Georgia and Moldova have had a turbulent year. Some significant progress was made towards achieving the much coveted EU integration in the form of signing Association Agreements with it. However, Georgia is now further than ever from the possibility of reuniting with its breakaway regions, and Moldova is still in serious danger of Russia-instigated domestic unrests (stemming from Transnistria). Both economies will continue to be affected by the shockwaves coming from the ruble crisis, and unless their governments receive competent guidance from the West, they will very likely experience economic crises themselves.

Both countries were previously on a very slow path towards democratization. Georgia and Moldova struggled with consolidating democracy and implementing reforms to achieve good governance, rule of law, development of strong civil society, political culture, and sustainable economy. The democratization processes in both countries were slow and often halted, requiring constant hand-holding from the EU and the US. Thus newly aggressive Russia and the Ukraine crisis further challenged this fragile path for Georgia and Moldova, adding to the uncertainty of their future.

While the West has taken serious steps to punish Vladimir Putin’s government, the Russian people seem to be the only ones feeling the consequences. President Putin is showing no signs of retreating, and is clearly willing to sacrifice Russia’s well-being in order to satisfy his own hunger for power. Thus this is a 21st century authoritarian challenge that the West must face in a creative and rigorous way. Remaining engaged with Ukraine while also encouraging and strengthening Georgia and Moldova will be key to preventing violent Russian expansion. 


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