2019: Battle for Eastern Europe

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In the first half of the year Ukraine and Moldova will face another political crisis. Neighboring Romania also is going through turbulence, and it is unclear how the EU is ready to ensure the peace of its Eastern borders. The example of Venezuela shows that major players are still fighting for influence in different parts of the world, and the European divide is the tidbit. Read how the situation may develop in the RTA review.

Chronic elections

In the post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe, the words “elections” and “stability” are antonyms. Throughout the 20th century, these countries were regularly shaken by wars, revolutions and regime changes, so the democratic traditions here simply did not have time to strengthen. Elections are not always fair, politicians are not always consistent, and the change of power leads to the redistribution of property, purges in the state machine and appearance of cronies in key positions. Elections in Moldova and Ukraine in the last 10-15 years have become a period of stagnation, and local elites are not yet able to fight this seasonal fever. Experts are almost convinced that the next election aggravation awaits Moldova and Ukraine this year. Moldovan citizens will elect the parliament on February 24, and a month later, on March 31, Ukraine will vote for presidential candidates. Most likely in the spring all only begins. Ukraine will have parliamentary elections in the same year, and Moldova is incredibly lucky with early elections – according to estimates, Moldovan citizens will visit the voting station three to five times during the year. Besides, society in the country is divided, disappointed and embittered, so we cannot exclude mass protests, sabotage of the vote and other manifestations of social fatigue. Kyiv and Chisinau are the main sources of instability in the region. At the turn of 2018-2019 Romania has masterfully complemented the list of troubled countries of Eastern Europe. Bucharest experiences a protracted internal political crisis, which very untimely coincided with the year of Romania’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. European officials do not hide doubts about the ability of the Romanian authorities to manage the Council, while Bucharest can not manage itself. At the same time, Romania remains a significant player in Eastern Europe, as it is a member of NATO, the closest ally of the United States in the region and perseveres in territorial claims to the historical Bessarabia – the whole of Moldova and part of the Odesa oblast of Ukraine. Ukraine’s unpredictability, Moldova’s fatigue and Romania’s inconsistency provoke geopolitical bargaining and a fight for influence over the region. Instability is the right time for shady undertakings and intrigue.

Positions and forecasts

The situation in Venezuela has shown that the logic of geopolitical struggle between the largest centers of power has not changed much in the 21st century. The United States has supported the self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido, Russia still supports the incumbent head of the Republic Nicolas Maduro. Washington is traditionally ready to support the change of regimes around the world in word, deed and dollar, and Russia, on the contrary, to help allies in different parts of the world to stay in power. The situation is even more interesting in Eastern Europe – here one of the players is the European Union itself, since the positions of Brussels and Washington in 2019 seriously differ on many issues. The European Union would like to see Moldova, Ukraine and Romania as consistent partners in implementing the recommendations of Brussels. Washington is primarily interested in the military-strategic component and the ability to increase its military presence in the region, while the quality of the elites in the United States is considered a secondary issue. Russia is trying to keep Chisinau and Kyiv in the orbit of its influence and to prevent NATO’s dangerous approach to its borders in Europe, while Moscow is not averse to establishing relations with the EU, which were quite good before the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014. In the period of electoral stagnation the main factor of influence on the countries will become a “soft power” and different kinds of network structures. Experts believe that the situation in Eastern Europe in the coming months will be under the most careful and tight control of the Western structures, operating for many years in Moldova and Ukraine. Attention to Romania will also increase – Bucharest’s allies in NATO need guarantees of predictable actions of the Romanian government in case of aggravation in neighboring countries. Russia, in its turn, will try to come to a compromise with the EU on the future of Eastern Europe. The main cases on which the positions of Moscow and Brussels can get closer are Ukraine and unrecognized Transdniestria. In the first case, the desire of Russian and European elites to return to the pre-crisis level of relations has started to form for a long time and is driven by a simple and pragmatic logic: both sides suffer losses from mutual sanctions. Transdniestria can be a powerful trigger for positive changes in the region if Brussels and Moscow manage to develop a viable model of settlement that would suit all parties. The main challenge of 2019, which future is still questionable, is the possibility of power destabilization in Moldova and Ukraine. In Moldova, we cannot rule out a repetition of the events of a decade ago, when the Twitter revolution happened in the country with the tacit support of Western partners. In addition, the situation around the pro-Russian Transdniestria is in limbo as provocations in this area can happen even without the direct participation of the authorities in Chisinau. In Ukraine the most vulnerable point remains the Donbas, where no sustainable peace formula exists yet. Events in the Kerch Strait have shown that no status quo in Eastern Europe can be considered sustainable and it could collapse at any moment. Given that certain players on the European continent see destabilization as the proper way to advance their own interests, new shocks in 2019 seem quite likely. In particular, if events develop according to the scenario unprofitable for one of the parties of geopolitical fight.