Association Trio: A Strategic Alliance or “Friendship” Out of Necessity?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Ukraine and Georgia’s baggage of problems makes them increasingly dubious companions for Moldova in terms of the country’s accelerated European integration
Ahead of the sixth Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in the format of an Association Trio, the heads of the Moldovan, Ukrainian and Georgian governments met with the leadership of the European Union to address the coordinating efforts in the European integration of the three countries. The trio itself, as we remember, was a result of a memorandum signed by the foreign ministers of these states in Kiev. According to the document, the new format was created to solve several key tasks: structuring consultations on European integration of participants, engaging in dialogue with institutions and members of the European Union, as well as coordinating positions within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Later on, in July, Georgia hosted the first summit of the leaders of the trio member countries, following which the Batumi Summit Declaration was signed. By staying in Brussels, the three most loyal members of the Eastern Partnership seemed to be trying to convince the European Union that the upcoming summit on December 15 should re-energize the program and set new long-term goals in order to meet the expectations of the population and the political leadership of the three states. In addition, as it became known, Chisinau, Kiev and Tbilisi count on the support of key priorities from Brussels, first of all their European aspirations, further economic integration with the EU internal market and enhancing security. Thus, the Association Trio members want to continue their close rapprochement with the EU, realizing at the same time that they will not become members of the union in the near future. In other words, they seek to become a kind of “friends with a privileged status” for Brussels while waiting for the moment when European partners decide to offer them a higher status. In theory, this approach does not contradict the EU’s desire to have loyal neighbors in the east. At the same time, Brussels has serious concerns about being too deeply involved in this extremely unstable regional space. Moreover, even without this, each of the three countries is in an extremely difficult situation. For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the parliamentary majority loyal to him continue to lose confidence, which leads to an increase in discontent among the population and conflict with large business. Because of this, Zelensky is forced to resort to extremely ambiguous methods, such as direct threats to internal opponents, in order to prevent coup attempts. It remains unclear how the next round of military escalation with Moscow – in which the North Atlantic Alliance and Kiev’s Western partners have already been actively involved – will end. Tbilisi is also mired in a protracted internal political crisis, which for a long period of time constrains the governmental activity and provokes society’s overreaction due to extremely undemocratic manifestations on the part of the authorities. Even the mediation efforts of the President of the European Council Charles Michel in resolving the difficult situation in Georgia were ultimately unsuccessful. Moldova fixed its special hopes on the new pro-European president and government, but political decisions devoid of foresight, a series of difficult-to-explain failures in key areas, including ambiguous results of negotiations with Moscow on the gas contract, led to a rapid decline in the popularity of the ruling party and the population’s expressed discontent. Nevertheless, despite all the nuances, there is a feeling that the situation in our country is more or less calm, unlike other Association Trio partners. This was also pointed by Nicu Popescu who stated that Moldova is in a very difficult geopolitical context – and yet, a closer look at the rest of the Eastern Partnership countries shows they are going through a phase of acute crisis. Therefore, according to Popescu, one of the Moldovan diplomacy priorities is to retain this stability around and inside the country. So how important are such “troublesome friends” for us in terms of European integration right now? First things first, in the current circumstances Georgia is more of a tactical ally for Chisinau which reinforces the pro-European triumvirate and helps to fight their way through the thick bureaucracy of the European Union - however, afterwards, as it is not difficult to notice, each of the participants will follow its own path. In addition, it is quite obvious that Tbilisi’s integration prospects cannot actually be in one package with Moldova and Ukraine. Not only geographical reasons are relevant in this regard but also Georgia’s belonging to another regional platform with its own specifics and security system. As for Kiev, experts have long noted that throughout the year Ukrainian leaders have been excessively responsive to our authorities and pushy enough in their attempts to draw Moldova into the developing conflict context which is becoming increasingly dangerous for Chisinau’s further relations with the European Union. A new Donbas escalation vividly highlights that Moldova needs to maintain a safe distance in order not to be involved in the problems of the neighboring state which are becoming increasingly toxic. In this sense, the Crimean platform can serve as a perfect example, but far from the only one. Over the past decades, Moldova and Ukraine have accumulated numerous sensitive issues in their relations, which can hardly be hidden behind large-scale infrastructure projects and grand plans. Therefore, the explicit restraint of the government and low tempo in implementing the high-level bilateral initiatives seems to be a completely conscious choice. Moreover, the leadership of the republic should understand that excessive rapprochement with Kiev will inevitably interlink the two conflicts in the Donbass and Transdniestria, to be followed by the Transdniestrian settlement destabilization, which will unlikely bring the country’s reintegration closer. Of course, the Associated Trio format still has some sense when solving small tactical tasks, but, in fact, equalizes its members, despite their obviously different position on the common European integration track. However, in the future Moldova will undoubtedly give preference to its individual plan and try to follow its own path. To that end, Moldovan diplomats shall convince Brussels that our country, despite all the peculiarities, is most consistent with the EU standards and can move faster towards the European family.