By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN
° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.
The year 2020 has revealed the many weaknesses of the Eastern Partnership region. The pandemic has become the most unpredictable exogenous factor, which has complicated the operating conditions not only for the economies of the six states but also for their political systems...
The Eastern Partnership space went through difficult times during 2020. Several situation towers have profoundly changed the image and democratic perspectives of some states in the region. Following the national elections in the Northern Group of the Partnership, the old elites’ status quo, whose existence is due to an authoritarian system or various sources of corruption, was shaken. The traditional pessimism related to the systemic stagnation of democratic processes in some states has been questioned. Thus, the organization of peaceful post-election protests in Belarus laid the foundations of the white-red revolution, and the presidential elections in Moldova propelled to power the political forces, determined to deliver reforms and better governance. At the same time, in the Simultaneously the Eastern Partnership, the positive course of events has been considerably diminished by the Karabakh war, on the one hand, and by the resistance to change of the oligarchic regime in Georgia, on the other.
The health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that the states in the region need urgent consolidation of public administration bodies at central and local level. Both the autocracies and semi-democracies have shown a multitude of weaknesses, particularly in public health. The availability of economic resources and improved internal coordination after the 2015-2016 migrant crisis has not made the EU and its Member States less vulnerable to the pandemic. National governments have re-nationalized internal borders and prioritized national interests over European supranational ones. For this reason, the EU institutions have had the crucial mission of demonstrating their usefulness in the eyes of European citizens, primarily. Only after European solidarity materialized within the EU was it able to take shape concerning its eastern neighbours the form of financing the purchase of protective equipment and establishing financial support, consisting of grants and loans.
The externalization of the public criticism, previously possible due to the labor migration, has fragmented because of the frequent lockdowns. Therefore, the public dissatisfaction with the inefficiency of national governments’ of Eastern Partnership states stayed at home. Some regimes – such as Azerbaijan – have turned the pandemic challenge into an opportunity to return the territories controlled for more than two decades by Armenian forces. In other countries, Moldova and Ukraine, citizens’ mistrust have affected the ruling political forces’ electoral performance. Of all the six Eastern Partnership states, only in Georgia and Azerbaijan, the ruling regimes reached the end of the year with renewed legitimacy through contested votes or territorial conquests. Nevertheless, by the end of 2020, the six states’ institutional shortcomings were revealed, and the regimes’ fragility to deliver either democracy or public goods.
The five main challenges
The most severe challenge for the Eastern Partnership space was the pandemic, which, since its first appearance, has caused casualties among the population and economies. Most separatist regions in the region have been concerned about their epidemiological security (3DCFTAs, May 2020), relying less on Russia, their traditional funder, facing one of the highest levels of contagion in the world. Against the pandemic background that severely affected Armenia and slowed down international actors’ response capacity, the Baku regime decided to turn the ceasefire violation on both sides to restore the country’s territorial integrity. The inability to prevent Karabakh’s conflict escalation benefited the regime of Ilham Alyiev, but pushed the mandate of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on the edge of the abyss. In the southern Eastern Partnership, anti-reform forces in the Ukrainian judiciary have attacked anti-corruption mechanisms, jeopardizing the country’s external funding and compromising President Volodymyr Zelensky’s anti-corruption claims. During 2020, the existing autocracies and oligarchic regimes in the Eastern Partnership remained in power, albeit in some places with serious losses of legitimacy.
1. The crippling effect of the pandemic on democracies, populations and Eastern European economies. Probably with the exception of the IT and e-commerce sectors, the rest of the economies went through multi-aspectual paralysis. That came from the multiple states of emergencies and, in most cases, the lack of financial resources to compensate those among the population and economies who faced unparalleled losses. Almost 2 million people in the six Partnership countries had the infection, of which over 30,000 had died during 2020 alone. By mid-2020, Moldova had the most negative statistics, surpassed by Georgia in the fall. Street protests and elections in the region were among the factors that contributed to the spreading of infections. Nevertheless, the inefficient enforcement of health safety rules remains the primary cause. Except for Belarus, all states in the region have been receptive to the population’s risk of infection. Therefore, the introduction of the state of emergency (3DCFTAs, December 2020) became imminent, in some cases for the first time in the country’s history (Moldova). At the same time, the governments of the region have applied restrictive regimes for being in public places, in the case of Belarus serving as a justification for the repression of anti-Lukashenko protests. By 2020, countries’ economic growth will be declining. International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections vary from country to country, with the largest GDP drop attributed to Ukraine (over 7%) and the lowest to Belarus – 3%. Therefore, the Partnership’s states will enter in 2021 economically weakened and politically wrinkled.
2. The failure to stop the Second Karabakh War. The continued militarization of Armenia and Azerbaijan after the first conflagration of 1992-1994 always kept the path of a new military confrontation open. Between 2010 and 2019, the two countries’ military budgets practically increased by about 70% – the Armenian one up to $ 673 million and the Azerbaijani one up to $ 1854 million, respectively. With less capacity to finance its army than Azerbaijan, Yerevan has always relied on Russia’s possible intervention and membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. However, these calculations were too optimistic, as Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of Armenian territory internationally recognized as an integral part of Azerbaijan. Neither the cause of self-determination of the Armenian minority in Karabakh nor the international negotiations under the Minsk Group’s auspices (OSCE) have stopped the Azerbaijani offensive. In a changing regional context, the Azerbaijani strategy towards the Karabakh drew from the fact that Turkey is playing on its own in terms of its Euro-Atlantic partners and Russia. Therefore, the new violation of the ceasefire regime in September became Baku’s opportunity to move the army towards the Azerbaijani territories controlled since the mid-1990s by Armenian forces. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic did not deter those military intentions. The authoritarian Azerbaijani regime realized that for Armenia, seriously hit by the harmful effects of the infection, a new war in the Karabakh was opening a second front, in addition to the pandemic one. Turkey’s political support and military assistance, particularly the use of Turkish drones (Bayraktar TB-2) in the mountainous region of Karabakh, favored the victory of Azerbaijan and the surrender of Armenia, respectively, within 44 days. Following the Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan trilateral negotiations, facilitated by Vladimir Putin, a ceasefire armistice entered into force (Kremlin.ru, November 10, 2020), which allows the restoration of Azerbaijani control over 75% of the previously occupied territories (about 300 localities). In the remaining area of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian peacekeeping mission (with 2,000 troops) was established. The balance of power in the region has changed dramatically, including thanks to the Russian-Turkish monitoring center, which will observe armistice’s fulfilment on the liberated Azerbaijani territory, especially the withdrawal of Armenian forces. Although there are prospects for stabilizing the Karabakh and promoting a lasting solution to protect the Armenian minority, Russia is stepping up its influence over Armenia. Moreover, Turkey is becoming a new robust geopolitical player in 2/3 of the South Caucasus, to the detriment of EU post-factum diplomacy (IPN, November 2020) and signs of absenteeism from the US.
3. Threatening of the reform efforts in Armenia. The signing of the ceasefire with Azerbaijan was an undesirable but necessary solution for the Yerevan government, avoiding losing all control in Karabakh. The move by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has turned into a capitulation for the Armenian public opinion. The opposition was quick to use the government’s political and military failure to put on the public agenda the subject of the government’s resignation, the most reformist and honest since its independence. Amid the post-war crisis, seventeen political parties of the opposition established “National Salvation Movement” (3DCFTAs, December 2020), used to capitalize on nationalist frustrations in society in the event of early elections in 2021, impossible without Pashinyan’s resignation. The development of this scenario may block the reform processes in the country for a long time. Therefore, the fight against political corruption, initiated after the anticipations of 2018, in which Pashinyan’s party – “My Step” – obtained a historic majority (88 out of 132 seats) risks rolling back. Even if Pashinyan’s figure remains in Armenian politics, its discrediting is almost irreparable, for an indefinite period, because of the Second Karabakh War, which Armenia lost unlike the first one. In addition to territorial losses, the discrediting of post-2018 pro-reform forces and the beginning of the old political elite’s rehabilitation, Armenia has renewed its dependence on Russia, on which depends the peacekeeping mission and the negotiation of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
4. Counterattack of the old system in Ukraine. The suspension of anti-corruption instruments by judges of the Ukrainian Constitutional Court has jeopardized the complicated process of building a more integrated public-political sector. The Court’s decision outlawed the income declaration system, which allowed the identification of inconsistencies between real wealth and official salaries of appointed or elected officials, including judges, with the application of penalties for false declarations. In addition to diminishing national integrity authority’s role, constitutional judges have generated an inter-institutional conflict with the presidency and parliament. President Volodymyr Zelensky has launched a bill to oust the current constitutional judges, but it has remained on paper because it does not meet constitutionality criteria. The use of unconstitutional means to discipline the Constitutional Court can set serious precedents for the country’s rule of law. Simultaneously, without restoring the income tax system, Ukraine will not be able to access loans from the IMF or the EU. Moreover, the urgent solution to the problem is also conditional on the visa-free regime’s imminent revision, in force since June 2017. To prevent these adverse developments, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new law that restores the declaration system. Although the law has partially reassured Western partners, it contains shortcomings in the sanctions regime, which is not rigorous enough to prevent corrupt behavior.
5. Resilience of the Eastern Partnership oligarchies and autocracies. The political and epidemiological processes have tested the oligarchic forces’ survival skills in Georgia or those of the autocracies in Belarus and Azerbaijan. In none of the cases, even under external pressure, did the regimes in power abandon their positions, but instead found ways to strengthen their influence. In Georgia, oligarch Ivanishvili used elections, on the one hand, and EU-US tolerance, on the other, to secure a new parliamentary majority. Belarus has stepped up integrationist dialogue with Russia to lessen the effects of Western sanctions imposed to punish Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on peaceful protests. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani authorities have capitalized on Turkey’s pandemic crisis and geopolitical emergency to restore the country’s territorial integrity and fuel the sources of public legitimacy of Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian regime.
The top five opportunities
In the context of the challenges that dominated in 2020, a series of positive events also proliferated, which regenerated the hope that the region has democratic potential. The degradation of the epidemiological situation, and sometimes of the political one, in the Eastern Partnership states created a unique moment in which the European institutions were able to elucidate their relevance. It became clear that joint actions between the EU and the US add value. At the same time, companies in the region have learned to capitalize on the human and technological resources available to review the political scene. Of all the events that took place during 2020, the following are worth mentioning:
1. Obtaining EU support to mitigate the effects of the health crisis. The most practical situations to discover real friends are crises. The intention to become an active geopolitical actor and the interest in ensuring stability in the eastern neighborhood, led the EU to put on the table instruments of assistance against the consequences of the pandemic. In April 2020, the European Commission decided to mobilize about 30 million euros as urgent aid for the Eastern Partnership. This assistance went towards the procurement of medicines and personal protective equipment for the medical sector, carried out in close coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO). Besides, the EU mobilized € 961 million in financial assistance for the six Partnership states. This amount constituted one-third of the European funds allocated for the whole neighborhood (about 3 billion euros), and most of the money, to the size of the population, was allocated to Georgia – 183 million euros (3DCFTA, April 2020). In April 2020, Brussels clarified that it wants to supplement the rapid relief efforts offered by the IMF. Thus, the European institutions agreed on macro-financial assistance to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, in two tranches, until the first half of 2021. The political pre-condition related to the rule of law was maintained, and due to the pandemic, sectoral conditionality was attached only to the second tranche (IPN, August 2020). Although partially belated, European solidarity in the form of financial aid has somewhat offset the fact that the visa-free regime has disrupted because of the travel restrictions to and from the EU (IPN, June 2020). The “deliverables 2030” package proposed to the Partnership after 2020 may have a complementary supporting effect. In any case, the EU has done better than international organizations in the ex-Soviet space – the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union (IPN, May 2020). Thus, Brussels managed not only to restore its internal equilibrium but also to support its eastern neighbors. Funding WHO for the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines (approximately EUR 500 million), including from the Partnership States, is undoubtedly a crucial move. However, the EU could also make explicit promises of donating BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines, already administered on European territory, to the associated states – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – in the first half of 2021.
2. The start of the Belarusian democratic revolution. The covert destabilization of the authoritarian regime began due to ignoring the pandemic crisis in the spring of 2020 but intensified after the falsification of August’s presidential election. Alexandr Lukashenko has continued his rule, uninterrupted for the past 26 years. Nevertheless, the falsification of the vote became the beginning of revolutionary processes for Belarus (IPN, August 2020), where until 2020 the call for welfare convinced more citizens than the benefits coming from democratizing the country. New political leaders, previously apolitical, have entered the political space and a whole generation of citizens with a creative civic spirit and contagious, never met before, has spread in the society in record time. Thanks to Russia and China, Lukashenko’s regime has gained external assistance and legitimacy, so far enough to survive about five months of peaceful protests (IPN, September 2020). The West has mobilized its sanctioning instruments to raise the cost of state violence, instituted and managed by Lukashenko and his entourage, against peaceful protesters. So far, the EU has sanctioned more than 80 civil servants and 7 state-owned companies connected with fraud in the August 2020 presidential elections or crimes against the mental and physical integrity of protesters and the opposition in Belarus. The implementation of the EU’s “Magnitsky Act” (IPN, December 2020), adopted in December 2020 and dedicated to protecting human rights, if used against the Lukashenko regime, could highlight the gravity of the situation in Belarus. Between August and December, the mass violation of fundamental rights affected more than 30,000 between August and December 2020. Despite the incomparable brutality of Lukashenko’s regime, its survival is uncertain in 2021. Belarusian citizens have developed a powerful civic spirit. Simultaneously, the opposition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and civil society has significantly branched out their diplomatic, political and non-governmental networks in the Western direction. These achievements will be vital in promoting democratic change, which Russia wants to undermine through undemocratic constitutional reform of a weakened Lukashenko’s regime.
3. Election of a pro-reform president in Moldova. The victory in the second round of the opposition leader Maia Sandu, with almost one million votes, became a significant contribution to the renovation of power institutions. Even if the new president has limited powers (EESC, November 2020), they can help political forces advocating for reforms and the fight against political corruption if used intelligently. A professional, transparent and integral performance at the head of the presidency can create a demand for similar changes in the other state institutions, first in parliament and government. In any case, the optimism needs dozing. The new president’s failures can have political costs for his political allies, especially in the context of the abundant populism promoted by left-wing opponents. Before the new president’s inauguration, the government’s self-resignation created explicit preconditions for the start of early parliamentary elections in 2021 (3DCFTAs, December 2020). Terminating the term of the legislature elected in 2019 is of high symbolism. That will close the chapter of an all-pervading political corruption’s decade that spurred the oligarchization of the political processes and the capture of state institutions by criminal-oligarchic networks. The election of Maia Sandu is a substantial step forward in democratizing the country, which can boost European integration by limiting the Russian factor’s influence on national decision-making processes.
4. The EU-US tandem and effective mediation of the political crisis in Georgia. The EU and the US carried out external mediation of political crises in the Eastern Partnership space only in Georgia. In 2020, the effects of US-European mediation produced mixed results, and the employment of Georgian political actors was not always constructive. In the first episode of mediation, EU and US ambassadors Kelly Degnan and Carl Hertzell were more effective in providing a bridge between the ruling party (“Georgian Dream”) and the opposition National Unity Movement. In addition, because of this effort, criminal cases against the political opposition were terminated. Thanks to EU-US diplomatic intervention, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s regime has accepted electoral reform implementation for the 2020 legislative elections, although not in full. Maintaining power dominated the pro-Ivanishvili party’s calculations. The latter used two tricks. The first is to maintain a mixed vote based on majoritarian districts for 30 of the total 150 seats in parliament. Lowering the electoral threshold to 1% to pulverize the opposition in as many issues as possible was the second political trick. Therefore, following the October legislative elections, Ivanishvili’s political party obtained a comfortable majority (90 seats), although not an absolute one to amend the constitution. The second episode of EU-US diplomatic mediation was relatively problematic. Unlike Brussels and Washington, which approved the parliamentary elections’ results, the Georgian opposition challenges them and calls for immediate early elections. As a result, the newly elected parliament began its work only with the 90 deputies of the “Georgian Dream” Party that has been in power since 2012, while all opposition parties (8 parties) boycott the legislature. The parliamentary majority is trying to force the opposition to enter parliament by threatening to stop funding from the state budget and limiting access to public media. To maintain its public popularity in the context of a perpetual political crisis, the party of oligarch Ivanishvili proposed the new concept of foreign policy, which prepares for EU membership in 2024. Therefore, EU-US mediation is essential and must continue in Georgia, with the future replication perspective in other States of the Partnership. However, in addition to political mediation, the EU-US tandem must use unequivocal conditionality to combat oligarchic or corrupt attempts to (re-)draw the game’s rules (IPN, November 2020).
5. The emergence of the diaspora and the online tools as unique democratization factors in the region. The protests in Belarus and the elections in Moldova exemplified that two vital factors – social networks and diaspora citizens – can influence the future of the region’s political processes. The Belarusian opposition’s self-organization and coordination of actions through the Telegram messaging platform were essential for building up the anti-Lukashenko protests. When the authorities disconnected the population from the internet, the Telegram communication channels continued to inform the population about the country’s political situation. Opposition news pages, such as NEXTA, coordinated by representatives of the Polish diaspora, have become the most credible sources of information for the Belarusian public. The diaspora played a crucial role in the presidential election in Moldova, voting in the proportion of about 250 thousand for Maia Sandu. Predominantly supporters of the opposition, the diaspora representatives, on Facebook, initially, to support Maia Sandu in the 2016 presidential elections, won then by Igor Dodon. In 2020, ignoring the travel difficulties caused by the pandemic, the diaspora in the EU and North America increased their presence and assured Maia Sandu a detached victory. The role of the diaspora can grow in the region, as emigration trends do not decrease. In Moldova, about 1/3 of the population already forms diaspora or migrants, and in Ukraine migration continues – about 21 thousand only in 2019. Simultaneously, as the Moldovan example shows, the diaspora is interested in participating in elections and requests the introduction of electronic voting. In such circumstances, the diaspora can increase its visibility in the country of origin’s decision-making process.
In lieu of conclusion …
The year 2020 has revealed the many weaknesses of the Eastern Partnership region. The pandemic became the most unpredictable exogenous factor, which complicated the operating conditions for the economies of the six states and their political systems. Reform efforts and the fight against corruption have been exposed to significant risks in Ukraine and Armenia, while the oligarchic regime in Georgia has extended its rule. On the other hand, the region has made some democratic advances in Moldova and Belarus. These changes may seem partial or incipient, but they can potentially expand.
Although the Eastern Partnership states come weakened in 2021, the EU’s eventual progress in vaccinating against Covid-19 and sharing this success with its eastern neighbors can strengthen European integration in the region. Overall, while Brussels implements its geopolitical ambitions, it needs a realistic assessment of both allies and problematic Eastern European actors to back with more success democratic manifestations in the region.