The alternative to the European integration is transformation of Ukraine and of the Republic of Moldova into a „geopolitical morass” between Russia and the EU

It is unquestionably that Chisinau can count on support from Kiev and Kiev, in its turn, relies on such support from Chisinau.

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Both Ukraine and the Republic Moldova are celebrating these days a quarter of century of independence. The Ukrainian analyst Sergei Gherasimciuk, expert with the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” in Kiev, says that after a quarter of century the Moldovan-Ukrainian relations are promising, especially in light of the European vector embraced by both capitals, despite many thorny issues. 

Interview for “Synthesis and Foreign Policy Debates” newsletter

Lina Grâu: Could you please make an analysis of the stage the two states are after 25 years of independence. What parallels and contrasts can you draw between Ukraine and Moldova?

Serghei Gherasimciuk: If is to talk about parallels between the two countries, an indisputable one is that both countries were once part of the Soviet Union, which had an impact on the political culture of our elites and on the political culture of the society in general. Another similarity is that after the collapse of the USSR both countries found themselves in a situation of economic crisis that has lasted long enough.

There are also positive parallels – both countries have decided that the European option is a priority and have been implementing Association Agreements with the European Union.

Lina Grâu: Neither the Republic of Moldova nor Ukraine has managed in these 25 years to become a zone of stability and security. Why did that happen? Why have they become a buffer zone between Russia and Europe rather than a space clearly affiliated to a European security umbrella as it happened, for example, with the Baltic countries?

Serghei Gherasimciuk: The first reason, I think, is that

neither Ukraine nor Moldova, unlike the Baltic countries, had strong enough advocates in NATO and the EU.

Apart from the general view on the need to extend, both in NATO and the EU the interests of the Baltic States were very strongly supported by lobbying groups from the Scandinavian countries. Poland has always been Ukraine’s advocate, while the advocate of the Republic of Moldova was Romania, but it was obvious that in 1990 these countries could not compare with the influence of the lobbyists of the Baltic State neither economically nor in terms of the political influence.

Another reason is the position of the political leadership both in Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. The Moldovan government and President Voronin in particular, as well as the Ukrainian government and President Kuchma tried to sit on two stools, oscillating between the EU and the Russian Federation. Such an oscillating position was somehow justified as it allowed tactically to obtain privileges both from the EU and Russia. But now, with tensioning of the relations between Moscow and the EU, the feeling is that we simply lost time.

We were not ready for a confrontation and now, when the confrontation occurred, the level of our relations with the EU does not meet our needs yet.

And, unquestionably, a third factor should be taken into account – an external factor which is Russia’s position. The Russian Federation, ever since the Soviet Union, has planted various mechanisms to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union. These mechanisms were the regions with separatism potential – it is about Transnistria in Moldova and Crimea in Ukraine. And we see that as our countries have begun to distance themselves from Moscow’s influence, levers were implemented in order to detonate these delayed action mines. And now we see that Transnistria in Moldova’s case and Donbass and Crimea in the case of Ukraine became kind of anchors that in one way or another are deterring us from getting closer to the European structures.

Lina Grâu: Speaking about the separatist regions, many Moldovan experts draw the public attention to the fact that for many years, Ukraine has not been supporting Chisinau in the Transnistrian settlement – in spite of its official correct position, de facto, it has supported the separatist regime in Transnistria. The Ukrainian authorities seem now to have changed their approach, especially in light of what happened in Crimea and Donbass. First, how do you evaluate this opinion of Moldovan experts? And secondly, do you think it is possible with joint efforts to bring the Transnistrian region into the legal space of the Republic of Moldova?

Serghei Gherasimciuk: You’re right – Ukraine has always underlined that it is in favour of resolving the Transnistrian conflict only on the basis of international law and sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova. On the other hand, it has long been felt in Ukraine and its foreign policy influenced by the Soviet past that

Ukraine was trying to position itself as a great power which could afford to a certain extent not to take into account all the interests of the Republic of Moldova.

Now the situation has changed and this has become visible not only in the context of the war in Donbass, it changed during the period of Viktor Yushchenko who proposed his own settlement plan. Already then the positions of Ukraine and Moldova have become much closer. During President Yanukovych, Transnistria, I think, was in general outside Kiev’s foreign policy, because Yanukovych had very little interest in the subject.

Since Poroshenko has become president, the issue seems to have gained importance. On the other hand, my impression is that at present there are some problems caused by the Republic of Moldova. Many experts here in Kiev are concerned about the format of negotiations between the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation – visits of the Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, discussions about roadmaps etc.

On the one hand, it is obvious that Ukraine is now interested in supporting the Republic of Moldova. On the other hand, there are experts in Ukraine who are worried about the fact that Chisinau itself would be ready to change the format and limit the influence of Ukraine in this format, discussing directly with Moscow. Regarding the extent to which joint efforts can contribute to the reintegration of the Transnistrian region, it seems to me that a lot will depend now on the results of presidential elections in Moldova, but also on the so-called elections of the Transnistrian leader. In both cases changes of elites are possible, so the results could have an impact on the dynamics of contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Taking into account this dynamic the other participants in the regulatory process will also have to take some positions.

That is why, I believe, that until after the elections and stabilization of the situation, it would be premature to talk about any progress in the Transnistrian settlement.

Lina Grâu: We can say that Kiev is now firmly on the side of Chisinau and it can provide backing in the negotiations and discussions with Moscow and also with the OSCE which has been lately trying to impose certain decisions regarded as unacceptable by the expert community in Moldova. Can Chisinau count on support from Kiev?

Serghei Gherasimciuk: From my point of view, yes, now Moldova can entirely count on support from Kiev. The most recent example was the day when the Moldovan government protested against the Russian military applications in Transnistria – Ukraine has reacted promptly supporting Moldova’s position.

But there is a subtlety that should be taken into account – this is about reciprocity.

It is unquestionably that Chisinau can count on support from Kiev and Kiev, in its turn, relies on such support from Chisinau.

That is why I would like to get back to the issue of resumption of contacts between Moldova and the Russian Federation. It is excellent when countries are trying to find common ground, but Ukraine is looking with certain concern at these contacts. If there is a danger that Ukraine’s interests will be ignored in these negotiations or the Republic of Moldova will rely on the Russian experts in the settlement of certain Moldovan-Ukrainian bilateral contentious issues, it is sure in that case that Ukraine will change its position, because, at the moment, Russia is not perceived as a partner by Ukraine.

If Moldova gets closer to Russia, this will not add confidence in the relations between Chisinau and Kiev.

Lina Grâu: You mentioned earlier about political elites. Moldovan experts recognize that at present the political and economic power in the Republic of Moldova is concentrated into the hands of an oligarch. There are also big question marks as to the corruption of the power in Kiev. Do you think these problems that exist both in Ukraine and Moldova can be overcome?

Serghei Gherasimciuk: The issue of corruption is indeed very acute for both countries. And here I would like to remind you about what I have mentioned at the beginning of this interview – the Soviet legacy that has influenced the political power. Corruption, unfortunately, is present not only at the high-level, but also in the everyday life of both countries. At present, certain changes are being made, the EU lobbying actively for creation of anti-corruption structures. I would not count on the fact that this problem will be resolved in the short-term period.

Now a lot of people are talking about the success story of Romania as an example for both Moldova and Ukraine. But we should note that Romania has been in the EU for years and it is only now that the anticorruption activity is gaining scale.

That is why both in Ukraine and Moldova we cannot count on short-term results no matter how much we would like them to happen. It is rather a long term goal provided the foreign policy is oriented towards integration into the EU as the fight against corruption is supported by the EU. Only if this direction is maintained can we expect progress.

On the other hand, another important factor is the political will of the leading players in both capitals – they have to understand that in absence of radical changes, the countries will remain in a geopolitical “morass”, meaning there will be no progress in getting closer to the EU and both countries will remain a buffer zone between the EU and the Russian Federation.

Serghei Gherasimciuk: It is increasingly that we hear in Brussels and our capitals that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia form sort of a trio, a group of signatory countries of the Association Agreement, that would have the potential to move fast on the way toward European integration provided they join efforts and exchange experience in the area of reforms.

On the one hand, we are losing a part of the Eastern Partnership countries – Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia – because these countries have not reached this level yet. An example of countries that joined efforts and became success stories are the Baltic States or the countries from the Visegrad Group. If this scenario is successful, it would promote development of both Ukraine and Moldova.

There are alternative scenarios, of course the risk of coming to power of the proRussian forces in Moldova and the risk of military escalation in Ukraine.

And if we get under the Russian military or political influence, the region will, unfortunately, become less attractive to the European partners, risking to remain a grey area and a geopolitical “morass”.

However, by and large, drawing the line, we can say that both the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine have achieved a lot during these years of independence, despite the poor starting conditions. Both countries have set themselves the ambitious goal of getting closer to the EU and there is even competition between them in this respect which means they are likely to achieve this. And, undoubtedly, the role of civil society here is huge as both the government in the Republic of Moldovan and Ukraine are driven by the civil society. And given the potential of the civil society, which has increased considerably lately, I still hope for the optimistic scenario.