The European Union has a 30-year handicap to overcome in tackling the Russia-orchestrated conflicts in the wider Black Sea region. Midway through that interval, the EU launched its Eastern Neighborhood Policy (2004) and Eastern Partnership initiative (2009), but neither of them envisaged turning Brussels into a significant actor in the management and resolution of these protracted conflicts. Romania’s recent proposals, seconded by ten other member states, for a more active EU role could in this sense usher in a new era in the EU’s policy (see Parts One, Two and Three in EDM, July 29, August 4, 5).
However, the proposals are of necessity cautious and may even look like tinkering with the problem at the margins, rather than seeking a breakthrough; and they stop shy of even naming Russia publicly as a belligerent. Such restraint is probably inevitable, given the consensus-based decision-making within the 27-member EU and the distribution of influence there. The British government may well have supported these proposals, but “Brexit” has weakened the EU on this front also. The Romania+10 group of countries (including eight from Central-Eastern Europe) amount to a coalition-of-the-willing within the EU, but they can expect foot-dragging from the EU’s most influential member states.
The proposals (as summarized in the public domain) do not aim for a political resolution of the ongoing conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh and Donbas any time soon (Crimea is omitted from the publicly available summaries). This low level of ambition goes unexplained; but, whatever the motivation, it is judicious at this time. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have yet to establish the rule of law and effective state institutions in their government-controlled territories. Absent these prerequisites, re-inserting the secessionist territories into Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine would further disorganize these states, throw their domestic politics off balance, and impede these states from their chosen European course. Without the rule of law and effective institutions, any constitutional settlement to reintegrate the secessionist territories could not work as formally written, but rather through informal, extra-legal, corruption-based arrangements between the central authorities and the Russian-installed authorities of the “re-integrated” territories.
The case of Karabakh differs somewhat from the other cases in that Azerbaijan has come closer to a solution on its own terms, following its success in the Armenian-provoked 44-day war (see EDM, November 25, 2020).
Given that “political settlements” are not only unattainable but also undesirable in the near-to-medium term (see above), the EU can prepare the ground for viable settlements by helping Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to preserve intact their titles to sovereignty in their territories currently under Russian control. This means, in Georgia’s case, no deviations—least of all EU-encouraged deviations—from the non-recognition policy regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia’s two occupied territories are not currently in play; but Transnistria and Donbas are at least theoretically in play—in the 5+2 process in the case of the first and the “Normandy” and Minsk Contact Group negotiations, when it comes to the second. Moldova and Ukraine have both been nudged or pressured to compromise their titles to sovereignty and accept Russia’s goal of a “special status” for Russian-controlled Transnistria and Donbas, respectively. The Romania+10 group can caution the EU that Russia would use a “special status” process on Transnistria as a model (if not a precedent) for re-inserting a Russian-controlled Donbas into Ukraine with a “special status” (see EDM, August 12, 13, 2020).
The European Union is not a party to negotiations regarding Ukraine‘s Donbas (the EU entered that process in 2014 but quickly withdrew from it). Bucharest’s proposals, judiciously again, do not envisage the EU joining the Normandy negotiations. Germany and France appropriated what should have been the EU’s seat there and are unlikely to move aside for the EU. Moreover, any new entrant (be it the EU or the United States) would have to accept the Russian-imposed Minsk “agreements” as the basis for negotiations. What the EU could do from outside the Normandy process is to endorse Ukraine’s re-interpretations (in effect, revisions) of the Minsk “agreements.” The Romania+10 group could certainly advocate for this approach within the EU (see EDM, March 30, 2021 and April 1, 2021).
Moldova, meanwhile, has been dragged into the “small-steps process” of awarding certain undue prerogatives to Transnistria. These could, cumulatively, form the elements of a future special status, leading to a slow de-sovereignization of Moldova with its consent, following its de-sovereignization de facto. The EU has gone along with the “small steps,” unable or unwilling to restrain Russia-friendly European politicians such as German President (then foreign minister) Frank-Walter Steinmeier or former Italian minister of foreign affairs Franco Frattini from pushing the “small steps” forward. They intruded into the 5+2 process by using the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), notwithstanding that Germany and Italy are not parties to the 5+2 format. The 5+2 process is basically Yevgeny Primakov’s 1997 dispensation, with the EU and the United States added on as “observers,” inferior to the full members Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. The observer status is insufficient for thwarting Russia but sufficient for ostensibly legitimizing the Russia-controlled format.
The Romania+10 group could choose to submit the following recommendations to the EU: a) team up with the United States to push for upgrading their observer status to full participant (which would entitle them to advance their own proposals and other initiatives; b) encourage Chisinau to block the “small steps”; c) desist from trying to open the “third basket” (political and security affairs) until Moldova establishes the rule of law; d) comply with Moldova’s own legislation that requires the withdrawal of Russian troops before negotiating a status for Transnistria; and e) take steps (beyond mere words) to introduce an international, civilian monitoring mission in Transnistria with an EU mandate, not an OSCE mandate that Russia could permanently block or sabotage.