20 years under Putin: a timeline

In November, the summit of the EU Eastern Partnership will be held in Vilnius, the objective of which is to develop cooperation between the EU and six ex-Soviet states. The Kremlin is carefully getting ready for this event, eagerly trying to influence Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the European integration of former Soviet republics is one of the biggest “nightmares” of the Russian elite, which still considers the post-Soviet space a zone of Russian influence.


President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovich (left) and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso might have different views on the future of the Eastern Partnership. Photo: Reuters.


The idea of the Eastern Partnership program was initiated in May 2008 by Poland and Sweden, who suggested developing relations with countries included in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). At the time, this approach reflected the growing competition between the West and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. For the first time ever, “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia offered the elites of former Soviet republics a civilized choice between Russia and the European Union.

The EU’s interest in this area was rather pragmatic: Europe was tired of the never-ending “wars” that Moscow led against its neighbors, forcing innocent Europeans to freeze in the winter. The EU began actively developing projects within the framework of the Third Energy Package in order to liberalize the European gas market. Also, in Brussels, hopes for integration were still strong: with the enlargement of the EU, the zone of its interests expanded to more remote Eastern partners. The war in Georgia, which seriously frightened post-Soviet states as well as Europe and made them realize how far Moscow was prepared to go in defending its interests, served as a powerful boost to the development of the Eastern Partnership program. This program was launched on May 7, 2009, during the EU summit in Prague.

The Eastern Partnership includes six countries: Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. These countries, however, differ both in how they understand their membership and in the level of their “integration.” Belarus, for instance, nearly fell out of this program because President Lukashenko did not appreciate the reaction of the international community to presidential and parliamentary elections in his country—they were declared illegal and noncompliant with international standards. Batka felt more at ease in Moscow’s arms. Prior to Lukashenko’s inauguration in 2011, the West was discussing sanctions, while the Kremlin was awarding the Belarusian regime with new subsidies and cheap loans, which Belarus will possibly not have to pay back. It is for this reason that Belarus’s membership in the Eastern Partnership is rather formal.

The Kremlin does not like it at all when the EU tries to teach Russia’s neighbors how to govern a state, from whom to buy gas, and what mechanisms to use in order to modernize the gas pipeline system.

In forming the Eastern Partnership, the European Commission proposed to create five so-called flagship initiatives to control borders and regional electricity markets, support small and medium-sized businesses, and manage ecology and disasters. Four thematic platforms have been set up in order to bring together the Eastern Partnership countries. The first platform, concentrated on democracy, good governance, and stability, encompasses questions of electoral standards, freedom of the media, the fight against corruption, civil service reform, cooperation between the judiciary and police forces, security, and measures to strengthen trust. The second platform, economic integration, deals with the unitization of market and business decisions, social and economic development, the fight against poverty and so-called social isolation, equality of opportunity, health and environmental issues, and climate change. The third platform concerns energy security. The fourth platform, concerning contacts between people, encompasses questions of cultural cooperation, support for nongovernmental organizations and civil society, student exchange projects, and participation in joint research and development programs and media projects.

It is obvious that in order to comply with these four platforms, the ruling elites will have to follow the path of democratization, which, as a consequence, will decrease the manageability of their regimes and will create more economic and political competition and increased openness in politics, trade, and culture. Not every country can afford such a “luxury.”


To put pressure on Ukraine and Moldova, Russia banned imports of confectionery products made by Ukraine’s candy giant Roshen and suspended wine imports from Moldova for quality concerns.


The Kremlin does not like it at all when the EU tries to teach Russia’s neighbors how to govern a state (through the Comprehensive Institutional Building program [CIB]), from whom to buy gas (by introducing requirements for the liberalization of energy markets), and what mechanisms to use in order to modernize the gas pipeline system (by encouraging joint projects to modernize the energy infrastructure, an area in which Ukraine is a good example). Also, the European Union has promised that EU entry talks concerning the Eastern Partnership countries will be opened if reforms are successful.

Being very sensitive about such a prospect, Moscow has tried to convince Ukraine and Moldova that EU membership is nothing more than a “carrot for a donkey.” The elites in Kiev and Chisinau, however, are wondering what Moscow has to offer. The Kremlin’s answer is simple: cheap gas and markets. Representatives of the Kremlin and Gazprom have made it clear that if Ukraine refrains from forging closer ties with the EU, Kiev can count upon revision of the current gas contract, under which Ukraine buys gas for higher prices than do EU countries. The idea of cheap gas is tempting but scary: this would provide Moscow with a noose that it could at any moment tighten around Kiev’s neck. Suffice to recall the Russian government’s sharp reaction when in 2004 Ukraine did not want to give control of its gas transit system to the EU–Russia–Ukraine consortium.

The main reputation problem of the Customs Union (CU) consists in the fact that it is seen as a geopolitical model with a primary goal of preserving Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. Also, it is clear that membership in the CU does not guarantee that the practice of sanctions will be abandoned—member countries can only hope for the Kremlin’s “goodwill.” Belarus, a full-fledged member of the Customs Union, for instance, is currently being threatened with oil supply cuts in response to Lukashenko’s actions with regard to Uralkali.

The main reputation problem of the Customs Union (CU) consists in the fact that it is seen as a geopolitical model with a primary goal of preserving Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. Also, it is clear that membership in the CU does not guarantee that the practice of sanctions will be abandoned—member countries can only hope for the Kremlin’s “goodwill.”

The European Union, on the other hand, offers guarantees and special integration schemes independent of the political climate, such as association agreements, visa dialogues, and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

The latter document represents the key motive for the Kremlin’s pressure on Ukraine and Moldova. On September 10, Russia suspended wine imports from Moldova for quality concerns. Previously, Moscow introduced such sanctions against Chisinau after Moldova’s 2005 parliamentary elections, in which “color revolutions” forced Communist president Vladimir Voronin to turn to the West. A year later, the sanctions were lifted. Moldovan producers, however, had time to find other market outlets, and consequently current sanctions will not have the same negative impact. It is noteworthy that the ban on Moldovan wine imports was introduced after two disappointing visits to the country by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin and Patriarch Kirill. The former visit failed because of the Russian official’s tough talk: Rogozin threatened Chisinau with potential trade problems with Russia and the loss of Transnistria if Moldova established closer relations with the European Union. This incident created an unfavorable context for Patriarch Kirill’s visit. Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca opposed the idea of installing billboards in the streets of the city to announce the patriarch’s coming visit. According to the mayor, the patriarch “follows the Kremlin’s policy by coming to Moldova after menacing warnings and threats were made by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin with regard to the republic.”

The situation with Ukraine is more dramatic, since Moscow is prepared to wage a full-scale economic war against it through arm-twisting and blackmail. In August, a ban was introduced on imports of confectionery products made by Ukraine’s candy giant Roshen, owned by Petro Poroshenko, after which all Ukrainian companies began experiencing difficulties in exporting products to Russia. Russian customs subjected all Ukrainian products to a full inspection. In mid-August, thousands of railroad cars carrying Ukrainian-made goods accumulated on Russia’s border. Although customs barriers were lifted soon afterward, the warning was explicit: if documents are signed during the Eastern Partnership summit in November, the difficulties Kiev is currently experiencing will look like nothing more than a warm-up.


Roshen owner Petro Poroshenko (left) and Russia's presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev had a public argument on the perspectives of the Eastern Partnership.


On September 21, presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev came to Kiev to reason Ukraine into joining the Customs Union, which by default would eliminate the possibility of the country signing an association and free trade agreement with the EU. The presidential advisor also tried to frighten Ukraine with dire warnings about the Eastern Partnership: “Ukraine does not have the right to influence the decision-making process. This situation cannot be considered as mutually beneficial. There are still quota allocations concerning Ukrainian goods, including its most competitive products. Ukraine’s international commitments with regard to the Russian Federation and the Commonwealth of Independent States are being ignored.” Putin’s advisor also frightened Kiev with predictions about shale gas development: “I returned yesterday from Luhansk, were people are shocked by the prospects of development and environmental disaster. It is the same as developing gas between Frankfurt and Cologne,” said Glazyev. According to him, Kiev’s profit from Ukraine’s participation in the Customs Union would amount to $10 billion yearly. “Is Europe ready to close this hole of losses? While Ukraine is zeroing out its customs tariffs, we will introduce new barriers. There will be export losses,” the Russian president’s advisor warned.

“Nobody . . . in the world would strongly believe that Georgian mineral water or Moldovan wine or Ukrainian chocolate or Lithuanian cheese or Belarusian milk products are really harmful for the health of the Russian consumer,” Roshen owner Petro Poroshenko responded to Glazyev. “Even in Russia people do not believe it. Is the Ukrainian economy in a bad situation? Indeed, this is true. Russia, however, is not doing better. GDP growth is decreasing and nears zero. The Russian Federation has to do something to solve this problem. They replaced the head of Russia’s Central Bank, launched a competitiveness program, and borrowed $7 billion. Why do you insist on giving to Ukraine $12 billion every year when you yourself lack money?” the Ukrainian businessman asked Glazyev during a TV discussion. “I have the results of a curious poll, which Mr. Glazyev might find interesting,” Poroshenko continued. “For the first time in our history, 50 percent of respondents supported the EU. And for the first time, 30 percent supported the Customs Union. I am very grateful to you for that, Mr. Glazyev. Who supports the integration in the CU? 30 percent [who support the CU] are older, less educated people. 50 percent [who support the EU] are young, better educated people. The European integration is our future and the CU is our past. And this is it.” Thus, the Customs Union may “lose” Ukraine. Even those who a few years ago were considered rather pro-Russian do not believe in this association anymore.

On the other hand, Moscow’s talks with Armenia were a success. In September, the Armenian government declared its intention to join the Customs Union. Yerevan’s choice is logical: Russia is prepared to give firm security guarantees regarding Nagorno-Karabakh and offer Armenia better gas prices. Yerevan will reserve the right to seek agreements with the EU in the future.

On September 19, during the Valdai Forum, Vladimir Putin commented rather harshly on the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to approve the draft of the association agreement with the EU. He warned Kiev that Russia intended to protect its market from cheap Ukrainian products, which will flood it if the free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU is created. Putin remembered the common “Dnepropetrovsk roots” of the Russian nationality and noted that, in essence, the same people live in both Russia and Ukraine. He also pointed out that after World War II, the Soviet government allocated 1.5 trillion rubles for industrial recovery, and one-third of this money went to Ukraine. Apparently, Ukraine should feel deeply indebted to Russia. “Whom does Moldova sell its wine to? To France?” Putin continued. “The French would probably not allow one bottle of Moldovan wine to be sold on their territory. Neither would Italy. Just let them try to bring it in. Farmers, winemakers will turn all boxes upside down; they will break it all up and throw it in a ditch.” He concluded: “We have to think about our own national interests in the economic sphere.” Ukraine and Moldova, in their turn, will have to seriously think about how not to end up in Moscow’s tight embrace.