Countries in Russia's Periphery Look East and West

4 MINS READMar 3, 2014 | 22:46 GMT
Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili (L) and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, in Yerevan, Feb. 27.

As Russian forces encircled strategic Ukrainian military installations in Crimea on March 1, Armenia's deputy foreign minister said his country will have completed its preparations to join the Russia-led Customs Union by mid-April. Armenia announced its intention to join the Customs Union in September, and by February, Yerevan had completed about half of the prerequisites for accession. Armenia's decision to expedite what is normally a lengthy accession process indicates the government's desire to further integrate with Russia. But while countries such as Armenia are moving closer to Moscow, other countries in the former Soviet periphery are attempting to strengthen their ties with the West.

The March 1 announcement came at the conclusion of Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's weeklong visit to the United States. During his trip to Washington, Garibashvili met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, all of whom expressed their support for Georgia's EU integration efforts. On March 3, one of Garibashvili's representatives said a meeting between Georgian and Russian officials scheduled for March 4-5 has been postponed, ostensibly at the Russian government's request. On the same day, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said the European Union should give Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova a clear path to membership. The Georgian government has been emboldened by the Ukrainian crisis to push for stronger ties with the United States and the European Union and is seeking greater assurances accordingly.

Armenia's moves toward further integration with Russia and Georgia's attempts to move closer to the West are both part of a long-term trend. Heightened diplomatic activity over the past few weeks in Armenia and Georgia indicates that the crisis in Ukraine is motivating countries in the volatile Caucasus to entrench themselves in one of two rival camps: the Russia-led Customs Union, which includes Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the Western camp, led by the United States and European Union.

Over the past year, Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base and has close economic ties with Moscow, has steadily moved toward greater integration with the Customs Union. Georgia, on the other hand, attempted to balance its links with Russia and the West. The electoral victory of the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012 saw Georgia's new leadership improve economic ties with Russia while pledging to build commitments in the transportation and energy sectors.

Political upheaval in Ukraine, coupled with Russia's incursion into Crimea, has changed Tbilisi's foreign policy orientation. Georgia fought a war against Russia in 2008 and has long faced the challenges of a frozen conflict over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, Georgia strongly opposes the prospect of Crimean secession and has vocally supported Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russia's aggressive military posturing in Ukraine is a reminder of Georgia's vulnerability as a non-NATO country on Russia's periphery. But for Armenian authorities, the turmoil in Ukraine provided a further incentive to integrate with Russia, hence the country's intensified interest in joining the Customs Union. 

Picking a Side

The Ukrainian crisis has heightened the polarization between East and West in other parts of the former Soviet periphery. In Belarus, sympathetic protesters were arrested near the Russian Embassy, while Belarusian officials discussed introducing restrictions on some Ukrainian imports with their Russian counterparts. In Moldova, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca compared the situation in Crimea with Moldova's own Russian-dominated breakaway province of Transdniestria. Leanca discussed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine with top U.S. officials during a visit to the United States on March 3, as well as Moldova's own efforts to integrate with the West. As Ukraine faces the consequences of reorienting its foreign policy toward the West, Moldova is reaching out for support on its path toward European integration. The EU Parliament has already voted to lift visa restrictions for Moldova, but ongoing regional instability will make the European Union cautious.

While the polarization of Russia's periphery intensifies, remaining constraints prevent countries such as Georgia and Moldova from deepening ties with the West. Georgian and Moldovan accession to Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO threaten Russia's strategic interests. Russia has strong levers in both countries through economic connections, as well as its military presence, and is likely to remain an enduring influence in the respective breakaway territories. The restrained Western reaction to Russia's military activities in Crimea demonstrates the limits to how much the West is willing to sacrifice — both in terms of its political and economic relations with Russia — for the sake of integrating former Soviet states into the European Union. While the Ukrainian crisis will continue to push certain countries in the periphery to pursue stronger ties with the West, Western-oriented countries in the former Soviet periphery probably will not be able to fully integrate in the short to medium term. However, the polarization of the former Soviet states will continue as Russia and the West compete for influence.

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