And those were exactly the words that Russian vice prime minister Dmitry Rogozin used to address his bewildered Moldovan hosts during his visit in Chisinau earlier this month. He was pretty blunt in his "promise" that if the tiny landlocked (and 20-century-locked) country continued its current pro-European course, Moscow would retaliate with trade restrictions, raising the prices of natural gas and shutting the Russian labor market for Moldovan workers. He even hinted that it was possible Chisinau could say bye-bye to Transnistria, the worm-shaped Russian-speaking breakaway region where Russian troops have been stationed ever since the 90s, "to protect the Russian population from abuse". A week later, Russia confirmed his words with actions by imposing a ban on all Moldovan wine and alcohol exports (haven't tasted any yet, but that only makes me the thirstier). And they showed we definitely can't have nice things these days.
This is just another episode of Kremlin's recent offensive against a number of former Soviet republics, aiming to dissuade them from getting closer to Europe. Last month all Ukrainian exports to Russia got practically stuck to rot at the border for a week; earlier, Armenia was threatened with a massive gas price hike plus restrictions on the access of its citizens to the Russian labor market, and since the beginning of this summer a barbed wire fence is being constructed along the borders of the Russian-controlled autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia (the country Georgia, which the Russians hammered hard a few years ago). The Kremlin eventually managed to arm-twist Yerevan and bring it back to its side and persuade the Armenians to join the Moscow-led customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus (see map below), thus turning their back to a 3-year old preparation for signing an associated trade agreement with the EU. Meanwhile, the increased Russian pressure is having a rather opposite effect in Kiev, Tbilisi and Chisinau, which seem even more determined to keep on keeping on along their EU path than before. They want to get even closer to Europe, but the problem is, there's actually a lack of clear strategy on that issue in Europe itself, let alone a political will to integrate the countries of the East European region. So, although they might be just a tad closer to EU now, these countries will remain in that limbo of a No Man's Land between East and West for a veeery long time. And that's a big risk for the longer-term development of the region, and of the East-West relations.
In Moldova's case, it's clear that Russia's attempt to knock the country off its chosen European orbit through threats and blackmail, is utterly ineffective. The Moldovans have always been divided on the question whether closer relations with Europe or Russia should be pursued. According to polls, slightly more than half of the Moldovans would vote "Yes" at a possible referendum for joining the EU. And if a similar poll were made if Moldova should join the Russian-dominated customs union, still a bit more than that would've voted "Yes". Turns out the same people would've voted for membership in both blocs. Moreover, when asked which of the two they'd have picked up if they were compelled to choose one over the other, more than half are saying "please don't ask me, I can't choose".
Actually both the polls and the voting patterns on elections seem to suggest that there are two stable minorities in the country, one is roughly about 15% and is firmly pro-EU and anti-Russia, the other slightly bigger and pro-Russia and anti-EU. The remaining 2/3 of the Moldovans want their country in both camps at the same time, because the more, the merrier. After years of fatigue from ugly, itchy reforms, the EU remains like a mirage for those people. And what's more, Europe itself is in crisis and doesn't look like the Promised Lnad it used to be. That's why the pro-Russia group is a bit larger. But in the meantime, Moscow is repeatedly shooting itself in the leg in this respect, because every time the Russians undertake more aggressive actions, the EU support in Moldova surges. For example in 2009 during the gas crisis, which was mainly between Russia and Ukraine, but also plunged half of Europe in freezing cold for a few weeks. Or still 3 years earlier, when Russia banned the Moldovan wines yet again. The same is happening right now, too. In fact, Russia is only scaring the Moldovans away with its behavior, and their natural instinct is to fart in its general direction and seek for protection from Europe. It also gives an excuse to the pro-European leaders in Chisinau to give even fewer fucks about the whims of Big Bro Putin.
In terms of public response, the Russian pressure always brings the same results: the population of the recipient country automatically opposes the threats and the blackmail, and the support for EU integration skyrockets. And this directly reflects on the politicians.
There's one exception, though: Armenia. But their case is a bit more specific. On one side, no one has yet openly made threats in the local media there, as the Russians have done in Ukraine and Moldova. On the other side, although Europe is the main destination for the Armenian exports, the bulk of the key industries in the country are in the hands of various Russian thug... I mean "investors". But the even more important factor is the geopolitical one, and national security. In fact, being sandwiched between two hostile (and predominantly circumcized) countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia is in a very delicate situation. And the EU, unlike Russia, just doesn't have anything to offer in that region in terms of security and assistance, apart from a few nice words in a very nice-sounding language (French, perhaps; Armenians do have a hard-on about everything French). Germany, France, and the EU to that matter, have no weight in the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh whatsoever. Europe is just absent from the Caucasus, and this has sealed Yerevan's choice to a great extent.
But if we leave the specific methods of pressure aside for a minute, Russia's end-game is more than clear: Moscow wants the former Soviet republics to join the customs union it has drafted for them. The plan is to develop it into the so called Eurasian Union at some later point. A bloc that's been designed as an alternative to the EU, with its shared markets and even a common currency. And with a Dear Leader at the helm, namely the eternal Putin (who I'm sure will live to 120 years of age). For that purpose, the Kremlin is constantly offering the reluctant countries small carrots like price discounts on the gas deliveries, opening up the borders and removing the customs tariffs. We've already mentioned what the sticks look like.
Mind you, from the standpoint of the local folks, the Russian idea for a Eurasian Union, at least on paper, might not be that bad after all. In case you're someone with a number of brain cells exceeding two, you'd expect countries sharing a similar level of development, a similar political and economic model, and having close cultural links and often sharing the same (or similar) grammar, synthax and swear words and alcohol tastes, to naturally want to unite in order to be more competitive in today's globalized world where dangers lurk behind every corner. But when we stare at this from a bit closer, we'd start to see that this is more like an artificially inflated balloon, with which Moscow is trying to create a seemingly attractive alternative to Europe, and thus keep the former Soviet republics within its sphere of influence. And, though it's still unclear what exactly this Russian project would look like, from Kremlin's behavior it's evident that the future union would be more like the former CIS or even the Soviet bloc, where all decisions will be made in Moscow, then be trickled down to the minions, and the rest would just be required to fall in line, lest they wanna get hurt, or freeze to death during the cold Siberian winters. The scheme should work flawlessly!
At the same time, trust in Russia remains at an all-time low among those republics. Just look what happened in 2009 in Ukraine. When Putin's BFF Yanukovych took power, he instantly handed the Sevastopol naval base to Russia for another 30 years without uttering a rant about it. Russia's vague promise? Cheaper gas, of course. But less than a year later, the gas prices started climbing again, and today the Ukrainians have found themselves in the funny situation where they're forced to buy Russian gas from Poland and Germany because it's $50 cheaper than buying it directly from Russia! WTF!? You can imagine how anything coming from Moscow is being met with deep skepticism in Kiev nowadays. And all Kremlin has got left is the last resort: bullying and blackmail, and twisting arms and farting into Ukraine's face. Quite literally. As inefficient as that approach may look to you, it's their last option, and they've brought this upon themselves on their own.
Ukraine has come to a point where the government of the famously pro-Russian Party of the Regions of president Viktor Yanukovych (who's not very popular in Europe, to put it mildly), has approved the draft agreement for free-trade association with the EU a few days ago, and made a commitment to fulfill all EU requirements for signing said agreement until the Eastern Partnership jamboree in Vilnius in November. You gotta love the irony that Ukraine has never been closer to Europe than it is now - and that, under the rule of a presumably pro-Russian leader. Just a few years ago that country looked like a lost cause for the EU, and now look where the hardcore Russian approach has pushed them to!
But still, the Russian proposals do have some advantages when you think of them as an East European (if you can). Unlike Europe which through the Eastern Partnership and various association agreements for free trade are expecting of the region to carry out certain painful reforms for exchange of profound, but confusingly vague and depressingly long-term gains, the Kremlin is offering concrete, specific things which would have an almost instantaneous effect on the local economies and on people's lives - and all of that, without putting any other condition but to please sign here and here, join the Eurasian project and scrap your stupid European aspirations, thankyouverymuch.
And here's the problem. It's people's proneness to go for the short-term gains as opposed to thinking more long-term. If they were to continue on the European path, in 10 years the countries of the Eastern Partnership would be unrecognizable from today's standpoint, and possibly in a very nice way. In the short-term though, after signing those agreements for EU integration, they'd be facing gargantuan problems. First, many of their industries would become uncompetitive in Europe overnight, and this would fuel the otherwise staggering unemployment even more, and will be sure to trigger social and political turmoil. That's as inevitable as the tides that come in and then go out. Moreover, in the conditions of a global economic crisis and a host of internal problems (crappy institutions, political instability and mind-bending corruption), there'd be no way to mitigate the shock. Simply put, those peoples would fall hard on their asses. So, even though the Ukrainians and Moldovans look generally determined to continue on the European path today, it's far from certain if a year or two from now they wouldn't choose the Russian option, after all.
Meanwhile, even though the countries in the region are seeing in signing the EU association agreements a step towards an eventual full membership sometime in the unforeseeable future, right now in Europe itself the amount of enthusiasm for expanding the union any further is somewhere at the Planck scale. And this looks unlikely to change any time soon. It's telling that the major European countries have kept silent like mummies about the Russian actions. That's because few of those smartheads and powdered poodles in Brussels are thinking about the Eastern European region in a strategic way, if at all. The topic of its future remains beyond the attention span of the European politicians, and whenever they're compelled to give it a thought merely for having it on their daily agenda, they prefer to approach it in a technocratic, pragmatic, short-sighted way. For the time being, Europe is not offering these countries anything meaningful beyond a fuzzy road-map explaining to them how they should pick themselves up from their current predicament on their own, plus maybe a few symbolic cookies as a form of moral stimulus for their small successes. But without categorical commitments or at least support on the diplomatic front (let alone the economic one). And this just won't be enough to keep the region on its pro-European path for too long.
The only (ironically) good news in that respect is that with its actions, Russia is further alienating countries like Ukraine and Moldova, as if deliberately pushing them towards Europe, whether they like it or not, or whether it wants them or not. It's just that when you're pressed against the wall, things suddenly become very clear to you and you realize you've got only one option for escape left. And you put all your efforts in that direction. And the EU would be stupid if it doesn't seize the opportunity, because the moment won't last very long, and the current power vacuum in the region will have to be filled with something, anything, sooner or later. The ball has now been firmly served in their court now, and if the Europeans want to play it properly as opposed to brushing it off with a lazy back-hand just to allow Putin to slam it into the far corner like a Kafelnikov, they have to look for a new, more daring approach. But you'll forgive me if you don't see me holding my breath too much.