British Exit Worries EU's Eastern Allies
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
The government-run Agenda.ge news site noted EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini’s June 24 comment that Georgia had met all requirements for visa liberalization, and that the progress it had made was “remarkable.”
Yet elsewhere, pessimism largely reigned.
Former US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul called the referendum’s outcome a “giant victory for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's foreign policy objectives. “
“Putin lamented [the] collapse of [the] USSR and Warsaw Pact, so he's delighted to see cracks in European unity,” McFaul tweeted.
Earlier on, British Prime Minister David Cameron had observed that Putin will be happy to see Britain leave the EU and put the bloc in an existential crisis. At the time, the Kremlin had batted its eyes in surprise.
“We have already got accustomed to [the fact that] the Russian factor is one of the persistent tools in the US election campaign. But the use of the Russian factor or the factor of President Putin in the Brexit issue is new for us,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in late May.
On June 24, though, some senior Russian politicians were willing to acknowledge some connection. The vote “will tell on the functioning of the European Union, and will impact relations between Russia and the European Union, between Russia and Great Britain,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin hopefully tweeted that Britain’s departure from the EU will mean the falloff in sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “Without Great Britain, it will be left to no one in the EU to so rabidly insist on sanctions against us.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, however, stated in a Facebook post that he was counting on EU sanctions against Russia continuing.
Another country at the seam of EU and Russia, Moldova, also an Association Agreement signatory, tried to keep a brave face, even though Prime Minister Pavel Filip called the Brexit vote “a sad day for Europe.”
The loss of one country does not mean the EU will collapse, but it is a heavy blow, said political analyst Anatol Tsaranu, Moldova’s private RTR news site reported. Other analysts took aim at Moldova’s corruption-sodden economy and the government's inability to spark a turnaround.
“If there’s not an economy, then there’s nothing to threaten it, even if Great Britain does leave the EU,” economist Viktor Chobanu said on the eve of the June 23 vote.
The Moscow-friendly Socialist Party, however, took the opposite tact, asserting that the EU will collapse, and, as such, it's "awkward" to speak of Moldova's eventual EU membership.
In Ukraine, Moldova’s eastern neighbor, some saw the British exit as an opportunity. “Britain goes out, Ukraine goes in?” rhetorically asked parliamentarian Irina Hopko. Letting a large country like Ukraine in can help solidify the bloc, she reasoned, Russia's Tass reported.
The Eurasian troika's close neighbor, Turkey, a distant contender for EU membership, expressed the hope that Great Britain’s departure will make for a more “inclusive” EU. The prospect of Turkey becoming an EU member, as a quid pro quo for its refugee deal with Brussels, was cited by Britain’s Leave proponents as another reason for ditching the community.
But the bloc had been skeptical about its Eurasian partners even before Brexit, put off by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine's weak economies and/or ongoing rows with Russia. In the wake of Brexit, the bloc is expected to become more introverted, focusing on reform and shelving expansion.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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