MOSCOW— After Ukraine, seemingly under Russian pressure, made a U-turn last week on its road towards closer integragration with the European Union, analysts wonder if Moldova and Georgia will be the next former Soviet republics to face heat from the Kremlin.
The answer may come after European Union leaders meet Thursday and Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania, with leaders of six former Soviet Republics.
Two of those countries - Belarus and Azerbaijan - are not interested in signing free trade and political association agreements with the EU. Two others - Ukraine and Armenia - recently backed out of signing, bowing to heavy Russian pressure.
Only the two remaining countries - Moldova and Georgia - say they will ignore Russian pressure and initial the EU agreements.
But, in a signal to all former Soviet republics, Russia is keeping the heat on Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cancel all joint space and defense industry projects if Ukraine makes a move toward the European Union. And President Vladimir Putin reminded Ukrainians that they owe Russian banks $30 billion.
Now, analysts wonder if Moldova and Georgia are next.
Pawel Wisniewski recently wrote a Carnegie Moscow Center report on the six nations of the EU's "Eastern Partnership." He says Moscow often uses Soviet-era gas pipelines to pressure countries in the region.
“The energy issues are the easiest way to pull strings for Russia in the Eastern Partnership region - and that is the first thing they always try to do,” he said in a telephone interview from Poland. “It was the case in Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine. It was the first step.”
This week, President Putin reminded Ukrainians that they also owe more than $1 billion in gas bills on a Russian supply contract that is to run to 2019.
Last month, Rogozin threatened to turn off the gas to Moldova.
Wisniewski predicted that the Kremlin now will lean on Moldova.
“Due to the fact Ukraine failed to be the poster child of the Eastern Partnership, Moldova took its role,” he said of Europe’s poorest nation. Moldova has only 3.5 million people - less than 8 percent of Ukraine’s population.
Moldova is in a vulnerable position. The nation’s largest party is the Communist Party of Moldova, which faces a fragile coalition of pro-West parties. Russia controls a secessionist region of Moldova.
But Nadia Arbatova, a European expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that Moldova is safe. It never crossed the Kremlin’s red line - wanting to joining NATO.
“With Moldova, it is easier than with other countries, because from the very beginning Moldova declared its neutral status. It never raised the question of NATO membership,” she said in Moscow. “ And I don’t think Moldova will make U-turn. I think it will follow her European way.”
But Kirill Entin, a research fellow at the Moscow Center of European and International Studies, says recent history taught the Kremlin that NATO expansion often follows EU expansion.
“Initially, the enlargement of the EU was perceived by Russia as completely neutrally, if not favorably,” he said. “Because the enlargement of the European Union was opposed to the enlargement of NATO. Unfortunately, Russia proved to be wrong. The two processes went practically in a very simultaneous manner. The Baltic acceded to the EU, and acceded to NATO. And, of course, historically Russia cannot completely disassociate these two processes.”
Wisniewski says that after losing Ukraine, EU leaders should move forcefully in Vilnius. They should offer credits and visa-free travel to Moldova and Georgia, the two former Soviet republics still on the Western track.
“It should really be proposed to Moldova that it have a visa-free regime,” he said. “Because, without that, nobody will take the Eastern Partnership seriously any more.”
Coming days will tell if the EU will move to salvage its outreach program to these former republics of the Soviet Union.