2020 Elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – Opinions of foreign policy experts By Irina Mamulashvili
Three countries that have signed association agreements with the European Union – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova held elections in fall 2020. Analysis of election process and results in these countries is fundamental as it provides important information about future dynamics in the region.
On October 25, 2020, local elections were held in Ukraine under the new Election Code for decentralization ofpower. Through the elections, citizens of Ukraine elected members of district-level and regional councils, city mayors and village heads. On November 1 and 15 (second round), presidential elections were held in the Republic of Moldova, in which pro-European candidate Maia Sandu defeated pro-Russian Igor Dodon and won the election. On October 31, 2020, citizens of Georgia elected a parliament composed of 150 members under a mixed (120/30) electoral system. In the parliamentary elections, members of 9 parties gained parliamentary seats, however opposition parties that overcame a threshold of 1% have declared distrust towards the election results. They refuse to enter parliament and demand extraordinary elections.
Notably, EU membership is a foreign policy priority without an alternative for Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. They have achieved certain success with respect to relationship with EU after signing the Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Moreover, EU granted visa-free policy to Moldova in 2014 and to Georgia and Ukraine in 2017. It should also be emphasized that an important element of EU’s relationship with the associated countries is the Eastern Partnership Initiative (EaP) formed in 2009. In addition to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, the EaP also includes Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.
Notably, the EU itself defines democratic elections in the following terms: respect for fundamental rights, free expression of people’s will, political pluralism, transparency, accountability, fairness, equal ability to compete in elections, etc. 
2020 was an especially responsible year for the associated countries – fair and competitive conduct of elections created an important opportunity to strengthen quality of democracy. Notably, these countries had to hold their elections against the background of COVID-19 crisis, in an environment filled with challenges, which greatly affected the work of international observation missions and limited their ability to adequately monitor the election process.
International society always closely follows and observes with interest pre-election or election process, its consequences and effects on development of a country. Representatives of third sector react to ongoingpolitical and democratic processes with different analytical works, conferences or other media. In light of this, it is interesting to see what influential international policy analysts think about the 2020 elections in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. To that end, ISFED interviewed analysts that specialize in issues related to the three associated countries. Experts positively assessed election of the president in Moldova and reforms planned by her. They talked about importance of local elections in Ukraine. They also underlined the importance of Georgia’s move to a new, predominantly proportional election system for development of democracy. Additionally, the analysts underlined violations in the course of the elections. They discussed in detail possible implications for the 2021 EaP summit and in general, for opportunities of the associated countries to deepen and develop their relationships with the EU.
Within the interview, three respondents evaluated election process in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Moldovan policy analyst noted in general that „elections are the best way to open up new opportunities – if the society votes for those, who will implement reforms, a window of opportunity will open with the EU. However, at the same time, elections may turn out to be a regress for a country.“
With respect to Moldova’s presidential elections, all three respondents underlined the important role of diaspora. According to the Moldovan researcher, this could set a good example for Ukraine and Georgia, because similar to Moldova, many Georgians and Ukrainians live abroad. Iulian Groza, former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Moldova, who currently serves as the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy and Reforms of Europe (IPRE) believes that diaspora especially contributed to Maia Sandu’s victory – „Even though Moldovan people that live abroad didn’t have access to alternative ways of voting like the internet, email, etc., we have witnessed their incredibly great involvement.“ Additionally, for evaluation of Moldova’s election environment I. Groza underlines disinformation campaigns in the pre-election period as one of the most important challenges.
Michael Emerson – a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), whose latest work is related to policy issues related to Eastern Europe, believes that irregularities found in the process of elections in Ukraine and Moldova are insignificant. However, he is of a different opinion about Georgia’s parliamentary elections, which he describes as substandard. Additionally, the Moldovan analyst underlinedthe use of administrative resources in Georgia and Moldova. At the same time, the analyst believes that the irregularities in Ukraine and Moldova didn’t affect the final outcome, while in Georgia the irregularities have defined the final outcome resulting in a post-election political crisis in the country.
The respondents also addressed the election results. The Moldovan researcher underlined positive aspects of Maia Sandu becoming the president – „I know that in the 21st century we shouldn’t be underlining among positive aspects that a woman became the president. However, this is still an accomplishmentfor former Soviet Union countries because their societies remain patriarchal.“ Additionally, according to the expert, Maia Sandu is a reformist politician, she is not involved in corrupt deals. To the contrary, her goal is to eliminate corruption. However, at the same time Michael Emerson points out that from constitutional point of view, Maia Sandu is a very weak president and she needs parliamentary support to implement reforms, which she currently doesn’t have. In addition, Iulian Groza believes that against the background of limited power, Maia Sandu will not be able to ensure quick changes in the country, however she can create a foundation for potential changes in the future. Overall, the respondents believe that Maia Sandu’s election as the president is a positive development, not only for Moldova but for the entire region.
As to the results of Ukraine’s election, according to Michael Emerson, Ukrainian elections have illustrated the decreasing public support for Zelensky’s government. CEPS researcher describes Zelenski’s regime as weak and highlights facts of grave corruption. Similarly, the Moldovan analyst notes that the ruling party in Ukraine had poor results in local council and mayoral elections – „these results are certainly quite bad for the ruling party but they are good for democracy, because it allows us to avoid concentration of power.“
With regard to the parliamentary elections in Georgia, Michael Emerson noted that since the day of gaining its independence, Georgia has achieved a lot of success. As an example, the respondent cited his own research comparing the Balkans and Eastern European countries. The research clearly demonstrated Georgia’s democratic advancement and named it as a leading country in the region. However, According to M. Emerson, the 2020 parliamentary elections has shaken Georgia’s image and it has lost a chance to become an example and an impressive representative. Additionally, according to the Moldovan policy researcher, election of the Georgian Dream in 2012 created an expectation for a better democracy compared to the previous government because the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili was more focused on modernizing the state than on democracy. „2020 was a chance for Georgia to prove the quality of its democracy but instead, during the 2020 elections the country showed regress in that regard“ – said theMoldovan researcher.
It is important to underline how international society views possible scenarios of development of the associated countries’ relationship with EU. In that regard, the respondents discussed integration of the three countries with EU in general and the 2020 EaP summit in particular.
In consideration of COVID-19 crisis and other political reasons, the respondents question the possibility of holding the summit. According to M. Emerson, in addition to the pandemic-related ambiguity, it is also not clear who will participate in the summit because he is not sure if the EU will invite Lukashenko’s government. Against the background of serious political crisis, it is doubtful if representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan will agree to attend the same meeting.
However, if the 2021 summit is held, I. Groza believes that associated countries will not receive any ambitious offers. Neither does he expect any important new initiatives from the EU. Similarly, M. Emerson does not expect any innovations from the summit. According to him, the existing situation will be evaluated and issues of sectoral integration will be discussed.
Interesting opinions were expressed by the Moldovan policy analyst, who discussed in detail prospects of strengthening relationships with EU for the three countries. According to him, there are a number of factors in addition to elections that affect the countries’ relationship with the EU – in particular, ongoing developments in the EU, situation in member states, political or economic situation of the union, etc. Therefore, whether the European Union will put forward any ambitious offers will depend, on the one hand, on its readiness to offer ambitious agenda in 2021 to the associated countries and on the other hand, on the question of whether these countries deserve to move to the next stage of the relationships.
According to the Moldovan expert, creation of new opportunities following the elections is most likely in Moldova’s case but he does not expect anything special for Georgia because he believes that the EU will focus its attention and energy on defusing the political crisis, not on the advancement of the country. In addition, if the current government remains in power, we will witness a fight to maintain political power, instead of implementation of reforms, which clearly will not prompt the EU to put forward any new offers for Georgia – „EU will possibly try to maintain what it has achieved so far and avoid Georgia’s regress.“
As to Ukraine, first and foremost the experts welcome holding of the local elections, since it was supported by EU, which has invested significant financial resources in implementation of the decentralization reform. According to the Moldovan researcher, EU will allocate financial resources at the local level hoping that this will be later reflected at the national level – it believes that cities will have mayors that will later become politicians at the national level. Therefore, results of Ukraine’s elections are a positive sign for EU because nothing is more important for EU than to see that its investment has been spent effectively and has yielded real results.
„I believe that if these three countries want to strengthen their ties with the EU, they should first and foremost utilize efforts of the West for a meaningful transformation, which will later translate into success of the country and as a result, will pave the way for the new cycle of relationship with the EU“ – says the Moldovan policy analyst.
To summarize, generally 2020 has been marked with very important geopolitical events in the Eastern Partnership countries. Political fever began in the region with announcement of the presidential election results held on August 9 in Belarus, followed by a wave of mass demonstrations. Later we witnessed a renewed conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has created a new configuration of powers in the Caucasus and imposed new factual borders. Beginning from October, „election season“ began in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The elections were of historic importance for all three countries – Georgia was about to yield the most democratic and diverse elections in the history of the nation, under the new election system; Ukraine was about to electlocal representatives for the first time in its history, following adoption of the decentralization reform; while the Moldovan people were making a historic choice between the West and Russia.
Notably, successful conduct of the elections in fall could have been an impetus for the EU to put forward ambitious policy offers for the associated countries in the nearest future, especially if the three countries jointly demonstrated success in the pre-election period, in the course of the elections and in the election results. In September 2020, in an interview with ISFED, Lithuanian MP Andrius Kubilius said: „The 2020 parliamentary elections give Georgia an opportunity to prove to EU and its member states that the country is ready for integration.“ Moreover, 2020 was an opportunity not only for Georgia but also for Moldova and Ukraine to prove their commitment to democratic values and demonstrate that they truly deserve European perspective. Clearly, unfortunately the opportunities were not fully utilized, however there is still a chance for these countries to spare no effort to implement important reforms, defuse political or economic crisis, strengthen quality of democracy, in order to receive from the EU ambitious offers, differentiated approach and the opportunity to move to the next stage of the relationship, and achieve their goal of becoming a member of the EU.
European Parliament, Association agreements between the EU and Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. June 2018. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/621833/EPRS_STU(2018)621833_EN.pdf
European Commission. Fundamental rights. Ensuring fair elections, pluralistic political debate and online and offline freedom of expression. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/discussion_paper_1c.pdf
 The analyst asked to remain anonymous.
Emerson M,. Center for European Policy Studies. Political and Economic Governance. 06 July 2018. https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/political-and-economic-governance-balkans-and-eastern-europe-compared/