Quo Vadis Eastern Partnership? A perspective of Russia – EU Relations and the future of Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership represents a joint initiative of the European Union and its Eastern European partners Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and has been launched in 2009 at Prague Summit. EaP has been created as a policy that helps its partners to get closer to the EU offering expertise and financial resources, as well as support in implementing reforms.

It is based on common values and has three objectives:

  • accelerating political association;
  • furthering economic integration between the European Union and its eastern neighbours;
  • providing for citizen’s mobility.

The Partnership also promotes democracy and good governance, strengthens energy security, promotes sector reform and environment protection, encourages people to people contact, supports economic and social development and offers additional funding for projects to reduce socio-economic imbalances and increase stability.

Following the Prague Summit in 2009, subsequent summits – in Warsaw in September 2011, in Vilnius in November 2013, and in Riga in May 2015 were conducted in order to discuss the progress achieved in the framework of the Eastern Partnership and specified priorities for furthering the cooperation.

By establishing EaP, EU replied to the challenges and paths of the partner countries to boost economic development, support democratic governance and increase stability in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Thus, the path of post-soviet states such as Moldova and Ukraine to European integration created closer cooperation with the EU, as well as born disagreements and influences from Russia. The Russian idea to have a sphere of influence was criticized by the EU.

The present paper aims to analyse Russia’s position towards European Union from an individual perspective, to point out the main challenges of the EaP and its neighbourhood and to emphasize the perspectives of EaP after Riga Summit from 2015.

EU-Russia

Three former Soviet states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have joined NATO and the EU, breaking a promise that the Russians thought they had been given by then US Secretary of State James Baker in December 1989 over the reunification of Germany. Others, such as Ukraine and Belarus have not. But, the battle to retain influence in what Russia sees as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe is one of the most important for the Russian government. The waves of enlargements conducted by EU born a range of pre-occupations for Russia influence in post-soviet space and one of the most important milestones in the extension of EU was Russia’s battle to retain the influence in its “sphere of interest”.

Thus, Russia started to compete with the EU by creating the Customs Union or Eurasian Union, offering to post-soviet states to join a Customs Union. In this context, EaP faced a major challenge in building strong ties with direct neighbours of Russia, since no state will act against such a power.

In order to avoid losing its considered sphere of interest, Russia started to influence politically and economically its neighbours in order to get power over them. This is the newest case on the international arena – annexation of Crimea.

Annexation of the Crimea and destabilisation in Eastern Ukraine not only undermined the established principles of territorial inviolability and self-determination of sovereign states but also forced a rethinking of the security situation in Europe.

The events in Ukraine provided an opportunity not only to talk about the strict breach of international norms established after the Cold War but also about the risks to the European security system.[1]

It is worth to mention that in order to keep the EaP states in its sphere of influence Russia only needs to maintain the existing non-transparent political and economic rules; meanwhile in order to expand its European regulation, the EU seeks to change these rules basically; yet the possibility of reforms is already limited, as Russian intervention in Ukraine, Moldova and subsequent chaos strengthened current Ukrainian oligarchic political and economic structure.

Eastern Partnership: challenges and perspectives

Currently, the EaP faces a number of serious challenges stemmed from deterioration of relations with Russia. Establishment of the Eastern Partnership at 2009 at Prague Summit became a new strategy of the European Union for closer relations with its immediate neighbours. Also, the Vilnius Summit of the EaP in November 2013 represented an important milestone in the EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbours.

Due to Russia’s “natural” right of influence on post-soviet states, a major challenge which the EaP has been continuously struggling with is to ensure the successful implementation of reform processes in the neighbouring countries. Since Russia remains an important trading partner of most EaP countries is still challenging undermining EU reform initiatives (Ukraine and impediment to signing the AA).

Bearing in mind the Russian strategy, Ukraine and other EaP countries should accept the status of “buffer zone”. In this light, Russia plays an important role to maintain non-transparent and unfair political and economic rules in Ukraine and Moldova in order to keep them in the post-soviet sphere of influence.

The latest evolutions on the European arena proved the EaP should review the approach and give new strategic solutions in order to be more responsive to the given challenges.

Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and its interference in other states in the region, extending even to EU members, seriously undermine the union’s attempts to stabilise its neighbourhood. Hence, the historic signing of the Association Agreements with four EaP countries – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine– did not take place at all as planned at the Vilnius Summit in November 2013 under the Lithuanian EU Presidency. Moldova has signed the AA being aware of the influences it will be wanted to face after signing. While the EU had conceived the EaP as being compatible with Russia’s strategy towards the same countries, the latter’s aggressive behaviour clearly aims to force them to choose between the two sides. Russia has made counter-offers of assistance in exchange for countries joining the Eurasian Economic Union, its competing regional integration project, which so far has been joined by Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It has also threatened those preferring to turn to Europe with sanctions and domestic interference.[2]

In Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, support for reforms has been downgraded. In Georgia and Moldova, it continues at a level similar to the pre-crisis period and has been unable to quell the democratic pathologies that now smoulder in both countries.[3]

In this light, the EU should rethink new perspectives of development for the EaP member states in order to become more responsive to the challenges it is facing, as well as to become more attractive. Thus, EaP should take a broad approach including strategic and political aspects that have been neglected for some time and it should take into consideration the views of both the EU and partner countries. Moreover, having in mind the new strategic challenges, the EU’s goals and the aspirations of EaP countries to European integration need to be clarified. The EU should renew its commitment to help develop a secure and cooperative area.

Over time, the EU should consider an eventual membership perspective for the most Western-oriented EaP countries, although this represents internal challenges for the EU. In particular, given the systemic competition with Russia, the EU needs to offer political incentives to countries that implement their commitments vis-à-vis the union.

To avoid addressing the issue of potential membership risks weakening public support for reforms in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It also reduces incentives for elites and societal actors that favour a European orientation in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus to push for change in their countries.

Nevertheless, the EU needs to differentiate more between the EaP countries and prioritize those that have signed Association Agreements, are willing to reform and are eager to move closer to the EU. It should use the review of the EaP to get an even better understanding of each country’s unique set of challenges and interests through dialogue with their political elites and societies alike.

References:

[1] Expert paper, EU and Russia relations after Crimea: Red lines for “business as usual”, Eastern Europe Studies Center

[2] Expert paper, European Eastern Partnership: Recommendations for a Refined Approach, From Brussels Forum to the Rīga Conference, p. 6

[3] Expert paper, Reform as resilience: An Agenda for the Eastern Partnership, p. 6

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