A Russian view on the Eastern Partnership
The EU Eastern Partnership (EaP) project, addressed to six countries in the post-Soviet space - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - has been a reaction of Brussels to the deficits of the original European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), dissatisfaction with the leaders of the colour revolutions and GUAM efficiency. But its implementation was enhanced by the consequences of the Caucasus crisis as well as the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
The goal of the EaP was to bring partner countries closer to the EU through deepened cooperation and integration on the basis of EU values, norms and standards. The bilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership encompassed the EU’s relations with the individual partner countries aimed at concluding Association Agreements, establishing Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, and introducing visa-free regimes. The (EaP)Prague summit declaration (in 2009) made it quite clear that the Eastern Partnership was a new more pragmatic version of the ENP putting pragmatism above ideals. With all good intentions the EaP concept had several inherent flaws that strongly affected the EU’s relations with Russia and have finally left the project in turmoil.
Without Russia-against Russia
Looking back in time after the conflict in Ukraine one cannot but recognize that it was a mistake on behalf of the EU not to invite Russia - the biggest eastern partner - to join EaP, under the pretext that Russia had declined Brussels’ original proposal in 2003 to be part of ENP. The real reason is much deeper. When the problem of the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy was solved, both the EU and the West at large saw the separation of Russia from its Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) partners as a guarantee that the USSR would never be brought back to life. And this principle was put at the centre of the EU (and NATO) regional strategies. Since EaP was a logical continuation of ENP, Brussels got an argument not to invite Russia to its next post-Soviet project. It was stressed that this initiative was not directed against Russia. But as long as Russia shares the continent with EU and NATO, which possess huge economic, technological and military power - “without Russia” will always be interpreted by Moscow as “against Russia”. Hence, had Russia been invited and declined such invitation, it would have been her own choice, and in that case it would have been more difficult for Kremlin to be against participation of its neighbours in the EU project.
Initially Russia’s reaction to EaP was quite reserved. However, Kremlin had concerns about EU plans to create its own sphere of influence in the CIS space; to deprive Russia of the status of the priority partner of some of the above-mentioned six countries through the EaP large-scale program; to create an alternative to Russia’s integrationist plans in the CIS - “Concept of Long-Term Development of Russia up to 2020”. But these concerns turned into panic by fall 2013 when Kremlin realized that the Ukrainian leadership was about to sign an Association Agreement with EU at the Vilnius EaP summit on 28-29 November. Ukraine was supposed to be a pearl in the crown of Putin’s new Eurasian project and her departure from Russia would make this grand design as well as the Customs Union irrelevant. Aside from this, Moscow’s overreaction to the prospect of losing Ukraine was a result of Kremlin’s poor knowledge of the very substance of the Association Agreement, which was viewed as a next step to full membership in EU. The former President Yanukovitch used negotiations with the EU and Russia in order to improve his position on both sides. But it was Moscow, not Brussels, which was able to deliver low gas prices and loans for the 2015 presidential elections.
Brussels’ unattractive offer
In its approach to the partner-countries the architects of EaP proceeded from their experience in the CEE and Baltic regions where European identity and vocation were quite genuine. In the CIS area the situation was different: the European option did not become irreversible for all EaP countries. Even the most European countries - Ukraine and Moldova were torn apart between Russia and EU. And it was the EU-Russia battle over Ukraine that led eventually to a conflict. The clash between differing regional strategies– Brussels’ Eastern partnership and Moscow’s Eurasia Union concept as well as “the either/or” choice presented to Kiev ultimately made the conflict inevitable.
The EaP (ironically like Putin’s Eurasian project) offered a single ideology to a very broad sweep of peoples and countries that had diverse objectives in Eastern Partnership. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — saw the ultimate goal as EU membership. Belarus, Russia’s partner in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), was not interested in the political reforms proposed under the Eastern Partnership, the objective being to lift sanctions and reap economic dividends. Armenia, another CSTO member and EEU ally of Russia, on the contrary, committed itself only to the political part of the Association Agreement. Like Belarus, Azerbaijan snubbed political reform, as well as EU membership. In fact, Azerbaijan is much better suited to the format of the Euro-Mediterranean association agreements. Azerbaijan’s main interest is in the energy component of the Agreement, in particular the Southern Gas Corridor project, in which Baku is heavily involved.
Brussels’ invitation to Belarus and Armenia to join the Eastern Partnership looked like an attempt by the EU to neutralize the anti-Russian vector of the project. Without them, the Eastern Partnership would be limited to the GUAM countries, a group set up to counter Russian policy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Yet the involvement of Russia’s allies not only highlighted the blatant artificiality of the EaP format, but reinforced Moscow’s concerns about the EU attempts to squeeze Russia out of its habitat.
But the main miscalculation of EaP architects was the lack of an ultimate goal for those countries that have embarked on the path of painful reforms. This is like telling an athlete to train six hours a day in preparation for the Olympic Games, only to turn around later and say, actually, forget about the Olympics, the main thing is to keep yourself fit and healthy. There may be some truth in that, but this regime requires only two hours a day, not six.
The EU conducted no assessments to understand how the DCFTA’s would impact different sectors within the partner countries. As a result, it could not offer a well thought selection of financial measures, implementation of reasonable timelines designed to smoothen the transition to the EU norms and standards. Brussels always preferred to talk to the political elites of its eastern partners but not to their ordinary peoples who were aware of all the hardships that they would be faced with, but knew very little about finalité and benefits of the EaP implementation.
The Mirror Cracked
The Ukrainian conflict has brought the Russia-West relations to the edge of confrontation for the first time since the end of the Cold war. However, deep divides have appeared not only in the Russia-West relations but in the European space at large affecting relations between the EU countries and within them as well as with the EU eastern partners and the CIS region at large. Figuratively speaking, the European mirror has cracked. As for the cracks in Eastern Partnership, the last Eastern Partnership summit in Riga has become the most vivid evidence of this reality. The summit was primarily of a symbolic nature. Its goal was to keep the project afloat and show to participating countries that Brussels has not lost interest in EaP. However, the conflict over Ukraine has shown that Russia still has a potential to oppose those projects which it perceives as a threat to its own national interests. Hence today, in contrast to the Vilnius summit, the EU and some partner countries have to act with one eye on the Kremlin.
The Riga summit showed also that in order to avoid becoming a footnote, the Eastern Partnership needs rethinking and reformatting. As for Russia, it has reason to chortle at such a routine and incoherent EaP summit. But one person’s failure does not necessarily mean another’s success. The geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West, wherever its roots lie, could lead to new conflicts. Yet it is conceivable that under the best scenario, which means restoration of peace in Ukraine and normal relations between EU and Russia, the latter could agree on a new framework of cooperation in the post-Soviet space, based on specific functional projects across a range of fields and built upon a flexible geometry that encompasses all would-be participants.
Professor Nadia Alexandrova- Arbatova is Head of Department on European Political Studies Institute for WorldEconomy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences.