In May 2015 the EU and its eastern neighbours will gather for a summit in Riga to take stock of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy. While the summit itself is unlikely to result in ground-breaking decisions, it will nevertheless lay ground for upcoming debates on the future of the policy. Those debates will also be informed by the lessons that the EU and its neighbours extracted from the dramatic Vilnius summit in 2013 and its aftermath.
The situation is complicated. The EU capitals (the views of which are presented in a parallel collection) lack unanimity on the aims or successes and failures of the EaP. The partner countries – whose views are presented here – also have very different expectations and levels of ambition. Only Russia seems to be relatively clear in its aims – to dominate the region, and be forceful in its means.
It is evident that if the EU seriously wants to be a force for democratic transformation and stability in the neighbourhood, it will need to find a way to navigate the complexities of the situation that centre around at least three dilemmas.
First, there is the question of how to handle the EaP countries’ societies and their elites, whose aims are often somewhat contradictory. Most target countries of the EaP got their independence semi-accidentally 20 years ago. The societies were weak, so the statehood was hijacked by often corrupt and self-serving elites. Two decades on, those societies have started to mature and demand law-based governance. That makes them natural partners and allies for the EU. However, the EaP policy is designed to work with the elites. Elites are the ones who can execute the changes that the EU would reward. And the elites’ weaknesses have a direct negative effect on that ability: nominally pro-European but effectively self-serving elites discredit the European cause in the eyes of the societies. Elite corruption also erodes statehood and creates weaknesses that can easily be used by third countries for pressure and blackmail. The EU’s whole experience with Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine was an illustration of exactly that lesson: corrupt elites had made the country so vulnerable to Russia’s pressure that the EU was unable to help; it then found itself watching from the sidelines as a revolution swept the hapless leaders away. But the questions – how to help maturing societies to transform their elites; and how to inspire the imperfect elites to execute the needed changes – remain pertinent. To different degrees, they are valid in all EaP countries.
The second dilemma is between democratic standards and sovereignty. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine scared the elites – however selfish and corrupt – in all EaP countries. Not only have the EaP frontrunners tried to intensify their relations with the EU, but also the “laggards” are looking for ways to get closer to Europe in order to hedge against Russia’s pressure. However, in the latter case this is not accompanied by democratic transformation. The message that comes from places such as Minsk is almost admirably honest: “Please help to save our independence and sovereignty, even though we will not become a democracy by your standards any time soon.”
In many ways, this is a very legitimate request, but hard to respond to in the framework of the EaP policy, the slogan of which has always been “more for more”: more access for more transformation. At the same time, the answer that the EU will come up with will show something very important about the Union itself: will it remain a technocratic power that is happy to spread democracy and good governance on fertile and uncontested soil, or will it be a geopolitical actor that sees upholding the OCSE-based European order as its responsibility. In its words, Europe subscribes to the latter, but in practice it has yet to find the means to live up to the mission.
And finally, Europe needs to find a way to handle the inevitable tensions that stem from Russia’s views of and ambitions in the region. In the above-described tension between the EaP countries’ societies and elites, the EU is bound to side with societies, and Russia is bound to side with corrupt elites, even if the latter are not explicitly “pro-Russian”. This tension is not of Europe’s doing: it occurs and has sharpened because of processes that take place in Russia and in the countries concerned. In the EaP region, the maturing societies are starting to set demands. Russia, however, wants to see itself as a great power, and its definition of a great power includes what it calls a “sphere of influence”. Truly democratic states can never be controlled in ways that Russia would find reliable, so Moscow is bound to focus on elites that are, if not pro-Russian, then at least prone to manipulation.
Russia and Europe each have a drastically different understanding of how to solve the situation. For more than a year, Moscow has uttered veiled and less veiled proposals to conclude a new deal on the spheres of influence. For Europe, however, dividing “spheres” is a taboo. Different European countries may or may not want to see eastern neighbours eventually join the EU, but Europe’s painful history and its lessons effectively condemn them to defend their right to apply. Europe needs to figure out how.
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