This piece is based on ECFR’s latest policy report, The limits of enlargement-lite: European and Russian power in the troubled neighbourhood.
Since the EU launched its ‘Eastern Partnership’ at the Prague Summit in May, its would-be partners have lurched from one crisis to another. After the violence that followed elections in April, Moldova’s deadlocked parliament twice failed to elect a new President in May and June and now seems set for new elections in August – but remains without an effective government as the economy nose-dives. Ukraine’s politicians, on the other hand, have been scheming to avoid the presidential election due some time this winter – the first since Ukraine’s famous ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Armenia’s ruling party stands accused or fixing yet another election in the capital Yerevan on 31 May, shutting out the Armenian National Congress party of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. In Georgia opposition protestors have blocked central Tbilisi for two months. Authoritarian Belarus and Azerbaijan seem stable internally, but their foreign policies are in turmoil, with Azerbaijan shifting its energy policy towards Moscow and Belarus moving in the opposite direction as its budget runs dry. While Russia risks talk of the ‘green shoots of recovery’, the economic figures for Eastern Europe remain uniformly dreadful, and prospects for recovery are anemic at best.
The Eastern Partnership is a welcome initiative, but it is not designed to deal with these sorts of crises. It needs to be buttressed with policies that address the short-term problems of the region. The EU is highly unlikely to provide extra money in current circumstances, but its value-added can come from helping to break the political logjams in the region. EBRD and EIB funds are often held up by political problems, but the EU can help them flow, by leading missions to Kiev or Chişinău to sort out intractable political rivalries. The EU can also help with steering countries towards ‘IMF+’ packages – the little extra financing that Eastern Europe currently needs to survive the recession. Countries like Ukraine and Moldova have similar problems to Latvia and Romania, but currently find it much more difficult to get funds outside the IMF.
The EU also needs to be quicker to act. It took two weeks for the then Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, representing the EU Presidency, and Javier Solana, the EU’s CFSP high representative, to visit Chişinău during the April crisis. The EU needs to be more visible on the ground, with more ‘political theatre’. In the east, presence is power. The EU could set up a ‘listening tour’ of the region, leading to a foreign minister’s meeting under the Swedish Presidency in the second half of 2009, which would incorporate the tour’s findings about regional security concerns into the EU’s response to Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty.
As NATO expansion into the region seems to be on the back-burner, the EU should step up its role in the region’s many actual and potential security crises. With Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU would do well merely to freeze the situation on the ground, and movement on Nagorno-Karabakh depends on Armenia and its fledgling negotiations with Turkey. But progress is possible on Transnistria, where Moldova’s pressing economic and political problems ought to allow an adroit EU to revive the ‘5+2′ negotiation format – and test Russia’s willingness to row back on the threat its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia posed to the sovereignty of all states in the region. The EU should establish a presence in Crimea to try, for once, to engage in conflict prevention rather than conflict management. In the first instance, this should be an EU information centre, but the EU could also prepare an economic package to help diversity the peninsula’s economy – currently overly dependent on the continuing presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
Information is vital to making the EU more attractive in the region. Most of the six states are quasi-authoritarian and prone to censorship, but are also penetrated by Russian mass media. A free media fund should be set up to encourage local web start-ups and sites that translate Western media. The EU should also consider offering financial assistance to cover small countries like Moldova and the non-mountainous parts of Georgia with wireless internet access, as the United States Agency for International Development did for Macedonia in 2004-05.
Visa-free travel is the most intractable issue. It matters most to Eastern European public opinion, but also agitates EU publics and Interior Ministries worried about immigration and crime. EU and Eastern Partnership Interior Ministries should begin work on confidence-building measures under the Swedish Presidency under the ‘27+6′ format for ministerial cooperation. The EU should work to improve and humanise visa application conditions, such as by expanding the Common Application Centre experiment in the Moldovan capital Chişinău.
The EU also needs to get tougher on democratic backsliding. The Moldovan authorities are undermining the country’s fragile democracy, with Russian support. The EU should launch a rule of law mission to deal with the underlying problems that generated election abuse, and a diplomatic mission to bring the two increasingly polarised sides together. The EU needs to stay in Georgia for the long-haul to prevent future conflicts, but make better use of the leverage its rehabilitation funding ought to provide. The EU should engage with Belarus, but concentrate its leverage on domestic issues that open up space for a more liberal political and economic system.
The alternative, if the EU remains relatively passive, is a ring of instability in what is, after all, Europe’s neighbourhood. Like the US and Mexico, growing gaps in living standards, in good governance and the rule of law will inevitably flow across borders. ‘Fortress Europe’ is not an option. Stability and security in the EU depend on stability and security in the neighbourhood.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.