Happy birthday, Eastern Partnership: Celebrations deferred, not cancelled

The EU’s success is mixed in generating reform among Eastern Partnership countries. But patience and self-confidence remain its best bet for the future.

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The Eastern Partnership turns 12 this year. When it launched in 2009, the initiative’s goal was to strengthen political relationships between the European Union and the six countries in the Eastern Partnership – and to encourage economic integration by promoting reforms in those states. Since then, the EU has achieved some successes: Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine concluded associated agreements with Brussels, and these countries’ citizens won the right to visit the EU without visas. Armenia entered into an extended partnership agreement with the EU. Belarus’s visa regime was eased.

However, despite the strengthening of EU policy positions on certain matters, problems remain throughout the Eastern Partnership region. Conflicts – both ‘frozen’ and ‘hot’ – are playing out in all countries with the exception of Belarus, while Russia uses each of the six as part of its geopolitical designs. Progress on political reform over the last 12 years also leaves much to be desired, particularly in light of a number of post-Soviet states’ constant attempts to return to old authoritarian ways. The Eastern Partnership is now going through its most difficult period yet with a cascade of political and humanitarian crises, and even a war between Eastern Partnership states.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

Last year, an armed conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, resulting in territorial changes to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan’s effective victory has led to sky-high popularity for the country’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev. This does not bode well for the Azerbaijani pro-democracy opposition, which was already under huge pressure.

Turkey gave Azerbaijan significant assistance during the war and, as a result, the two countries are closer than ever: they are deepening their cooperation in the field of defence and the defence industry; a mutual visa-free regime began to operate in April.

For Armenia, which had been riding a wave of euphoria after the people’s revolution of 2018, the military defeat was an enormous national tragedy. The Armenians realise that there is virtually no chance of seizing the lost territories and they blame the defeat on the very person whom they recently considered their hero. From a hope for a democratic Armenia, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan turned in the eyes of many of his supporters into a traitor who failed to defend his country. This provoked a deep political crisis and early elections are now due, but no one knows whether they will lead to greater political stability for the country.

The Nagorno-Karabakh crisis showed that Turkey and Russia dominate in Azerbaijan, and the EU, at best, can claim the role of a rhetorical, but not practical, participant. Russia has also again confirmed its status as a key player with Armenia, contrary to illusions harboured by some that the 2018 revolution would reduce its influence.

Georgia

Georgia was until relatively recently an example of successful democratisation in a post-Soviet state. But it is now returning to the authoritarian practices of the past. Over the last decade, Georgia has become significantly closer to the EU. But this relationship, and the ‘carrots’ offered to the country via the Eastern Partnership, now look insubstantial when set against the extraordinary efforts to stay in power made by the ruling party, Georgian Dream. The country’s leaders have arrested the main opposition politician, Nika Melia, and parliament now resembles a Georgian Dream party congress as opposition MPs boycott its sittings. European Council president Charles Michel is working hard to resolve the stand-off, and there is hope for a constructive solution after a recent agreement signed between the government and some opposition parties. But the future of Georgia will largely depend on the readiness of its leaders to separate their personal interests and ambitions from the interests of the country.

Belarus

Since 2014, Belarus would often take pains to be seen to be engaging with the EU in order to broaden its diplomatic options, not least in its manoeuvrings vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Now, since the falsified presidential election last summer, the regime has openly accused the EU of attempting to bring about a coup d’état and annexe Belarusian territory. There are hundreds of new political prisoners in the country, and the entire state apparatus has turned into a totalitarian conveyor of repression. The EU itself is partly to blame for this – not because it has attempted a takeover, but because it has largely held back. Authoritarian leaders such as Aliaksandr Lukashenka respect only strength and decisiveness, and so he looks on the EU’s ‘prudence’ since last August as nothing more than a sign of weakness. As far back as 2011, Lukashenka said publicly that he believes that European politicians “have no balls”. He therefore merely scoffs at the visa sanctions the EU has imposed, all while he continues to systematically crack down on all dissent. Economic difficulties and conflict with Western countries make Belarus a convenient victim for a phased takeover by Russia. That said, the Eastern Partnership was probably never a powerful enough instrument to meet a challenge as great as defending Belarusian sovereignty from Moscow. Belarus’s future remains in the hands of Belarusians.

The principal attraction of the EU in post-Soviet countries lies primarily in its economic and social success.

Ukraine

Ukraine joined the Eastern Partnership with hopes still high of becoming an EU member. But by 2021 it had lost Crimea and parts of its eastern territory. Russian troops have again been gathering along Ukraine’s borders and the situation remains tense and liable to flare up at any moment. In the near future, active hostilities may resume in Donbas. Since Volodymyr Zelensky came to power, some steps have been taken to fight corruption, as well as to make life harder for oligarchic businesses associated with Russia. However, for every two steps forward there is one step back. Some recent moves by the government raise questions about conformity with democratic practices, such as banning three opposition television channels or a fight the president has picked with the constitutional court. However, the country is still at war, which overshadows and motivates much of what is happening. 

Moldova

Perhaps the most optimistic state of affairs is in Moldova. The long-running confrontation between pro-European and pro-Russian forces continues, resulting in regular political crises. But, despite a history of struggle between different branches of the government, a more or less smooth transition followed last year’s presidential election. The outgoing, pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, had – however much he might have wished it – no Georgian- or Belarusian-style methods available to him to try to stay in power. This suggests that Moldova’s state system is relatively resilient to the threat of authoritarianism. However, the situation since Maia Sandu’s election as president is neither calm nor stable. A dispute about whether to hold an early parliamentary election has provoked a new round of conflict between the pro-Russian parliament led by Dodon and the pro-Western Sandu, with both sides seeking to win over the constitutional court. The crisis is reducing the quality and effectiveness of public administration and preventing the country from moving forward.

Many of the negative trends currently on full display in partner countries were already present long before the EU even conceived of the Eastern Partnership. European diplomacy alone would never have been able to hold back this tide. But there is no reason to lose hope.

The EU will need to be patient and continue to build on the leverage it has already created, to a greater or a lesser degree, in all partner countries – while not being blind to its own weaknesses. The principal attraction of the EU in post-Soviet countries lies primarily in its economic and social success. If some partner states cannot obtain the EU membership they desire in the foreseeable future, then the EU should offer them something else ambitious. This could, for example, be the prospect of creating a customs union as a logical development of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine each have. Closer and more inclusive cooperation on reform, regional security, climate, and digitalisation is also needed.

Given that the EU cannot halt the logic of historical processes, there is only one way it can increase its own influence and achieve the goals it has set itself (which, incidentally, are pretty much the same as they were in 2009). This is by strengthening ties between the EU and Eastern Partnership states and creating a corpus of shared achievements with partner countries. In doing so, the EU must be responsive to the expectations of its partners, especially those that, albeit in small steps, are moving in the right direction.

This approach should not be values-free, but it should be future-orientated. The EU has the chance to draw on the good will felt towards it by the populations of all six Eastern Partnership countries. The fact that they like and want what the EU has to offer – and what it stands for – means that through stronger people-to-people, economic, and political ties, the EU is generating the power not only to issue strong statements, but to see a response across the Eastern Partnership as country leaders feel compelled to act.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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