Eastern Partnership: The East, not on the EU’s mind

Polityka (Warsaw)

As the Eastern Partnership summit opens in Warsaw, the EU, which is caught up in the ongoing financial crisis, appears to have little enthusiasm for the project, launched by Poland in 2008. As for the partner countries, they continue to present a wide spectrum of political systems, ranging from dictatorship to democracy.

The Eastern Partnership offers a privileged status to the EU’s neighbours, who benefit from: free trade, visa-free travel or cut-price visas, student scholarships, support for civil society groups and foundations. At the end of September, exactly halfway through the Polish EU presidency and a week before general elections in Poland, the leaders of Europe’s 27 member states and its six eastern neighbours are to meet in Warsaw to relaunch the Partnership. To date the managers in Brussels have decked out the project in co-operation initiatives, pilot schemes, activities, pillars, zones, and other thematic platforms, all of which are consolidated by variety of funds worth several billion euros. In spite of this effort, the project has yet to take off, and there is no indication that the meeting in Warsaw will provide it with an fresh élan.

So who is to blame? The EU should certainly assume some responsibility. When the Partnership was launched in Prague two years ago, European leaders mainly turned out to have their picture taken with the newly elected American President, Barack Obama, who was the guest of honour. The EU’s eastern neighbours were only incidentally touched on in discussions which were more focused on relations between Europe, the United States and Russia, the collapse of financial markets, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and climate change. At the same, the leaders of three countries who support a competing initiative for special neighbour status for Mediterranean countries, namely France, Italy, and Spain, did not set foot in Prague’s Hradcany castle.

The likelihood is that there will be more notable absences at the Warsaw meeting, at a time when the governments of most member states have their attention taken up by more urgent problems. The Eurozone is in crisis, Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, and uncertainties remain aout the consequences of the Arab Spring.

Then there is the issue of the partners whose performance has been less than brilliant. In Belarus, after a breif respite Lukashenko has once again decided to ignore Europe and resort to Spetsnaz (a generic term designating Russian special forces) methods in his dealings with the opposition. In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, has taken over as president for life, a position that he inherited from his father. Armenia is well on its way to Putinism. In Georgia, Saakashvili has squandered the democratic legacy of the Rose Revolution. In Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko has been arrested and is now at the mercy of judges who take their orders from the country’s pro-Russian president. Even Moldova, which is supposed to be the promising pupil in the group, is still struggling with the conflict in Transnistria and the many ailments of an emerging democracy, most notably widespread corruption.

Russian distrust of the project has been overcome

In the region occupied by its eastern neighbours, the European Union is increasingly in competition with other countries. And it is the only entity that insists that the aid and the privileges it offers should be conditional on the opening of markets, and adherence to the European values of respect for democracy and human rights. It goes without saying that Russia, Turkey, Iran and China are less stringent in their demands. At the same time, America’s very limited interest in this part of the world has not encouraged these countries to establish closer ties with the West. By way of contrast, consider the priority treatment given to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic States when they embarked on a process of political transformation.

In Ukraine, support for membership of the European Union has declined 65% in 2002 to only 51%. Minsk has always been closer to Moscow than it has been to Brussels of Berlin; what has changed is the fact that seems closer than ever before. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, no one, with the exception of a handful of pro-western intellectuals, has ever wondered about joining the European Union. In the Caucasus, most of the secondhand cars come from Dubai rather than Germany. And the most widely known and widely coveted model of prosperity is the Dubai model, while Europe and its values appear to be too abstract.

The six partners are increasingly critical in their assessment of the EU and what it has to offer. The removal of trade barriers is a threat to local agriculture, which does not benefit from the subsidies available in Europe. On the issue of democracy, Lukashenko and the Caucasian opposition have both accused the European Union of maintaining double standards: Azerbaijan which is rich in oil and gas is handled with kid gloves, while Belarus, which is much poorer is obliged to contend with sanctions, even though the opposition in Baku is much worse off than the opposition in Minsk.

In its bid to relaunch the Partnership, the EU should send a clear message to populations in the East, for example by removing the visa requirement for the citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and perhaps even Russia. Russian distrust of the project has been overcome, notably through the efforts of Polish diplomats, even though Moscow continues to see the region covered by the Eastern Partnership as its exclusive stamping ground. That said, the success of the Partnership will not depend on an impulsive change in Russian policy, but on the EU’s ability to offer real incentives for change, which are sadly lacking today.

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