"Eastern Partnership": Analysis of the Initiative and Corresponding Russian Behavior

Alexander Sivetz

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On December 3, 2008 the European Commission adopted a proposal by Poland and Sweden on establishing closer ties with six ex-Soviet countries. The new ‘Eastern Partnership’ scheme, which EU member states must yet endorse, will offer a step change in the EU’s relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, plus Belarus, if it embraces democracy.

“The time is ripe to open a new chapter in relations with our Eastern neighbors,” Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations and the "European Neighborhood Policy" (ENP), said at a press conference in Brussels. “Building on the progress of the last years we have prepared an ambitious and at the same time well-balanced offer… Our policy towards these countries should be strong, proactive and unequivocal. The EU will continue with the successful approach of tailor-made programs on a new scale and add a strong multilateral dimension. It remains our principle though that progress must go hand in hand with reform efforts by our partners, but this new package also offers more intensive assistance to help them meet their goals.”

 

The ‘Eastern Partnership’ is intended to counterbalance the new Mediterranean Union, launched in July by the French presidency. Its initial version offered the prospect of “a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement,” including far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU, enhanced energy security arrangements and increased financial assistance as a reward for making democratic and free market reforms.

In Polish and Swedish opinion, the ‘Eastern Partnership’ is in the EU’s vital interest to contribute to the development of stability, better governance and economic development at its Eastern borders. On the other hand it had to respond to the desire of the EU’s eastern neighbors to move closer to the European Union. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Poland and Sweden proposed the ‘Eastern Partnership’ in May 2008 to help former Soviet republics prepare for eventual EU membership (though no promising it directly) by cooperating more closely with the bloc and with each other.

The first ‘Eastern Partnership’ summit is expected to be held as early as spring 2009. Later on, the partnership summits will take place once in two years. The foreign ministers meetings will be conducted annually to discuss the program functioning. So, a qualitatively new format of the EU interaction with a number of post-Soviet states is actually being created while Russia considers some of them to be its most important allies.

Evidently, the program’s main goal is the formation of the stable political regimes that would be loyal to the EU, depend on that community and share the European values. The Russia-Georgia conflict made the European leaders implement it as soon as possible. The EU regarded Russia’s drastic measures to protect South Ossetia as an evidence of Russia’s claims on leadership in the former Soviet Union.

The European diplomats say that Russia has no right to ‘sphere of influence’ and they seem to think that this term is obsolete. Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, said: “We have said clearly that the Cold War is over. Where there is no Cold War there should be no spheres of influence. I believe that all countries are entitled to decide what policy they should follow on the international arena.”

But as a matter of fact, the EU seeks to deprive Russia of the status of the priority partner of some of the above-mentioned six countries through its large-scale program. Brussels tries to bring those countries out of Russia’s sphere of influence and to replace it with its own. Apparently, the EU, which was worried by Russia’s tough policy in the Caucasus, decided to secure its eastern borders.

The program says nothing about the military and political cooperation which would be an open challenge to Russia in the security sphere. Therefore for the latter it would be difficult to oppose the new initiative. But the ‘Eastern Partnership’ can be regarded as an alternative to Russia’s integration projects in the former Soviet Union. In fact, the EU tries to build partner relations even with such traditional Russia’s allies as Belarus and Armenia.

For example, in spring 2009 it will be known whether Belarus will become the ‘Eastern partner’. The EU made it clear that Alyaksandr Lukashenka could be invited to take part in the summit that was supposed to launch the program. While offering Minsk the cooperation within the program, Brussels hopes that Belarus’ gradual democratization and further increasing economic dependence on Europe will weaken its military and political alliance with Moscow.
 

Europe is also very much interested in final ensuring the diversification of gas supplies. Brussels is going to convene in April a sort of conference to raise investments in order to modernize the entire Ukrainian gas pipeline system. In addition, it intends to offer Ukraine and Moldova full membership in the European Energy Community. So far, along with Georgia, they have only observer status. Full membership in the European Energy Community will impose strict transit obligations on Ukraine.

The European Commission also intends to sign a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan and Armenia taking into account that the former is considered an alternative gas supply source for Europe. In addition, Brussels plans to discuss the European Commission-Belarus energy declaration concerning the hydrocarbons transit and the energy reform in Belarus.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently signed a ‘Concept of Long-Term Development of Russia up to 2020.’ The document reads that Russia’s economic cooperation with the CIS member states both at the bilateral level and in the multilateral format is one of the priority aspects of Russia’s external economic policy. According to the document, Russia reckons upon further strengthening of the European Economic Community (EAEC) as the economic integration basis, creation of the customs union.

The ‘Concept’ also stresses that there is a need to form the EAEC common energy market. That is why it seems that the provisions of the ‘Concept’ are contrary to the main goals of the ‘Eastern Partnership’. Of course, the new European program developers do not say frankly about their intention to destroy Moscow’s integration projects in the former Soviet Union but in point of fact, the ‘Eastern Partnership’ may become their alternative for the six post-Soviet countries.

The EU intention to make its neighbors come to an agreement about their energy policy may restrict the possibilities of Moscow ‘gas’ diplomacy considerably. For example, the EU and six countries’ ‘united front’ can affect the implementation of such Russian projects as ‘South Stream’ and ‘Nord Stream’ adversely. On the contrary, plans to create the energy supply routes bypassing Russia will be encouraged.

Russian officials still did not reveal their clear-cut position towards the ‘Eastern Partnership’. “What is the program aimed at? It is aimed at strengthening the EU’s role in the region. Does it severe Russia’s interests? We will judge this by the EU’s deeds,” – said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s permanent representative in the EU. However it is clear that Moscow seen cool on the plan. The European Union does not need a new ‘Eastern Partnership’ with ex-Soviet republics because it already has bilateral ties with individual countries, said known Kremlin loyalist, speaker of the Council of Federation Sergei Mironov.

Unfortunately it seems that Moscow efforts to emasculate the initiative did not go for waste. From the moment of its first presentation the initial idea has endured rather significant permutations. Even a phrase on necessity to recognize European identity and pro-European aspirations of the Eastern European neighbors was removed from the text. It was changed by more neutral and diverse one that had brought to eviscerating the main Polish and Swedish idea – to consider the ‘Eastern Partnership’ as an intermediary step to the full EU membership.

It is evident that original formulation has been altered under the pressure of some EU member states which are not interested in further expansion of the European Union to the East. Very probably the aforementioned changes in the initial sense were introduced due to the position of Russia.

Furthermore, in a new communiqué version there is no more paragraph concerning war in Georgia and caused by it insecure position of the EU neighbors. One can suppose that these amendments were made against the background of resumption of negotiations with Russia in order not to annoy it.

True, despite these moments a status of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ in the final document has been raised a little bit: the ‘priority of European-Russian relations’ has been changed for ‘parallel development of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ and relations with the Russian Federation.’

Then, not so large budget of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ has been reduced even more: if in the European Commission draft communiqué it was said about additional allocation of 600 million Euros for 2010-2013 (and further financing of 1,5 billion Euros for 2014-2020), in the document presented on December 3 only 350 million Euros for the period of 2010-2013 are mentioned (and nothing about 2014-2020). Though this budget is proposed to sustain by redirecting financial resources from the ENP, it is all the same will decrease the common sum of assistance to the Eastern European countries in comparison with the initial project of the ‘Eastern Partnership’.

It looks very symbolical that preliminarily declared prerequisites – obligatory implementation of the EU’s acqui communitaire and acceptance of jurisdiction of the European Court – have been omitted from the final text.

It worth to be noted as well that the initiative considered is named ‘Eastern Partnership’ and not ‘Eastern European Partnership’ as the countries of the region would prefer. One can explain it by desire of the European Commission and certain EU nations to avoid analogy with European Association Agreements which has been concluded earlier with the Central European states and contained their perspective of EU membership.

But even after introducing these changes the European nations were divided on the question of offering up a place at the EU table. Britain, Sweden and Eastern European EU members are in favor of expanding the EU eastwards, while Germany leads a group of western European states opposed to such a move. And at their summit held on December 11-12 the EU heads of states have managed only to welcome the ‘Eastern Partnership’. The project seemed them too ambitious and was sent for re-shaping in order to be adopted in March during the Czech presidency.

As for Belarus, one can meet a lot of specific problems. The principal one is that Belarusian authorities are going to cooperate with the EU on their terms. They want the ‘Eastern Partnership’ will allow to receive the necessary assistance from the EU during the world financial crisis but it looks extremely doubtful that Alyaksandr Lukashenka agree to fundamental change of Belarus’ political regime, which can deprive him of his power. It seems that instead of serious steps he can make only some insignificant concessions.

Thus both transformation of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ project and postponement of its final confirmation indicate that the European Union until now is not ready to recognize and legitimize the pro-European aspirations of the Eastern European states’ people and governments. On the other hand it is clear that EU is inclined to take into account interests and wishes of the Russian side, which are not always coincided with the interests of its Eastern European neighbors.

In the result a well-grounded sсepticism exists that the new project will provide some kind of a hitch in relationship between the European Union and its eastern neighbors. Nevertheless it is good already that the bloc began to understand the need to differentiate its ‘European Neighborhood Policy’ and establish more close relations with these countries.