Eastern Partnership states could be defined as the region of the EU and Russian neighbourhood, cooperation and competition. Although in 2009 it was highlighted that Eastern Partnership is not directed against Russia, that it will create the space for cooperation, that six post-Soviet countries will be invited to sign the association agreements with the EU and free trade agreements, Russia perceived this as a breach of its power in the region.
Although the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013 has brought Eastern Partnership to a new level, today its further perspectives are still vague. Geopolitical changes in the region didn’t gain positive impetus, therefore the meeting of the leaders of partnership countries due on 21-22 May has already acquired the status of a „survival meeting“ and great doubts are raised on whether the idea of Eastern Partnership complies with the geopolitical European issues.
First of all Russia has never refused the concept of its influence zones: it defined former soviet republics as the „near abroad“ region, whereas ethno-culturally close Ukraine and Belarus were attributed to the imperial concept of „Russian world“. The first sign were events in Georgia in 2008 when the West couldn‘t properly respond to Russia’s actions. When speaking about the challenges to Eastern Partnership, the avoidance to pursue a more strict position toward Russia in the war with Georgia, Latvian foreign minister E.Rinkevichs evaluated the month of March as a mistake which encouraged Russia „to continue actions“.
Secondly, when Armenia and Belarus have chosen Eurasia, and Azerbaijan didn‘t express willingness to change its status, the EU had to abandon the idea that European values will determine natural association of countries with the EU. It turned out that transformational power of the EU is too weak after encountering the phenomena of Soviet identity. The absence of more realistic membership perspectives even in the most progressive Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) prevents from realisation of reforms.
Thirdly, changes in the geopolitical environment determined new challenges to Eastern Partnership. After annexation of Crimea, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia having separatist regions and perceiving Russia as a threat to their territorial integrity, seek to counterbalance this threat with integration to Western structures. It is natural that the above states base the EU membership not only on the interests of social and economic well-being but also on the need for better security, yet the above threats discourage the EU from providing this membership perspective.
What Russia identifies as its zone of interests for the EU is one of its neighbourhoods, and this is the major cause of ineffective Eastern Partnership. Only some European countries attach particular importance to it, including Lithuania which brought the issue of Eastern Partnership policy on the stage and seeks to maintain it as the EU‘s priority, especially during Latvia’s EC Presidency. Despite inspirations to expand the EU‘s zone of influence via membership, the talks on possible membership of Eastern Partnership states in the EU have never been justified: so far the EU doesn‘t attribute Eastern Partnership state to „its civilisation“. The model of „integration without membership“ defines Eastern Partnership policy as the establishment of stability or buffer zone. The efforts are still taken to retain Eastern Partnership states in their own space, however the issue of membership is postponed to future.
The EU approved sanctions to Russia, yet, after admitting their limited effectiveness, the EU realised that it would not be right to isolate from such a power. Most probably, in the future the EU itself will have to look for a possibility to improve relations with Russia (this is also mentioned in the Report of the European Council on Foreign Relations prepared this year). Having acknowledged that current Eastern Partnership is not effective and that the only way to retain it is a membership perspective, this opportunity is rejected by indicating that for the majority of EU Member States relations with Russia are more important than interests of Eastern Partnership states. The decision to step back from Eastern Partnership policy would mean recognition of Russian interests, whereas determination of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to choose European development model would be ignored.
It should be acknowledged that Eastern Partnership programme was not adapted to the direct competition with Russia, and expectations of partnership in the current geopolitical context do not reflect reality. Most probably the summit in Riga will be one more attempt of the EU to demonstrate that commitments to Eastern Partnership states are respected, but it also wants to avoid major disagreements with Russia. Latvia‘s proposals in Riga concerning the agreement on different reform guidelines also demonstrate vague position. In promoting individual approach toward Eastern Partnership states it is acknowledged that they are facing challenges in different sectors: for instance Moldova should focus on public administration reforms and border control; Georgia should give more attention to the justice system reforms, and Ukraine - to education and border assistance. Besides, the states seek different level partnership, therefore different incentives should be applied in implementing reforms: for example, less progressed partners are suggested to simplify visa regime, whereas more progressive countries could introduce visa-free regime.
Although the states successfully realising reforms could intensify bi-lateral cooperation with the EU and come closer to the membership opportunity, they could only reach an interim station between an associated member and candidate state. On the one hand the emergence of such an interim station would demonstrate that Eastern Partnership is still in the agenda of the EU’s policy, on the other hand, the search for stations rather than membership itself demonstrates reluctance of the EU to change the status of these countries. Thus, there is substantial likelihood that, taking into account significance of Russia for interests of the EU Member States, even the most progressive Eastern Partnership states will remain long in this interim station.