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What remains of the European aspirations of the East?

Not only does the EU need to take a fresh look at its eastern partners; it also needs a comprehensive and clear-sighted review of its approach to Russia – writes Ian Bond

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership has run out of steam. It was launched in 2009 with the stated goal of creating “the necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration” between the EU and its partners. But of the six partners, one – Belarus – was already under EU sanctions in 2009; and one – Azerbaijan – has shown little interest in the partnership; particularly those aspects which would require it to improve its governance and human rights record.

Approaching the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit on November 28-29, in Armenia, which was on the point of initialling an association agreement with the EU, Ukraine succumbed to Russian pressure. It put the relationship with the EU on hold and agreed to join the Russian-led Customs Union. Ukraine announced that it would not sign the association agreement, which it had initialled in March 2012.

Therefore only Georgia and Moldova continue to subscribe wholeheartedly to the Eastern Partnership. 
Rather than trying to keep all six partner countries in a single framework as they increasingly choose divergent paths, Europe should accept reality and not pretend – as it did in the Vilnius summit declaration – that there has been “considerable progress made in bringing Eastern European partners closer to the EU”.

Azerbaijan and Belarus show no sign of changing course, so Europe should continue to support hard-pressed civil society organisations there and regional or cross-border projects which benefit their more democratic neighbours – but nothing else. Armenia, dependent on Russia for gas, support for its ageing nuclear power plant and security against Azerbaijan, has for the moment no alternative to doing Moscow’s bidding; although the union should do what it can to keep Armenia’s long-term options open.

Ukraine, larger in population than the other five partners combined, has a poor record of reform but is too important for the union to turn its back on. The country in its current state may not be much of a geopolitical prize for the EU but a permanently impoverished and unstable Ukraine on Europe’s borders would be worse. 
At the time of writing, large pro-EU demonstrations are continuing in Kiev, while the authorities are still trying to see whether they can squeeze more attractive terms out of Moscow or Brussels.

The ball is now in Yanukovych’s court, although the EU can influence where he hits it. Rightly, Europe has made clear that it is still ready to sign the association agreement once Ukraine meets the necessary conditions including an end to politically-motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders. But the EU has done a poor job of explaining the impact and implications of the association agreement to Ukrainians, particularly in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the media after the Vilnius summit that the agreement would save Ukrainian exporters €500m per year through cuts in EU import duties and add 6 per cent to its gross domestic product in the longer term. However, the EU has done little to publicise this – particularly in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. An easy win for the EU delegation in Kiev would be providing more information in Russian: a handy brochure explaining the main points of the association agreement is currently available on the delegation’s website but only in Ukrainian.

Without such information, many Ukrainians will be left to rely on misleading scare stories from the Russian media about the terrible impact the agreement will have. Europe should at least ensure that Ukrainians know the facts, so that they can make up their own minds about whether their leadership is taking the right decisions for the country. 
Tempting though it is for EU leaders to write off the current Ukrainian government and its oligarchic backers, they should step up their political engagement rather than giving the Russians free rein to threaten, flatter and bribe the Ukrainian elite.

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament President Pat Cox visited Kiev 27 times before the Vilnius summit with a mandate to secure the release of former prime minister and Viktor Yanukovych’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Though they were ultimately unsuccessful, they should be given an enlarged mandate to use their relationships with government and opposition to move Ukraine towards signature of the association agreement.

Cox and Kwasniewski should not be alone in this effort. Those European foreign ministers who went to Kiev for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe council meeting on December 5-6 were right to do so; those who made time to see the opposition as well as the government deserve even more praise. Senior western visits to Kiev should continue; the fact that Yanukovych agreed with Barroso to host EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton this week is a positive step.

Now that Georgia and Moldova have become the EU’s closest partners in the region, they are likely to face the wrath of Russia, particularly once the Sochi Winter Olympics are out of the way and the Russian authorities no longer have to worry about international protests or boycotts. Tbilisi and Chisinau will need European support. The EU should move as quickly as possible from initialling to signature of the association agreements with the two countries – neither is likely to be subject to the kind of political delays which affected Ukraine, whose agreement was initialled in March 2012.

Thereafter, it should be generous in provisionally applying the agreements before EU member states have ratified them to ensure that Georgia and Moldova can feel the earliest possible benefit from their association. 
That may not be enough, however. Moldova in particular looks vulnerable to Russian pressure. It relies on Russian gas and has an unresolved conflict with the separatist Transnistrian region – where Russian troops are stationed. Remittances from Moldovans working in Russia make up almost 10 per cent of GDP.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has already warned Moldova that it might freeze this winter and compared the country to a locomotive on a twisty track, which might “lose some of its carriages” on the way to Brussels. In October, the Russian Federal Migration Service threatened to expel 190,000 Moldovans working illegally in Russia. In September, Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine on ‘health grounds’ – a serious blow, given that annual wine sales to Russia amount to about 2 per cent of Moldova’s GDP.

The fragile coalition government of pro-EU parties faces an election next year; an economic crisis which could be blamed on the current government turning its back on Moscow might help the pro-Russian Communist Party back into power. 
The European Commission has already proposed increasing export quotas for Moldovan wine to compensate for the loss of the Russian market. A gas pipeline is being built from Romania to Moldova but will not be ready this winter. The commission is proposing to give visa-free access to the Schengen area to Moldovan citizens with biometric passports. But Moldova, already the poorest country in Europe, will need financial and political support for the foreseeable future to buttress its European choice.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry sent a positive signal by visiting Chisinau on December 4. European leaders should follow his example. 
Georgia is a little less vulnerable, in part because it re-oriented its economic relations away from Russia after their 2008 war. Even so, remittances from Georgian workers in Russia made up 4 per cent of GDP in 2012. Georgia needs three things from the EU: continued technical and financial assistance, diplomatic support in its unresolved conflict with Russia over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, above all, consistent political engagement.

After 10 years of the mercurial pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia now has the politically inexperienced Giorgi Margvelashvili as president. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has resigned in favour of his loyal lieutenant – the 31-year-old Irakli Garibashvili who as interior minister was responsible for arresting former senior figures in the administration of then-President Saakashvili. Though the new government has restated its commitment to European integration, there have also been hints that it might continue settling scores with its political opponents.

Western visitors need to encourage continued political and economic reform, while reminding the new leadership of the effect political prosecutions have had on Ukraine’s European integration prospects and its internal stability. 
Not only does the EU need to take a fresh look at its eastern partners; it also needs a comprehensive and clear-sighted review of its approach to Russia. There should be no more illusions that the EU needs only to explain the Eastern Partnership better for Russia to see it as beneficial. It should be clear by now that President Vladimir Putin and his government have decided that their interests are better served by having weak and dependent autocracies as neighbours than prosperous and independent democracies.

The EU should defend its own interests in stability and prosperity on its borders, not least by action to uphold international trading rules. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are all World Trade Organisation members, as is Russia. Russian actions to block the export of Ukrainian and Moldovan goods to Russia are almost certainly contrary to WTO rules, so either country could invoke the dispute settlement system. The EU would have the right to declare itself a third party to such a dispute and make submissions to WTO dispute settlement panels in support of its neighbours.

If the Eastern Partnership can no longer be ‘win-win-win’ for the EU, its partners and Russia – then at least it should be ‘win-win’ for the EU, Georgia, Moldova and hopefully Ukraine. In the long run, the best way to anchor in Europe those countries that are serious about reform is to look again at offering them an explicit membership perspective, however distant. In present circumstances, there would be no sense in making this offer to all six members of the Eastern Partnership.

But Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union states that any European state which respects the principles of liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law may apply to become a member of the union. The Vilnius Summit Declaration avoided referring to this article or describing the eastern partners as European states, merely acknowledging “the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners”. If the union treats even its most reform-minded and pro-EU neighbours as less than fully European, then it is little surprise if Russia does the same.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the British-based Centre for European Reform think-tank. The CER first published this article: The Eastern Partnership: the road from Vilnius leads to…?

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