May 7, 2009
By Sergei Balashov
An EU Bid to Muscle in on Russia’s Turf, or an Effort to Enrich and Stabilize Europe’s Borders?
This week saw the inaugural conference of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, an initiative meant to improve ties between Brussels and the former-Soviet republics. But European leaders are making it clear that it is not a stepping stone to membership, leaving some of the former-Soviet republics unsure of Europe’s commitment, and making Russia suspicious of the EU’s motives.
Of the new countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, only the three Baltic states have managed to successfully join the European Union. Other former-Soviet republics have found it much harder to find acceptance in Brussels, and none of them holds official candidate status, even though some have expressed the strongest desire to join.
Now they have a chance to get a taste of closer cooperation with the EU through participating in the new program dubbed Eastern Partnership, seen by some states as a chance to “get closer to Europe.”
The EU’s newest integration project will be launched at this week’s summit in Prague. The Eastern Partnership is meant to facilitate an outreach to six ex-Soviet republics, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.
The EU plans to hand out 600 million Euros of financial aid to the participating states between 2010 and 2013. This money will be used to fund state institutions, border control and small businesses. There could also be discussions about a possible trade union and changes to the visa regime between the six states and the EU.
Yet the Eastern Partnership will not shorten their path to the union. The EU has made it clear that the program had nothing to do with future expansion and none of the participating states would be offered membership or a path to membership via the Eastern Partnership.
This is a rather diverse group in terms of their attitude toward the EU. Both Ukraine and Georgia crave accession to the EU and are considered potential members by many in Brussels. Moldova is divided on the issue, where things are complicated by calls to reunify with Romania, already an EU member. Belarus and Azerbaijan have been rather cooler on the issue, with the latter showing little interest in, and getting only very distant, if any, consideration as a potential member.
Armenia, Russia’s closest ally in the Caucasus, has also expressed interest in joining.
So what is the EU trying to do? Obviously, the stated goal of facilitating institutional and economic improvements in the six participating states that would bring them closer to matching EU standards could well be achieved through economic aid and closer integration into Europe.
Deutsche Welle quoted the German MP Ruprecht Polenz, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, as saying these changes would possibly help facilitate the states’ own decision whether to pursue EU membership in future. But he cautioned that after the admission of ten new member states in 2004 the EU was not well positioned to handle another expansion.
The six states seemed to get the message, but still lamented about the delayed integration into the EU, which Polenz said would be a consideration in five to ten years. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, in an interview to Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel daily, expressed regret that the major EU members are often “the biggest euroskeptics” and opined that Europe could not face the modern day challenges being “half united,” adding that Ukraine’s accession to the EU would be as beneficial to the EU as it would to Ukraine.
The true point of the program deals almost exclusively with geopolitics. Just as the Soviet Union strived to surround itself with a ring of friendly countries with puppet communist regimes, the EU is trying to do all in its power to make sure its immediate geographical environment is economically and politically sound.
“The Eastern Partnership is a program driven by the EU’s own interests. They want to promote democracy and to support the most economically troubled states, as any economic inconveniences could trigger destabilization,” said Tatyana Parkhalina, director of the Centre for European Security.
The decision to launch the Eastern Partnership was taken shortly after last year’s war in Georgia, which lent more volatility to an already troubled region. Frequent disagreements between Russia and Ukraine over gas transit have also been a major concern in Europe, which has suffered from disruptions in energy supplies.
“The EU is strong enough economically to aid the neighboring countries amid the crisis. Their interest in the region is apparent – it is about the economy and, most importantly, energy. They are trying to take over leadership from Russia; they’re trying to say that the region is indeed of interest and to turn these states into their students,” added Elena Khotkova, a Europe expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
Russia seems to buy into the theory that the EU is muscling in on its patch and sees the Eastern Partnership as a challenge to its status as the dominant power in the former Soviet Union.
At a press conference following a meeting with the Polish foreign minister in Moscow yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said some statements made in the EU led him to believe participation in the Eastern Partnership meant choosing between Russia and the EU. He recalled a recent conference with Ukraine where agreements dealing with Ukraine’s gas transit system were signed without Russia’s participation. Lavrov said he hoped this summit would not divide Europe.
Meanwhile, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso sought to allay Lavrov’s concerns, telling the dpa news agency that the Cold War is over, and European countries could pick their own friends and partners.
Lavrov’s sentiments are in line with Russia’s persistent concerns about infringement on its spheres of influence, which it feels are constantly violated either the EU or NATO.
The Eastern Partnership is clearly not about choosing sides, but when it comes to picking friends Russia is at a disadvantage, and concerned rhetoric is likely to do their cause more harm than good. More so, Russia itself could benefit form the EU’s new program.
“This is the stereotype that is still alive among our people and our politicians – we always see any actions by a third party as aimed at harming our interests. But here, we are also building democratic institutions and would benefit from having prospering neighboring countries. If we want to be more attractive to them than the EU and the United States we have to offer an economic model which would be more appealing. Only if we do that will they be drawn to us,” said Parkhalina.