2020 has been a disruptive year for the EU’s Eastern neighbours Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia. With all three of them being members of the Eastern Partnership initiative, the EU has been aiming to strengthen democracy and stability in the countries ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union. With last year’s violent clashes in Belarus and war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, E&M author Laura Worsch reflects upon the EU’s role in the region in contrast to its big neighbour Russia.

The relativity of time can be well witnessed in the sphere of politics. While one legislative period of four or five years often seems too short to make sustainable changes, it sometimes takes less to turn lives and countries upside down. This impression manifests itself when looking to the East, and to the countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (see E&M author Tom Barret’s article on the conflict), as well as the presidential elections and subsequent uprisings in Belarus will leave marks that will impact the whole region, as well as the European Union. The EU cooperates with its Eastern partners within the framework of the EaP since 2009, which aims to promote democracy and stability. How has the EU reacted to its partners’ conflicts? What is the EU’s role in the region? And finally, how does it shape the countries’ politics and societies, always in comparison to its counter-player Russia?

“Historically, the Union’s most powerful foreign policy tool has been EU membership”, says Stefano Braghiroli, Associate Professor of European Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia and Programme Director of the Master’s programme ‘EU-Russia Studies’, in an interview. Candidate countries were obliged to adopt EU regulations before they could join, and the EU knew how to use this conditionality in order to push for reforms. Unfortunately, not all countries seeking integration with the EU were able to join as a member state. With the two Eastern Enlargements in 2004 and 2007 during which 12 countries joined the Union, an ‘enlargement fatigue’ on the side of the EU set in. Consequently, the European Commission had to come up with integration scenarios that did not include EU membership. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), started in 2004, and its differentiation into the EaP and the Southern Partnership in 2009, aimed at establishing ‘a ring of friends’ around the European Union: in exchange for democratic reforms, the partner countries are offered free trade agreements, visa liberalizations, and financial support. “What they meant” explains Dr. Braghiroli, “was a ring of countries that are democracies, market economies, possibly with a baseline of rule of law and human rights that are not at war with each other.”

The six members of the Eastern Partnership. Copyright: Kolja21, Wikimedia Commons

2016 reform of the Eastern Partnership

Considering everything that happened in the Eastern Partnership countries in the past years, it is clear that the EU’s ideal image did not come true: In addition to major crises like the Ukraine crisis in 2014 which remains unresolved, none of the countries can be described as stable democracies. While this is, of course, not the EU’s fault, the Union has been criticized for a too lax approach towards its Eastern Neighbours: its demands for reform towards its partners stayed the same while offering less (i.e. not membership) at the same time. Additionally, its strategy towards the region has been too general, without taking into account national differences or preferences.

In 2016, the whole initiative has undergone a review process in order to differentiate the EU’s partnership with the respective countries and make reforms more efficient. Furthermore, the programme has launched the ‘20 Deliverables 2020’. These are social, political, economic, and environmental goals which the six countries were supposed to meet by 2020. “The goal of the Deliverables was to make the partnership a real partnership” says Dr. Braghiroli. “The approach was more egalitarian, and more about empowerment.” Besides already established ways of cooperation, the Deliverables meant to europeanise the partner societies: projects like the European School for the Eastern Partnership, established in Georgia in 2018, aim at “fostering co-operation and fundamental values, and promoting a better understanding of the EU“ for younger generations.

More for more, and the dilemma of in-betweenness

The EaP’s differentiated approach theoretically already existed since 2011 through its ‘more for more’ strategy: the more reforms a partner country implements, the more financial support it receives from the EU. At the same time, the wording of the Deliverables is normally kept quite general, as for example its intention to “Support the environment and adaptation to climate change”. More concrete measures are then outlined in the national Action Plans with each country. This raises the question of how tangible their results can be when the goals are worded so broadly. “This is a general notion in the EU-partner relations”, explains Dr. Braghiroli, “by keeping the net wide, it is easy to say that goals have been achieved without getting too concrete.” This, on the one hand, leaves space for differentiation but can, on the other, potentially lead to a gap between paper and implementation. Several governments in the Eastern Partnership have adopted substantial parts of the EU acquis in their legislation but lack enforcement measures. A positive example is the election reform to a proportional system in Georgia that was finally adopted in 2020 with the help of the EU and USA after a year of public protests and political bargaining.

Only if the countries are interested in cooperation, Can the EU pressure for reforms.

At the very bottom of these observations lies the fact that the relationships between the EU and its partners is often still imbalanced: only if the countries are interested in cooperation, can the Union pressure for reforms. However, some countries seek more integration than the EU is willing to give by denying them a membership perspective, as in the case of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Belarus and Armenia, on the contrary, have preferred to seek integration with Russia when they joined the Eurasian Union (EEU). For Armenia which joined in 2016, this was mostly a security and economic decision.

Ever since their independence in 1990, post-soviet states experienced the dilemma of in-betweenness, with the European Union on the one, and Russia on the other side. None of the countries can afford to drive either one of the two powers away, and therefore need to balance their alliances. In the past years, however, it has become increasingly difficult for them to balance the relationship with Russia and the EU equally without having to choose one side. For Armenia and Belarus, a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU, as Georgia and Ukraine have entered, is out of the picture since they joined the EEU.

Russian and EU Geopolitics

“When we speak of the six eastern partners, we should never forget the big neighbour Russia”, says Dr. Braghiroli. “Belarus does not care about ‘more for more’, because Russia has its back.” According to the Professor, the Soviet thinking still prevails in Russian politics. “For Russia, the other post-soviet countries are like unthankful friends that have decided to go away – but that will always be welcomed [back] with open arms.” At the same time, the Russian President Putin is counting on the territorial division of the EaP countries that seek more integration with the EU. In Moldova, Russia controls the region of Transnistria; in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are dependent on Russian support; and in Ukraine as the most recent example, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing frozen conflict in East Ukraine since 2014 continue to hinder reform and democratization.

The EU has been inconsistent in its messages, while President Putin works to reestablish Russia’s image as a political power.

Especially the events in Ukraine after the Euromaidan in 2013 presented a window of opportunity for the EU in order to show its commitment to its partners. Instead, it has been inconsistent in its messages and subsequent behaviour, while President Putin works to re-establish Russia’s image as a geopolitical power. In 2020, Russia displayed itself as a protector in Belarus, and as a peace force between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the former case, the EU has in turn been slow to react to Lukashenka’s brutalities towards the protests. In the latter, the EU has been completely absent as a political power and even public discussion concerning the conflict.

“The EU needs to understand that its voice and actions are seen as less relevant and tangible” in the context of the EaP, says Dr. Braghiroli. “However, the main question is whether the EU even wants to count and play a role that is similar to Russia.” It lacks the in-depth knowledge and expertise which it needs for a differentiated and equal approach towards its Eastern partners. With last year’s global pandemic and the EU members’ economic problems, it does not look like the Eastern partnership will be high on the Union’s list of priorities in the future.


Cover photo: Sara Kurfeß (Unsplash)

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    Laura Worsch, 26, recently moved back to Berlin after living in Tbilisi, Georgia for half a year. After she finishes her Master of Eastern European Studies in Berlin, she wants to move somewhere East and either pursue a carrier in journalism or writing.

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