Russia’s Power Play and the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy

The Eastern Partnership initiative has contributed to the understanding that Europe is more than the European Union. The long-awaited first face-to-face summit after 2017 confirmed, however, that with its post-2020 agenda “Recovery, Resilience, and Reform” Brussels still does not call a spade a spade when it comes to its integration competition with Moscow. The struggle for political and judicial sovereignty and integrity in the neighborhood will thus continue against the background of unfavorable geopolitical realities.


EU and neighbours

Launched in 2009 under the European Neighborhood Policy, the Eastern Partnership is a classic EU compromise between member states that do not agree on a common strategy: towards its eastern neighbors that wish to uphold their independence and freedom of choice, regained towards the end of the last century, and the ubiquitous neighbor-of-the-neighbors on the other side, Russia.

Overall, the approach is like squaring the circle: the partnership countries are to be brought as close as possible to the EU but without membership prospects.

The Joint Declaration of the sixth Eastern Partnership Summit reflects this dilemma. It confirms and underlines the common European values and the significance of reforms. And it showcases an Economic and Investment Plan as a new, added value: The multi-country and multi-sector EIP underpins with €2.3 billion in “grants, blending and guarantees” the future agenda and is expected to leverage up to €17 billion in public and private investments for the overall region.

At the same time, the declaration rejects ambitions for a membership perspective in a well-known language. The EU “acknowledge[s] the European aspirations and the European choice of the partners concerned, as stated in the Association Agreements.”

The Associated Trio lobbies for accession negotiations to join EU

The six former Soviet republics differ in their strategic orientation: Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia are associated with the EU and press for membership; Ukraine and Georgia especially want to be part of NATO as well. Azerbaijan and official Belarus are closer to Moscow, and Armenia tries to assert itself between the two fields of force.

What all countries have in common is the struggle for reform and modernization, even if in each country, reform-oriented forces and their opponents struggle in their own unique way. At best, they do so within the political framework of new democracies, i.e., rules-based, though not yet consolidated, systems.

The authoritarian partners stand even less for stability. In Belarus, which has withdrawn from the EaP as an empty chair at the summit reminded, the Lukashenko regime holds on to power only with Russian support and excessive violence against its own population; in Azerbaijan, long-time President Ilham Aliyev lately resorted to the tried and tested means of a “small victorious war” (in Nagorno Karabakh). Both conflicts destabilize the region and increase Moscow’s influence further.

The governance struggle is at the center of the West’s tug of war with Russia

Moscow disrupts the associated partners’ orientation toward “the West” with military intervention in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, as well as in the so-called People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. The approach is simultaneously successful and unsuccessful, for, in fact, the people of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have never been more EU-oriented than they are at present and would wish to rely on NATO’s hard power.

Regarding the current provocation of troops amassment at the Ukrainian border, both the European Council president and the President of the European Commission have called on Russia to de-escalate. Sanctions have become Brussels’ default instrument, and the European Summit to follow the EaP Summit will continue to weigh in on timing and severity. International law and political accords such as the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris must be defended, and violations clearly identified.

Russia’s stance makes it, moreover all the more important to address the security-policy risks in the neighbourhood with strategic countermeasures that are driven by a concept of “wider security” featuring targeted infrastructural support (e.g., ports, waterways) for Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia in particular.

In the 2020 Council conclusions, “connectivity” was identified as crucial both for the EU and Eastern partner countries. The joint staff working document reflects this by emphasizing transport interconnectivity prominently (p. 4). It would have been timely, in light of the Nord Stream 2 saga and the recent energy blackmail of Moldova, for the EU to support energy connectivity along the same lines – to strengthen the neighbors’ more comprehensive security, systematically and in addition to the European Investment Plan’s flagship initiatives for Georgia (p. 30) or the emergency package for Moldova cushioning high energy prices.

It is fair to say that the governance issue is at the center of the EU’s integration competition with Russia over the region’s future. Russia’s nefarious interference is not only a threat to security but also a significant hindrance in terms of the rule of law reform in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

After all, the basis of all reforms, the rule of law as a fundamental prerequisite for a functioning democracy, for social justice and a market economy, for freedom and stable peace, is precisely what Moscow is undermining.

The reformers’ achievements galvanize opponents of reform

It is hardly surprising that transforming the governance model in the neighbourhood is proving so difficult. The fact that reformers and anti-reformers struggle against each other is positive. Precisely because there is a serious struggle, those who lose power and advantages in the process are resisting.

This is the logical consequence given the changes that the reforms are introducing. However, the fact that resistance is so difficult to overcome should be addressed clearly and specifically.

Now the Post 2020 Eastern Partnership Agenda provides an appropriate thematic response to the challenges described above with its two pillars of „governance“ and „investment“. Democracy and political participation and a values-driven political system and the wish to assert European political values will only remain the attractive objectives they currently are, as long as they go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity and a functioning government administration.

The EU needs a comprehensive strategic framework

However, what is crucial is how these two pillars interlink so that the investments will have a strategic impact. Supporting the reform-oriented forces in the neighborhood should be understood as a strategic goal.

The presumption laid out in the Economic and Investment Plan (Annex 1) and reflected in the Joint Declaration (p. 7) that support reflecting the EU’s conditionality and incentive-based approach will „influence structural reforms, particularly in the rule of law, justice reform and anti-corruption, to unlock sustainable economic recovery, “has not yet worked.

The lack of clearly stating the challenge is exacerbated by the fact that EU member states themselves are undermining EU norms while the neighbours are expected to commit to them and that democracies are also coming increasingly under authoritarian pressure from within and abroad.

Therefore, only if the EaP investment plans and “flagship initiatives” will be effectively interlinked with the “reforms in good governance and security, the rule of law and justice” will investments, a large part of which has to be mobilized in the first place, be sustainable, have few unintended effects and contribute to resilience.

… over an overly technical approach

The new agenda includes impressive targets, i.e., at least 80% of public services in the EaP are available online through interoperable platforms. The EIP flagship initiatives differ in plausibility and, in their implementation, will depend on structural reforms.

This raises the suspicion that Brussels, with a commendably detailed and impressive policy on the economic, green and digital transformation, is trying to cover up the fact that EU member states cannot find the shared political will to clearly identify topical problems and use the instruments at their disposal to solve those.

The joint staff working document and the summit failed to identify more ambitious strategic policy objectives for the trio of advanced countries. As a result of association and free trade areas with the EU, they have noticeably deepened their integration with the EU. In that respect, the frustration over the lack of a membership perspective and political integration remains to be addressed.

The membership perspective alone would hardly solve all problems mentioned. The ownership of reforms is in the hands of the partner countries, not the EU. Lack of capacity on the side of the neighbours and the EU burdened with internal challenges on the other side are serious obstacles.

Equal partnership as a basis for allowing more responsibility to emerge?

At the same time, to convey a clear political message and to gradually build capacity for closer cooperation is an option that deserves to be taken further. Intermediate steps toward a membership perspective could be beneficial to all.

In light of the West Balkans, analysts propose further degrees of integration into EU institutions as a prerequisite for economically catching up. Developing and considering similar proposals regarding the “Associated Trio” would underline the “partnership” aspect of the cooperation. The approach could also bolster reform-minded figures of the partner countries in politics and administration, where the struggle for democratic governance is most urgent to drive and anchor reforms.

“Export stability or import instability”?

Strengthening and opening up of democratic institutions in the associated partner countries is key. Societies and NGOs can become overwhelmed when opponents of reform maneuver from a position of strength gained over decades.

The imbalance of power between actors wanting to hinder a reform agenda and those pursuing it impedes reform implementation. Opponents of reform, in-country and beyond country borders, know how to use this situation to their own advantage.

The issue of international partners interfering in a country’s sovereign affairs is often a difficult balancing act. However, without political support from outside, crucial reforms will fail unless, as is all too seldom the case, old power groups see an advantage in reorganizing state structures and creating independent institutions.

This is why Brussels should see it as a strategic goal to support the reform-oriented forces in its neighbourhood and focus on its financial support and economic assistance reaching the citizens. Otherwise, others will push into the capacity gaps. Member states’ governments have to realize what is at stake here – as rightly demanded in a subsequent statement by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

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