Monday, May 11, 2009

EU and Six Former Soviet Republics Launch Eastern Partnership Initiative in Prague

On Thursday, May 7, the Czech Republic, the current EU president, hosted a half day summit of the Eastern Partnership Initiative, which was originally conceived by Poland and Sweden and which is aimed at deepening ties between the EU and six former Soviet Republics - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. According to the final document of the summit - the Joint Declaration - the EU plans to engage the "Eastern European Partners" in the four areas of cooperation, including the following: democracy, good governance and stability; economic integration and convergence with EU sectoral policies; energy security; and contacts between people. In exchange for the non-binding pledge by the six post-Soviet states to commit to the "fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to, market economy, sustainable development and good governance," the 27-nation bloc will offer the €600 million ($804 million) package of targeted assistance programs until 2013.

As this primer explains, the Eastern Partnership is a comprehensive outreach effort through which EU intends to align the six countries with European aqui communitaire and therefore make them membership-ready. Due to the current enlargement fatigue, the major European powers, which are sometimes referred to as the "Old Europe," appear to be less enthusiastic about the Eastern Partnership than the newly admitted EU members. This was reflected in the noticeable absence of British, French, Italian and Spanish leaders at the Prague summit. In this regard German Chancellor Angela Merkel proved to be a surprising exception.

Notwithstanding the differences of opinion between the European capitals regarding the scope and purpose of the Eastern Partnership, the EU tried its best to present the initiative in a "win-win" light to the weary Russians. Chancellor Merkel explicitly stated in Prague, "This Eastern Partnership is not against anyone, not against Russia." The same sentiment was echoed in the remarks delivered by the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, who declared that Russia would only benefit from the eastward expansion of European values because "when we increase prosperity, when we increase stability, we are increasing it not only for us but all the others as well." However, the Czech hosts were less circumspect in their comments as they acknowledged that the Eastern Partnership is also aimed at drawing the six former Soviet Republics out of Russia's orbit. The Czech Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra pointed out, "Foreign policy is always about the projection of interests. You can project your interests, but you must give the respective countries the freedom to make choices." A senior Czech official speaking on the condition of anonymity admitted, "We're not living in a vacuum. Russia might be hostile to the eastern partnership, but that's their problem. They see the world through zero sum game lenses."

Regardless of how often the EU officials will try to reassure Moscow that the Eastern Partnership is not aimed at curbing Russia's influence in the post-Soviet space, as the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Ahto Lobjakas explains, perceptions matter. Aptly calling EU's Eastern Partnership an "accidental sphere of influence," Lobjakas reminds us of what the Russian analyst Sergei Karaganov recently told a conference in Germany. Karaganov noted that the "core of all differences between the West and Russia is the question of whose sphere of influence the Soviet successor states fall into." Mikhail Margelov, an influential Russian politician, who is the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's bicameral legislature - the Federal Assembly) interpreted the fact that a day after the Eastern Partnership event the Czechs hosted the EU South Corridor summit dedicated to the Nabucco gas pipeline project as a geopolitical ploy intended to increase Western influence over Russia's former Soviet satellites. Margelov stated, "The juxtaposition on the agenda of the Prague summit of issues of organization of the partnership and of the Nabucco pipeline project — whose route, as you know, bypasses Russia — reveals the true intentions of the organizers of the Eastern Partnership."

As critics suggest, the Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit falls short of making membership promises to the six states. Nor does it specify any concrete steps envisioned to relax the visa regime to ease the travel restrictions. And, as it turns out, only €350 million ($475 million) of the pledged assistance package represents new money. Equally important is the fact that only two out of the six recipient states - Georgia and Ukraine - even remotely satisfy some of the aqui communitaire requirements while two - Azerbaijan and Belarus - are openly autocratic and four - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova - are beset by territorial conflicts. But the most important aspect of the Eastern Partnership that will determine its short-term viability is what the EU is prepared to do to defend this important outreach initiative in the face of Russia's resistance.