While the EU’s plans for the Eastern Partnership appear to have largely been put on hold for now, Russia still views the Eastern Partnership as a challenge and threat in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, center left, greets Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center right, during arrivals at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, on Friday, May 22, 2015. Photo: AP
The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, which took place on May 22, didn’t cause any geopolitical sensations. Nevertheless, the summit was destined to be the focus of Russian media attention for three major reasons.
Firstly, it was the first Eastern Partnership summit to be held since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in winter 2014. Secondly, the EU countries appear wiling to determine the future of the Eastern Partnership program with the conflict in Donbas barely frozen. Thirdly, Brussels was expected to explain to its partners whether there would be a realistic chance of entering into an Association Agreement with the European Union, not to mention the more distant prospect of gaining EU membership.
At the summit, the European Union promised to assist its partners to enter into an Association Agreement. The participating countries (apart from Azerbaijan, which demonstratively ignored the summit) agreed to continue economic reforms they are taking to change the economic conditions in their countries.
For a different take read "The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga didnt achieve much"
The final declaration expressed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and concern about the unification of Crimea with Russia, although at the initiative of Belarus and Armenia, the criticism was softly worded. The parties, in fact, only confirmed the Joint Statement of the EU-Ukraine on April 27, 2014, which condemned the "Russian annexation of Crimea."
There are still questions about Ukraine to answer privately. The task of the Riga Summit was simply to demonstrate that the format of the Eastern Partnership continues to exist.
The origins of the Eastern Partnership
The Eastern Partnership program was launched by the European Union in 2009 at the initiative of the Polish and Swedish ministers of foreign affairs. The European Union partners were six republics of the former Soviet Union: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The main goal of the partnership was to conclude a free trade agreement among these partnership countries with the European Union. For leaders of the EU countries this allowed them to resolve a diplomatic matter: how to present the former Soviet countries with something equivalent to EU membership.
These aspirations were supported by the government of Angela Merkel in Germany, mainly because German business saw an attractive market in the former Soviet republics for increasing their economic cooperation. (Is it a coincidence that the boundaries of the Eastern Partnership almost exactly match the land that was surrendered by Russia to Germany and her allies as part of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty of 1918?
Four problems with the Eastern Partnership
This approach implied the geopolitical realignment of the Baltic-Black Sea region. The current borders of the countries “between the seas” are first and foremost those of Soviet republics as of January 1, 1991. The “Association with the EU” objectively leads these six countries to disintegration. Furthermore the Eastern Partnership program led to a confrontation with Russia.
The first reason is that the Eastern Partnership presumed a break between Belarus and Russia. The very fact that Belarus is holding talks with the EU about association would mean a crisis for the allied countries of Russia and Belarus – as occurred in 1999. If Belarus will have a free trade agreement with the EU, then, accordingly, there will be no possibility of a free trade agreement between Russia and members of the Customs Union.
The second reason is that the implementation of the Eastern Partnership envisages the construction of a full customs border between Russia and countries of the Customs Union on one side and participants of the Eastern Partnership on the other.
The presence of a unified customs duty in countries of the Eurasian Economic Union makes it impossible for its member states to have a “transparent” border with other countries. This is the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that it has been possibly to build a wall, in the form of a customs border from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
The third reason is that the Easter Partnership envisages dealing with the problem of unrecognized states. Moldova has the problem of constructing a full customs border with Transnistria, Georgia has a problem with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azerbaijan with Nagorno-Karabakh. Now this problem has become relevant to Ukraine given the conflict in Donbas. The Eastern Partnership raised the question of changing the borders of these countries.
The fourth reason is that the Eastern Partnership objectively created problems for a number of countries, mainly Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. In some cases, regions in these countries are more closely tied to Russia than to the European Union.
For example, both Donbas and Kharkov are economically closer to the Belgorodskaya region in Russia than Slovakia or Poland. Georgia is closer to the Russian republics in the northern Caucasus.
For a number of former Soviet republics, large-scale industrial complexes are typical. The agreement on association demands as a minimum breaking them up into smaller units for comparison with western European or central European manufacturers.
The challenges of the Eastern Partnership
The salvation of the region could have been the discussions starting from the spring of 2010 of a mechanism for transforming the Eastern Partnership into a multilateral forum for discussing regional security.
During the partnership’s Warsaw summit, on September 30, 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested a variation for trilateral consultations: Russia, the Eastern Partnership countries and the European Union. The EU rejected this. The suggestion was late at the very least.
Now, the Eastern Partnership, regardless of the declarations at Riga is objectively increasing the potential for conflict in the region.
For Moldova to enter into an association agreement with the EU, it must resolve the problem of Transnistria. Last summer the Vienna negotiations bore no results. In order to discuss an association agreement it is necessary to build a strict border between Moldova and Transnistria and furthermore underline Moldova’s loss of Transnistria.
Such an option might be attractive to many in Romania and Ukraine, which will have the opportunity to split Moldova along the 1940 borders. With this background, Ukraine’s refusal to grant transit to Russian troops in Transnistria is looked upon anxiously.
The implementation of the Eastern Partnership for Georgia requires the construction and an even more defined boundary between Abkhazia and Georgia and Georgia with South Ossetia. However, what is more interesting is technically how the Eastern Partnership will work between the EU and Georgia.
They do not have a common border. It is theoretically possible to export Georgian agricultural products through the ports of Constanta and Varna. However, at present they do not have the sufficient freight capacity, including railway access. How much will be spent to use the Black Sea?
For Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership means indirectly accepting the loss of Crimea and Donbas. The agreement on association demands a complicated system of budget accounts by Ukraine and the EU countries. From these accounts, whether they like it or not, it is necessary to exclude Crimea and Donbas and that means an indirect acceptance by Ukraine as to the fact that have been lost – and a recognition by the European Union that the current regions are no longer Ukrainian.
Politically, neither Ukraine nor the European Union is prepared for this. The Eastern Partnership will mean the destruction of a series of industrial complexes in the east of Ukraine. It is unclear what the situation will be with Ukrainian agriculture. There are few on the European Union’s market that will be waiting for it. Ukraine, on the other hand, will face competition from EU products on its own market.
At a time where there is a lot of dissatisfaction and a loss of territory in east Ukraine, the question arises whether the new Ukrainian authorities are prepared to take such a step. If they agree then it may lead to a new split in Ukraine. In the western parts of Ukraine, there is a genuine desire to integrate with the EU at any cost.
Galicia historically has been economically linked with Poland and Slovakia and partly with Hungary. For the rest of Ukraine - the central, southern and eastern parts of the country - the issue is irrelevant. Unrest in Vinnitsa in December showed that a split could even occur between western and central Ukraine.
For Russia none of this is positive. At present, there are only two options for developing the Eastern Partnership. The first is consultations between the EU and Russia about carrying out a new division line in the area “between the seas.”
The second is a large-scale military conflict in this region, with the participation (most likely, indirect) of Russia and NATO. Either option means a large geopolitical realignment in the Baltic-Black Sea region, which, essentially, was the unstated purpose of the Eastern Partnership.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.