This year’s Eastern Partnership summit was noticeably free of the political drama that precipitated the crisis in Ukraine in 2013. If anything, the summit showed that the Eastern Partnership needs a fundamental re-thinking.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande during a group photo at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, on Friday, May 22, 2015. Photo: AP
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Riga passed without incident or surprise — and in that sense did not disappoint no-nonsense analysts for whom no breakthrough was ever in sight. The summit was primarily of a symbolic nature. Brussels wanted to show participating countries that it has not lost interest in the project and remains committed to moving closer to the EU’s eastern partners.
However, the Riga summit exposed the flaws inherent in the Eastern Partnership since its conception, namely the lack of an ultimate goal for those countries that have embarked on the path of painful reforms. The summit stressed in no uncertain terms that the Eastern Partnership (part of the European Neighborhood Policy) does not imply EU membership.
This is like telling an athlete to train six hours a day in preparation for the Olympic Games, only to turn around later and say, actually, forget about the Olympics, the main thing is to keep fit and healthy. There may be some truth in that, but this regime requires only two hours a day, not six.
For Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the admission poured cold water on their aspirations. The association agreements they signed were largely copied from the stabilization and association agreements with the Balkan countries, in particular Macedonia and Croatia, in which the preambles described them as potential candidates. The Riga summit drew a line under the issue, and the provision in the final declaration on the European prospects for EaP countries failed to sweeten the bitter pill.
For a different take read "There are no easy answers for the Eastern Partnership"
In many respects, the EU’s position stems from its revised expansion policy, in particular the introduction of a five-year moratorium on the acceptance of future members and recognition of the failure of the political elites of the three leading EaP countries to implement reform and tackle corruption. Put simply, Brussels is reluctant to add new problems to its agenda.
Last but not least, the EU’s caution is linked to an external factor. The past 18 months since the Vilnius summit have shown that Russia possesses the resources to counteract strategies that it considers to be a threat to its national interests. Today, in contrast to the Vilnius summit, the EU and some partner countries have to act with one eye on the Kremlin.
Furthermore, the summit vividly demonstrated the diverse objectives of the countries in the Eastern Partnership, which offers a single ideology to a very broad sweep of peoples and countries. As noted, the three leaders — Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — saw the ultimate goal as EU membership.
Belarus, Russia’s partner in the the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), was not interested in the political reforms proposed under the Eastern Partnership, the objective being to lift sanctions and reap economic dividends.
Armenia, another CSTO member and EEU ally of Russia, on the contrary, committed itself only to the political part of the Association Agreement.
Like Belarus, Azerbaijan snubbed political reform, as well as EU membership. In fact, Azerbaijan is much better suited to the format of the Euro-Mediterranean association agreements. Azerbaijan’s main interest is in the energy component of the Agreement, in particular the Southern Gas Corridor project, in which Baku is heavily involved. Given that the EU confirmed its interest in the project, Azerbaijan can be very pleased with the outcome of the summit.
The participating countries disagreed over the wording of the text of the final declaration with regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The split between Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, on one side, and Belarus and Armenia, on the other, was nothing if not predictable.
Azerbaijan remained equidistant between the two camps. The invitation to Belarus and Armenia to join the Eastern Partnership looked like an attempt by the EU to neutralize the anti-Russian vector of the project. Without them, the Eastern Partnership would be limited to the GUAM countries, a group set up to counter Russian policy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Yet the involvement of Russia’s allies highlighted the blatant artificiality of the EaP format.
A tangible result of the summit was to provide Kiev with the next tranche of macroeconomic aid worth 1.8 billion euros. The promise extended to Ukraine and Georgia for visa-free short trips to the EU, along the lines of the scheme put in place for Moldova last year, may remain just that — a promise.
The unresolved conflict in Ukraine raises the question of the extent of Kiev’s control over its eastern border with Russia. In addition, the influx of illegal immigrants from North Africa and Asia to the European Union is making EU member states unfavorably disposed to taking such a decision.
The Riga summit showed that in order to avoid becoming a footnote, the Eastern Partnership needs rethinking and reformatting. As for Russia, it has reason to chortle at such a routine and incoherent EaP summit. But one person’s failure does not necessarily mean another’s success.
The geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West, wherever its roots lie, could lead to new conflicts. Yet it is conceivable that Russia could propose a new framework of cooperation for the EU in the post-Soviet space, based on specific functional projects across a range of fields and built upon a flexible geometry that encompasses all would-be participants.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.