There are different understandings of how the common neighborhood should be constructed
Juris Poikāns, Ambassador-at-Large for the Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia, talks to editor-in-chief of “Visegrad Insight,” Wojciech Przybylski. Read the second part of this interview here.
Wojciech Przybylski: Later this month, there is an Eastern Partnership civil society conference, as well as an Eastern Partnership summit, together with accompanying conferences, within the EU Presidency of Latvia. What do you expect from the Eastern Partnership, as a program in general.
Juris Poikāns: This is a really important policy of the European Union; relations with neighbors are always essential because geographically, culturally, and historically, you usually live in the same area. And if you want to have peace and stability, you also wish the same for your neighbors. So, the neighborhood policy is very important, and the Eastern Partnership summit, which will be the fourth summit since Prague, is a very good occasion to demonstrate the willingness of the EU to build closer ties, with the six countries in question: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as to establish guidelines to further develop these relations.
We have made great progress since Vilnius a year and a half ago – we have three ambitious political association agreements with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, we are not abandoning Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus; we will try to seek individual ties based on their level of engagement, but naturally one very serious challenge we have been facing since Vilnius, and which won’t disappear after Riga, is different understandings of how the common neighborhood, the six countries, which are, on the one hand, European neighbors, but at the same time, neighbors of Russia, should be constructed.
The key challenge is how to construct this neighborhood based on some common understanding, and the key element of the whole policy when it comes to the Eastern Partnership is that we must allow every country to choose its own foreign policy direction. If Armenia and Belarus want to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union, we must respect this choice. But on the other hand, we must respect the choice of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to have a different foreign policy strategy, namely closer ties with the EU. So, we expect that the summit will demonstrate the commitment and interests of the EU on the one side, and commitment and interests of the partners to develop further ties, on the other.
Do you think the EU has rethought the consequences of the framework of the Eastern Partnership after quite a dramatic year since the Vilnius summit? Is there anything to be expected in terms of political strategy? One idea could be, for instance, to discuss how the Eastern Partnership is linked to the European Neighbourhood Policy in general, and what the aims of this policy are.
There has been growing realization since Vilnius that these six countries are rather different and are seeking a different level of engagement with the EU. Currently, Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan not seeking the same level of engagement as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. So, the Riga summit will recognize these differences, and it’s important to still keep the platform together, because it’s a good platform: we have institutions in place, and we have positive examples of multilateral cooperation. But at the same time, we shouldn’t put the six countries into the same basket. We must develop individual ties with each country.
When you look at the EU side, we must realize that we have twenty-eight countries, with different feelings about the neighborhood. And clearly it’s difficult to avoid historical and geographical experience – we should be realistic in the case of Latvia and Poland, who know the eastern neighborhood much better than the southern neighborhood. And when you look at countries in southern Europe, they feel that the pressing issues coming from the southern neighborhood are extremely important for them.
So, we must find the right balance. We must have an ambitious Southern Neighborhood Policy, and at the same time an ambitious Eastern Neighborhood Policy. When it comes to the end aim, it shouldn’t be defined at this stage because of the complex and different standings about the Eastern Neighborhood at the current time. The EU policy works on the basis of consensus. If we agree to something, we must agree on everything; and we must use this opportunity to develop relations with our eastern neighbors, leaving the issue of where we are heading for a later stage.
Although it might not be exactly on the agenda of the Eastern Partnership summit, the obvious topic is what the EU’s policy towards Russia is. Is there anything on the table offered from the perspective of the Latvian Presidency and the Latvian government?
It’s important to remember that Russia was invited to join the Eastern Partnership when it was initially envisaged, and at that moment Russia sought a different type of ties than the EU. So, here we are discussing our relations between twenty-eight EU member states and six eastern partners – this is the institutional model we have at this moment. But naturally, Russia is part of the region, and Latvia has a border with one Eastern Partnership state, Belarus, and also Russia.
So, the key interest that we have always had in Europe is to construct a common EU home, based on the same understanding, be it values, human rights, trade relations, or the WTO. At this moment, Russia is seeking a different kind of development when it comes to relations with the EU, and it also challenges these free and sovereign policy choices of the eastern partners. But looking for the European perspective, we are not seeking domination in this area, we want to develop ties with Ukraine; and we have historical relations with Ukraine, as does Poland.
This is a joint neighborhood and we shouldn’t seek any geopolitical domination of this area and allow these countries to choose. At the same time, we are open to dialogue with Russia, but when you look at what’s happening in the eastern part of Ukraine, it’s important that we regain this trust when it comes to Russia; and if we can regain this trust, if we allow these countries to choose freely where they want to go, we have good prospects for continuing our discussions.
But so far, the EU has never pushed anyone to do anything?
Absolutely, this is a key point. We have never pushed. We negotiated the situation agreements with Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia at one stage, but we never pushed. It was the free and sovereign choice of these countries to negotiate these agreements.
But Russia doesn’t buy this argument.
Russia sees it in a different light. We must acknowledge that Russia has interests in these countries, has historical, cultural, and mental ties with these countries, more specifically with Ukraine and Belarus. But we can equally say that for many countries of the EU, these countries are also important, because if you look at the historical developments of this area – I would again mention bordering states here such as Hungary, Romania, Poland, and the Baltic states – we also have historical ties, and we also have economic links.
So, it shouldn’t become a competition area, but quite clearly citizens on the ground in Minsk, Kyiv, and Lugansk, for example, must decide how they want to see their country constructed, which foreign policy direction they would like to have; and it’s also important to note here that our Russia partners sometimes say that we are forcing them to choose. But, you have a visa-free regime between Moldova and the EU, and you still have a visa-free regime between Moldova and Russia, so Moldova has both. We also have understandings that having a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade agreement is not contradicting these notions that Moldova is part of the CIS trading area – we’re not discussing the Customs Union, this is a little different.
And looking at the Baltic example, joining the EU ten years ago, our trade has dramatically increased, so our historical ties were not cut. There is no aim on the European side to influence these traditional ties, but clearly for some sections of the Latvian economy, Russia will always be important, regardless of whether we are part of the EU or not. In terms of our cultural produce, we have a set of products that are better known by Russians, and when it comes to Moldovan or Georgian wine, for example, there shouldn’t be some kind of contradiction.
Juris Poikāns, Ambassador-at-Large for Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia.