What brings the future to Eastern Europe? There is no real positive outlook: moderately good prospects suggest a slow, gradual deepening of economic relations with the European Union or bottom-up civic emancipation based on a declining Russia and a passive Brussels.
The Polish Res Publica Research Foundation and the American German Marshall Fund (GMF) recently released a report on the next ten-year outlook of the Eastern European countries. The analysis was funded by the International Visegrad Fund, and several Central- and Eastern European countries participated in its elaboration, including Hungary.
The paper outlines four major scenarios for the future of the region, along with smaller trends and prospects for demographics, energy policy, IT sector, digitalisation and some other sectors.
The analysis focuses on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine. The group of six countries was created by the European Union by the initiative of Poland in 2009. All members are former Soviet member countries, which at the time of the project had close ties with Russia.
The goal of the initiative was to broaden the EU’s neighbourhood policy towards the post-Soviet region of Eastern Europe, thereby establishing closer economic relations, financial support for the countries in the group and assistance in democratic processes.
Three of the six states have all established closer ties with the European Union in recent years: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine signed an association agreement with Brussels and joined the “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” (DCFTA) in 2016 and 2017, as well as started visa-free travel with the Union. For Ukraine, the signing of the Association Agreement led to a revolution and the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014.
However, the Eastern Partnership has been equivocally welcomed since its inception: the resources allocated for the project have not always yielded the expected results and many countries have not made much progress on human rights and democratic reforms.
Russia criticised the project because it felt it was a direct intervention in its sphere of interest, while the countries in the group complained about the lack of proper funding because closer integration with Brussels did not compensate them for the loss of Russian relations.
A study published by Visegrad Insight has now looked at how the future of these six countries and their relationship with the European Union could evolve over the next ten years. Out of the four scenarios outlined, two may have very negative prospects for the region and two are considered to be moderately good.
No unexpected turbulence
The most favourable scenario is that the relationship between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries could deepen further in the next decade, provided no unexpected political or security-related turbulence takes place in the region or in the Union. If everything goes on, as usual, Brussels may develop ever closer cooperation through improving infrastructure, growing trade links and European direct investments.
However, there are also some less positive aspects: Brussels will avoid political issues so as not to clash with Russia and will make much less effort to support democratic reforms. The slogan for the EU will be ‘pragmatism’. Moscow, however, may take stronger action in the region to counterbalance EU influence and force even closer political integration with some countries.
The other, moderately positive scenario is based on the civil emancipation of the six post-Soviet countries. According to this scenario, political changes in the region will be initiated through bottom-up initiatives and the strengthening of the civil sphere.
This requires two components, according to the authors: a declining Russia and an EU losing interest in the region, which would provide at most moral and principled support
All of this can lead to political changes and the emergence of new leaders who would strengthen the rule of law and embark on reforms. In this case, there is also a possibility of even tighter cooperation between the states of the region. However, this scenario also cannot be entirely positive: expectations for new leaders may be too high, which they will not always be able to cope with. The internal political situation can thus remain fragile, unstable and no progress can be expected in resolving frozen conflicts.
According to the analysis, two scenarios would have really bad consequences for the countries in the region: in one case, due to Russia’s economic strengthening, Moscow would act in an increasingly aggressive way, and make another attempt for political and economic reintegration of the region. A divided NATO and a European Union in crisis would help them. The Kremlin would use a variety of tools to achieve its goals: economic incentives, support of the political elites, or the use of its military force for demonstration of power.
The other negative scenario for the region could be the consensus between the European Union and Russia based on economic cooperation and the development of a new European security system. This would be preceded by an economic recession that would persuade European and Russian decision-makers to lift sanctions against one another and normalize relations.
The emergence of China could also help the reconciliation, placing Brussels on a common platform with Moscow in fear of Chinese influence.
Such a Russian-European compromise could mean sacrificing the Eastern Partnership project on the altar of improving Russian relations, leaving the six Eastern European countries entirely at the mercy of Russia.
Hard to foresee
It’s not easy for any geopolitical analyst to foresee the coming months, let alone ten years ahead – just thinking about the Arab Spring, the occupation of Crimea by Russia, or the recent unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus.
Suddenly, events appearing from nowhere could completely redraw the political and economic outlook of entire regions. If we ignore this, however, we can identify the economic, political and social processes that have emerged in recent years.
Researchers will be able to start extending these projections further, and we can only hope that the next decade will bring positive developments for both the European Union and Eastern European countries.