Only when the EU increases efforts to strengthen civil society, which is the basis of this integration, can the Eastern Partnership fulfil its potential in the next decade. It should not sacrifice the six countries for the sake of normalising relations with Russia.
In Brussels in May last year, the leaders of the six Eastern Partnership countries celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership program.
Launched in 2009 as an opportunity to increase economic and political integration in the European Union’s eastern flank and create a safer and more predictable neighbourhood, the initiative has been seen by Russia as an attempt to take the EU’s post-Soviet countries out of Moscow’s control.
After these ten years, the Eastern Partnership countries, i.e., Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, continue to differ in economic, political and demographic indicators, as well as in their approaches to Russia. A number of countries, however, have signed an Association Agreement with the EU, but there are also new conflicts in the region.
The emergence of political initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union, possible political and economic changes in Russia and the European Union over the next ten years, China’s approach to the Eastern Partnership countries and its growing prestige have raised questions about the Eastern Partnership’s development scenarios for the next decade.
Consequences of possible changes
Over the last year, Visegrad Insight in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and with the contribution of a group of experts developed scenarios for the next decade of the Eastern Partnership.
These four scenarios are designed to discuss the consequences of possible changes in Europe and Russia, considering security, energy, economic, political and demographic changes in the region, the foreign policies of the countries towards the EU and Russia and other complex variables and trends.
The first scenario suggests that in the absence of any serious political and security changes, the Eastern Partnership countries will follow a certain path of political association and economic integration with the EU.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which have signed an Association Agreement with the EU, deepen their ties, while Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus follow a path based on similar, pragmatic interests, provided they do not pursue close diplomatic and security ties.
At the same time, the European Union develops closer economic and trade relations with more countries in the region, the rule of law will be more limited to issues such as protection of foreign investment, property rights, and no special efforts will be made to implement changes necessary for civil society development.
The second scenario implies the return of Russian hegemony. Despite Western sanctions, Russia is developing its economic and military power, using any tension for the Eastern Partnership countries to ignite a new conflict and severely block the region’s integration with the EU.
According to this scenario, Russia is forcing the political elites of the countries of the region to meet Russia’s interests through financial means and other means. Eventually, Russia regains its hegemony and the Eastern Partnership countries are forced to accept greater dependence on Russia.
The third scenario involves a changing European view of Russia. The EU resolves economic and political tensions because it agrees on shared interests with Russia. The rise of China worries both Russia and Europe and may put the EU’s integration with the Eastern Partnership in the background. As such, Europe could become less of a viable alternative to the six Eastern Partnership countries.
The fourth scenario involves increased civic activism, bottom-up pressure for prosperity and expanded economic opportunities in countries. This happens against the backdrop of the EU failing to promise greater integration and EU membership opportunities but also the weakening and loss of attractiveness of Russia in the Eastern Partnership region.
The new generation of young leaders, first marginalised and then neutralised by Soviet-era leaders, is gaining greater credibility and prestige in society, using this legitimacy to fight against corruption, ensure the rule of law and lay the groundwork for radical reform.
Limited cooperation and trade interests
Overall, these scenarios show that in addition to Russia’s ability to increase its influence in the partner countries in any form, the EU’s approach to the region will be more limited to technical, economic cooperation and trade interests in the next decade.
The joint communication “Eastern Partnership Policy after 2020” announced by the European Commission in March 2020 did not provide a serious political vision for the future of the region, including promises of political association. Instead, the communication talks about the rule of law, freedom of speech and expression as well as civil society.
A strengthening of the framework is equated with primarily technical issues, such as digitalisation and the creation of digital infrastructure, the development of public health, and environmental protection.
However, in the past, European values were a prerequisite for cooperation with the European Union. This suggests that the first of the four scenarios, pragmatic integration, seems to be the most realistic scenario today.
However, the possibility of sacrificing the Eastern Partnership countries and ending the deal in exchange for EU efforts to normalise relations with Russia cannot be excluded, even though this could lead to political chaos in the countries that signed the Association Agreement and a loss of confidence in the EU.
All of this could lead to results that run counter to the original goals of the Eastern Partnership programme, which it launched to support secure, reliable and predictable partners in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood.
In order to avoid such a bitter outcome, the European Union must, in any case, support the integration of the Eastern Partnership countries into Europe, increase efforts to strengthen civil society, which is the basis of this integration, and in no case sacrifice the Eastern Partnership countries in normalising relations with Russia.
Only in this case, in the next ten years after 2020, the initiative may reach its full potential, and in some way, the integration process would deepen.