Central Asia’s Reliance on Russia Has Made It Vulnerable to Conflict
27 September 2022
On the eve of the 3 Seas Initiative Summit and Business Forum taking place in Sofia this July, Central Europe’s leading policy analysis and media platform Visegrad Insight released a scenario-based report outlining the need for a 3SI Civil Society Forum that would strengthen the democratic security in the region.
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) is a political format that aims to stimulate investment in the regional connectivity of 12 Central and Eastern European (CCE) countries located in-between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. Priority projects — which are concentrated in the three key areas of transport, energy and digital infrastructure — are primarily financed by the EU, followed by national contributions of member states and the recently-established 3SI Investment Fund that is open to private investment. More information about the format here.
Projected to be the fastest-growing part of the EU’s economy, the 3SI is expected to help bridge Eastern Europe’s infrastructure gaps and build on the impetus for common development policies in the region. The private fund responsible for investment has been growing at a steady pace with national contributions from 3SI members reaching 1 billion euros in 2021. A further 1 billion US dollars has been pledged by the US, contributing to the already most ambitious EU 7-year perspective budget ever.
In February, the 3SI was endorsed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who dispersed the EU suspicions towards the Initiative brought about by Donald Trump’s divisive diplomacy and support for CEE democratic backsliders. Adding to the political momentum is support from Germany, which retains an observer status in the Initiative as well as endorsement of the European Commission.
However, Central Europe faces an uphill battle when it comes to fending off external authoritarian influence and preserving democracy at home, which remains a source of major concern for its democratic partners and key investors. To fully ensure that the influx of funds brings prosperity to the region, 3SI countries must safeguard transparency of investment, the integrity of electoral institutions, media freedom and civil society participation in governance.
Against this background, our findings suggest that the creation of a Civil Society Forum would not only address these obstacles undermining the ambitious cooperation format but also act as a bulwark against corruption and reassert the societies’ control over their future.
Presentations of the Towards a 3SI Civil Society Forum Report:
On 20 September the authors held an invitation-only meeting with a dedicated group of 3SI stakeholders at the premises of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW). During this session, Wojciech Przybylski, and Kamil Jarończyk, co-authors of the Three Seas Initiative — Towards a Civil Society Forum report presented their findings and discussed the idea of the forum with the participants. In the introduction, they gave a general explanation as to what the Three Seas Initiative is: an annual gathering of Presidents and business Interests of the 12 EU member states between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas. They then introduced the four scenarios for the initiative from the report along with nine recommendations. The recommendations given suggest elevating the democratic security aspect of the initiative by turning it into a 3SI summit format alongside the business and Presidential formats.
Comments expressed during the meeting:
‘One issue with the 3SI region is the lack of movement between the populations. There are many people who have never visited their neighbouring countries which weakens the initiative, there should be more exchanges between the youth.’
‘We are interested in a CSF as a minority within Central Europe if there is no Civil Society strengthening aspect, minorities in the region historically suffer. Adding a civil society pillar to the 3SI will help protect minorities within the region.’
‘The 3SI investment fund should invest in more infrastructure projects and should become closer to peoples everyday lives in order to boost the consciousness of what the 3SI is and how it is helpful to them. People respond more favourably to projects from which they feel that they personally benefit.’
‘The 3SI is a project in a region that benefits greatly from EU funds but lacks interconnectedness. This lack of both social and infrastructural interconnectedness hurts the economic potential of the region’
Q: What will this 3SI Civil Society Forum (CSF) look like practically?
A: Currently the 3SI CSF is being discussed with partners across the region. It would help bring about more coordination between civil society actors and make better use of available funds. USAID is currently in the process of launching Civil Society consultations. The CSF should bring in think tanks and community groups in order to network and strategise as well as work together to take advantage of EU funds for research and development of policies supporting 3SI goals. The CSF will help alleviate the lack of interconnectedness within 3SI country’s civil societies.
Q: I have heard that the US pledge to contribute to the 3SI has decreased. Is this true?
A: The US Congress has given bipartisan support to the initiative and Joe Biden has reaffirmed the US’s approval of the initiative. The pledge by the US is meant to increase on a snowballing effect basis (more for more). Having US funds involved is expected to attract new investors from around the world. The region as a whole is growing economically and a chance to invest in it is likely to be taken up by many due to the initiative stressing private investment creating the potential for private-public cooperations in investments.
A breakfast discussion, part of Rațiu Dialogues on Democracy Conference. An on-site event at Casa Rațiu. The report was discussed with attendees of the Rațiu Dialogues on Democracy which is part of LSE Ideas. During the discussion, our fellow Radu Albu-Comanescu went into depth about what the Three Seas Initiative means for Romania. Introduction of the report was followed by a Q&A sessions with participants:
Q: I have heard that the 3SI is sometimes viewed as a Polish Imperial Project, is it one?
A: It is often criticized by especially politicians in Czechia as being a Polish Imperial Project. It does not help that the name ‘Three Seas’ is close to the Interwar Polish foreign policy agenda known as ‘Intermarium’. This perception is such a problem that one of the recommendations in the report is for the Polish government to stop looking into the past and viewing the project as a way to ‘return to Polish grandeur and to treat it as a concrete initiative that is mutually beneficial for all participants.
Q: The 3SI seems to be very much connected to the European Union and not to ‘Europe’. As Britain has left the EU how should it view this project, as just merely an EU project or with implications for the continent as a whole?
A: The 3SI is made from 12 EU member states and its main source of funding is from EU funds but it is not purely an ‘EU’ project. Currently, the 3SI is separate from the EU but the EU has observer status. The Initiative has large potential to better connect countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe with a proper ‘North-South’ connection in Central Europe with many projects having non-EU countries as partners, such as Ukraine. The fund is controlled by a UK company, Amber, and opens up the region to private investments from around the world.
At the sixth annual 3SI Summit and Business Forum in Sofia this summer, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev reiterated the important role of civil society, NGOs, academia and the youth in crystallising the ideas behind the Initiative and gaining buy-in from populations in 3SI countries. Asking what comes next after ‘the asphalt is put down’, Radev called for greater participation of non-business and non-governmental groups in order to bring forward new, innovative thinking regarding the future of the format.
The response eventually came from Latvian President Egils Levits, who agreed that deeper engagement of civil society would help promote the 3SI to the wider public and make this special region of Europe more visible in political, economic and technological terms. Levits announced that the next gathering of 3SI states in Riga would feature a 3SI Civil Society Forum as a complement to the pragmatic focus on infrastructure investment of the Business Forum.
Preparation towards a Civil Society Forum will be one of the priorities of the Latvian Presidency in 2022 and our report offers nine tangible recommendations to bring this closer to reality.
Arguing that the development of civil society engagement should come hand-in-hand with the current business and political platform, Towards a 3SI Civil Society Forum explores four possible alternatives for the Initiative till 2025. The report, with support of the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), puts forward nine actionable recommendations guided by concerns over democratic security in 3SI countries. Read the report here.
It is based on our in-house research, several years of analysis in the field and dozens of interactive workshops concluded in 2020 and 2021, which involved a unique group of 60 regional experts from all 3SI countries. A draft report has also been consulted with key stakeholder groups at an international research conference held in Warsaw on 21-23 June involving policymakers, diplomats and civil society influencers.
In July, the main findings of the report were presented at an online session during a Visegrad Insight Breakfast meeting. Authors Wojciech Przybylski and Kamil Jarończyk spoke on why a 3SI Civil Society Forum is needed to ensure the Initiative bears fruit for the region and wider Europe. The launch has since drawn interest from diplomatic and think-tank circles in CEE and beyond.
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