The Eastern Partnership has a chance of becoming a self-contained actor if civil society leaders of the region succeed in harnessing the “power of the streets” in order to create effective democratic institutions.
What does the future bring in terms of European aspirations for Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries? This is the question that leading analysts from the EU and EaP region tried to answer in the report Eastern European Futures. Scenarios for the Eastern Partnership 2030.
In this major study, the experts looked into the trends that will affect the geopolitical setup over the next decade. The consequences that such dynamics could bring for the Eastern Partnership initiative are outlined in four scenarios.
But what are the scenarios for Ukraine in terms of its relations with the EU?
Integration without membership
For Ukraine, there are both attractive and unacceptable scenarios. The attractive one, even if it does not meet Ukraine’s expectations in full, could bear certain advantages, while materialisation of that unacceptable would mean a total loss of sovereignty.
Pragmatic integration seems like an agreeable scenario for Ukraine and could satisfy both Ukrainian Euro-optimists who believe in the country’s EU membership and sceptics within the EU who support Ukraine in its European endeavour but know that EU will not offer such membership, at least in the foreseeable future.
However, the global economic recession, which showed even prior to the COVID-19 and is practically inevitable now, may recalibrate the scenarios described in the report. Unprecedented security measures and ubiquitous fear triggered by coronavirus will largely discourage EU’s openness. Needless to say, chances are that political integration and concurrent democratisation processes disappear from EU’s radar entirely.
To settle such situation, over the next decade EU will seek to economically integrate Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries, in the first instance the signatories of the Association Agreements. The purpose of such approach by the EU will be to satisfy at least economic ambitions of the Eastern Partnership countries on one hand and avoid annoying some of its members, as well as Moscow, on the other.
However, there is a weak side to this scenario – EU injects cash while turning a blind eye on the lack of democratic transformations, thus enabling leaders who have little to do with democratic ideals to remain in power.
Pivot to Moscow
The next potential scenario is Russian hegemony in the region, which is possible under the condition that Moscow manages to successfully overcome the economic crisis, and oil and gas market situation stabilises. This will enable Russia to use its petrodollars against neighbouring countries by capturing their strategic sectors of the economy, bribing government officials, and establishing full-scale control.
For Ukraine, such a scenario would mean USSR 2.0. Certain groups of society will certainly accept such circumstances, and some will retreat into the shadows and sabotage the situation. However, the political decision-making centre will return to Moscow, and Kyiv will go back to the “Union Republic capital” status. Ukraine’s sovereignty will be dismantled, while Europe will stay out of the fray.
What could be worse is the scenario of the EU’s pivot to Russia. Amidst the global economic recession, the increasing influence of China, and continuance of the transatlantic disaccord, Brussels and Moscow could decide to join their efforts in the attempt to resist the global challenges. Russia’s dream of the European security order stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok would come true.
Under such a scenario, the EU and the Eurasian Union will seek common ground in order to implement joint economic projects, against which “North Stream-2” will appear small.
On the global level, we may then see the re-emergence if not of the USSR then at least early 1990s paradigm, which implied the West’s perception of Eastern Europe as Russia’s sphere of influence, and where Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova were deemed as the Soviet Union fractions under Moscow’s care.
Under Russian hegemony the sanctions against Russia will become irrelevant – Konstantin Kosachev, Head of the Federation Council’s Foreign Relations Committee, has already voiced the narrative about the West giving them up due to coronavirus pandemic and global economic recession.
In future, Russia will certainly find other ways to take the sanctions down without removing the reason that caused them.
Against such a background, there is a significant risk that Moscow may raise its ambitions to demand new Yalta Agreement and new Warsaw Pact. The Eastern Partnership countries, as well as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, may thus fall victims to the big players’ game. To preserve their sovereignty and identity, they will have to deal with more than one big power simultaneously, and the chances of winning under such conditions are very small.
Setting hope on civil society
Finally, the most encouraging seems to be the scenario where civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries plays a pivotal role. The Eastern Partnership has a chance of becoming a self-contained actor if civil society leaders of the region succeed in harnessing the “power of the streets” in order to create effective democratic institutions, establish strong ties between the EaP countries, and implement own infrastructure and energy projects for the sake of deeper regional integration.
Such an outcome could be particularly favourable given that Brussels will be busy with tackling the post-COVID economic crisis in its own backyard. Besides, EaP’s strong posture will make its countries more attractive in terms of cooperation for the partners from Central Eastern Europe, Three Sees Initiative, Visegrad Group.
It is important, however, to retain civil society’s transformative enthusiasm and avert its leaders from compromising the idea of democracy, as it happened during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or Twitter Revolution in Moldova. Besides, coronavirus pandemic poses additional risks for civic movements where governments may use an opportunity to curb them under the pretext of COVID outbreak control.
After all, without strong and advanced civil society, as well as solid democratic institutions, Ukrainians will have to choose among the scenarios that do not meet their high European expectations.