The ‘Eastern Partnership’ is Fading Away Before Our Very Eyes

by | May 2, 2014


The EU’s Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Prague on 24-25 April was called to solve the Hamlet question of whether the programme itself is to be or not to be. It was unable to do so, however.

The collapse of the Ukrainian government and the cooling of relations between the EU and Belarus have virtually left just Georgia and Moldova in the orbit of the Eastern Partnership, although Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev also took an active part in the recent summit. For the European Union, however, Baku is looking like an even less manageable partner than Minsk. In fact, the rhetoric of the Azerbaijan leader’s statements has more to do with Armenian-Turkish relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem than the Eastern Partnership issue, which is also far from accidental. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, however, pointed out that “Armenia joined the Eastern Partnership with a deep conviction that it is not directed against any third country.”

Of late, finance and energy have increasingly been coming to the fore in the foreign policy priorities of the eastern European countries of Eastern European and the post-Soviet world, as well as post-Soviet states. For a long time, the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, which was initially suggested in 2008, was, for its participants (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) a seemingly attractive declaration of the European Union’s intentions to take them into its ranks in the more or less foreseeable future.

In practice, however, simple calculations carried out at the end of 2013 with respect to the same Ukraine, as well as the collapse of the EU’s pipeline ambitions, turned the previous promises of a mutually-beneficial European partnership into fiction. It turned out that the price for such a ‘partnership’ was the collapse of national industry and foreign trade, along with the rupture of traditional ties with Russia which, incidentally, is still the country’s main energy supplier. It is no secret, meanwhile, that one of the nails in the coffin of corresponding projects is being energetically driven in by an Eastern Partnership member – Azerbaijan – which is actively cooperating in gas deals with Russia.

The real financial and economic cost of the Ukrainian issue is well understood by many in the European Union itself, especially in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. On the outcome of talks with his Slovak colleague Robert Fico timed to coincide with the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka stressed that both countries are skeptical about the possible introduction of “comprehensive” anti-Russian sanctions, as they will “have a negative impact on the growth of the European economy.” Sobotka promised that his country will oppose the introduction of new sanctions against Russia in a discussion of the issue at the level of European heads of state and government. Addressing the Eastern Partnership members present at the summit, Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Lubomír Zaorálek said, “If we are talking about Ukraine, and we want to save her from a catastrophe, then I am convinced that in the event of an economic war with Russia, the situation in Ukraine will deteriorate considerably more quickly.”

At a meeting with a delegation of the US Senate, therefore, the President of the Moldovan Parliament Igor Corman had to try and reconcile a wide variety of vectors. In response to the categorical statement by Republican US Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee that “the US is an advocate of Moldova becoming part of the EU,” Corman talked of his country’s need to “maintain political stability.” According to Corman, “the process of EU-integration does not rule out a cooperation with our traditional Eastern partners in the CIS.”

That is understandable. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Moldova in the autumn, and the country’s population is going to vote with their own salaries rather than with European proclamations, and these are clearly not yet in line with European salaries. The gas being supplied to Moldova is not via the Nabucco pipeline, either…

About energy resources, incidentally. It is energy issues that are one of the weak points in the EU’s policy towards the east, since there is a clear divide between desire and reality. Trying to drive a wedge between Russia and her partners in matters related to Russian gas supplies, the Brussels bureaucracy is grasping at a variety of tools, from organising reverse flows of the very same Russian gas to cranking up the shale revolution and lobbying for supplies of liquefied natural gas from far-off Qatar (which is located in a volatile region of the Persian Gulf). In terms of their efficiency and reliability, however, none of these projects are able to compete with traditional pipeline supplies from Russia.

There is good reason why such an active opponent of Russia like EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has been forced to change his tone recently. Commenting on the proposed initialing of an agreement between Slovakia and Ukraine on reverse flows to Ukraine, he emphasised that the practice must be in accordance with the norms and interests of gas supplies from Russia to Europe through Ukraine and Slovakia. Among other things, the EU Commissioner (as well as the authorities in Slovakia) is entertaining the possibility of just using the low-capacity Vojany pipeline for reverse flows, rather than the main pipeline used for Russian supplies to Europe. This is the “only legal and technically-feasible solution,” stressed Oettinger. Judging by the information available, meanwhile, such an option could not be launched any earlier than the start of 2015.

There is also another fairly significant point that should not be forgotten. At present, there are no grounds even theoretically to talk about an Eastern Partnership as some kind of coherent programme, and this is not just to do with Ukraine, but Belarus as well. In recent years, the European Union has carried out a two-track policy with respect to Minsk, combining influence on the Belarusian government through efforts to involve Belarus in EU programmes and projects and then, in the long run, slipping into a complete disregard for the country.

“The Deep Policy Failures That Led to Ukraine” is how American journal The National Interest titled its own report on the subject. It asks the rhetorical question: “There was a critical mismatch between the economic realities of leaving Ukraine economically tied to Russia and political aspirations of moving the country closer to the West. Were these discontinuities not flagged in the respective policy shops of the key Euro-Atlantic countries?” The article’s main conclusion, however, is even more revealing. The National Interest predicts the appearance of future “Ukraines” on the geopolitical map as a consequence of the US and EU’s inability to carry out an objective policy, including through “some sort of accommodation with Moscow”.

“In my opinion, the problems began with the automatic use of such approaches as the association agreement. This is why we began to look into the distant future and thought that we would be able to manage without outdated approaches,” said the host of the recent summit Lubomír Zaorálek, summing up the first five disappointing years of the programme’s existence. “When we initiate such fundamental social changes, we should have calculated their social and economic consequences for these countries. We did not do that, however”. And it is fairly obvious that Russia is not the one to blame…

Published with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.