What next after the EU's Vilnius summit?
A decade has passed since the colour revolutions ushered in a new wave of democratisation into some countries of the former USSR.
Later this week the capital of another former Soviet republic, Lithuania, an inspirational model for the other Newly Independent States emerging from the ruins of the “evil empire,” will host what was hoped to be a historical summit of the Eastern Partnership Initiative. The Initiative encompasses six former Soviet republics with the overarching goal of strengthening the political and economic ties between them and the EU. An ambitious action-plan, or “Roadmap to Vilnius,” envisioned cementing the European future of the most advanced eastern partners at this milestone event.
Sadly the outcome of Vilnius summit will be falling short of these high expectations. Following the decision of Armenia to abandon the path towards the European integration and consider joining the Russian led Eurasian Customs Union, another partner, Ukraine has also refused to sign the association and free trade agreements in Vilnius, leading to mass public protests and deepened political confrontation in the country, the outcome of which is yet to be seen.
Georgia and Moldova are now set to be the “stars” of the Vilnius summit, initialing association and free trade agreements with the EU. This will be an important step forward for both countries. However, the game is far from over.
The declining economic performance of Georgia under its new government, as well as the concerns about selective justice it applies against political opponents, rampant corruption and the volatile domestic political scene in Moldova, alongside the ongoing security challenges posed by unresolved conflicts, all create a fertile ground for impeding the progress of the two champions of the Eastern Partnership in the nearest future.
Four years since the inception of the Eastern Partnership initiative it is both timely as well as necessary to ask, why has this EU policy managed to deliver more in some partner countries than in the others?
Looking at the political, economic and security factors, it is clear that the level of democratic development, the degree of economic dependency on Russia and the nature of the security concerns facing individual partners, all have played their pivotal role in determining respective successes and failures achieved by the Eastern Partnership Initiative vis-a-vis them.
As witnessed most recently in my own country, Georgia, free and fair elections which resulted in the first democratic transfer of power, were largely made possible due to the commitment of the governing elites to the European future of the country. The elections, so far, have not altered the fiercely pro-Western foreign policy orientation molded by the government led by former president Mikhail Saakashvili. As long as democracy and the commitment of the Georgian voters to the European choice survive, it seems that the country will remain safely on the EU path.
A messy, but still democratic process in Moldova, for reasons similar to the ones in Georgia, has also managed to take the country forward towards Europe.
The entrenched political interests of the governing elites in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, however, despite the respective differences in the quality of the democratic development of these countries, have been the decisive factor for failure of the Eastern Partnership Initiative to achieve the desired progress there.
As the examples of Armenia and Ukraine also clearly show, strong economic ties with Russia pose a serious threat to the European choice of both the governing elites and the voters amongst the Eastern partners, as do the concerns with respect to the potential security threats and dependency on Russian military assistance.
In this light, what does the future of the Eastern Partnership look like following Vilnius?
The Russian pressure on these countries is likely to increase - as of spring of next year, Russia’s current vanity project, the Sochi Olympics - will be a thing of the past. It is therefore probable that the second, strategically even more important and ambitious project - the Eurasian Union - will be given full attention by the Russian leadership. While the viability of this project still remains uncertain, its potential for undermining the EU’s interests in the region, in light of the recent developments, can no longer be ignored. In the months and years to come, Russian policy towards the countries in its shared neighborhood with the EU will be multifaceted.
Russia will try to agree on deals behind the closed doors with the leadership of those countries where lack of democracy makes it possible to ignore the voters. In the countries where a still nascent but functioning democratic process makes it difficult to discount public opinion, such as Georgia for example, Russia will continue wielding economic and soft power tools to thwart support of voters away from the European future. Russia will also likely deepen security concerns where it can by supporting instability.
What will be the response of the European Union to this increasingly assertive role of Russia? Will it stand up for its strategic interests in the region or will it retreat? Clearly, if the EU is serious about its commitment to the region, after Vilnius it will need to devote substantial intellectual and financial resources to rethinking the policies directed at supporting democracy, economic development and security of its Eastern neighbors.
Five years ago, the disastrous war between my country and Russia served as an impetus for some serious policy thinking in Brussels and other European capitals on the way to stabilise the EU’s eastern neighborhood. This has resulted in the creation of the Eastern Partnership initiative, which despite its limitations, was an important step forward in securing the democratic and European future of our countries.
Let the recent setbacks serve in a similar role, as catalysts for renewing the commitment of the EU to its eastern neighbors.
The strategic interests of the European Union in creating a stable and prosperous neighborhood around its borders, access to the human and natural resources of the Eastern partners and the benefits from the common economic space with them, all are self-evident.
However, strategic interests aside, the people who braved to confront the authorities in the streets of Tbilisi and Kiev some 10 years ago demanding their freedom, who, despite all the disappointments of the decade following the colour revolutions, have not lost their faith in democracy and are willing to go back to the Maidan to defend their European choice, count on the European Union.
Europe must not disappoint us.
[Originally published on euobserver.com: http://ces.tc/1iZpsPD]