HARNESSING THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP: A WAY OUT FROM THE EAST EUROPEAN DEADLOCK? | publicatii - Politica La Est
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HARNESSING THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP: A WAY OUT FROM THE EAST EUROPEAN DEADLOCK?

HARNESSING THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP: A WAYOUT FROM THE EAST EUROPEAN DEADLOCK?
 
George Vlad NICULESCU
 
Director of Programs in Brussels,
 
Centre for East European and Asian Studies, Bucharest
The Eastern Partnership: A Controversial Geopolitical Initiative
 
On 7 May 2009, the EU summit with its Eastern European Partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine) in Prague launched the Eastern Partnership with a view to developing a specific Eastern European dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). It aimed at creating conditions for accelerating political association and further economic integration of the six former Soviet countries. Concluding new Association Agreements, establishing Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, developing Comprehensive Institution-Building programs, supporting the mobility of citizens and visa liberalization were deemed as key elements to meeting those ends. The Eastern Partnership has also aimed at further promoting stability and multilateral confidence building, in particular by seeking peaceful settlements to "frozen" conflicts, and by helping partner countries developing closer ties among themselves.
 
However, this EU initiative has been perceived by Russia as a geopolitical process because, on the one hand, of the wide-ranging consequences of what the EU thought to be a purely technical, norms setting process of modernization, and, on the other hand, since it saw it as competing with the Eurasian Union project instrumented by Moscow in the former Soviet space. In December 2013, after the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit, where former president Yanukovych refused, in the last minute, to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, the Ukrainian crisis has started. Following the Euromaidan protests of pro-Western Ukrainians, and the unexpected ouster of Mr. Yanukovych by the Ukrainian Rada, Moscow has quietly annexed Crimea to the Russian Federation, and has stirred and supported pro- Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine to the outright dismay of the West, which responded with waves of economic and political sanctions.
 
At present, the area from Vancouver to Vladivostok was hijacked by a new East-West geopolitical confrontation, while powerpolitik rather than cooperative security seems to prevail in shaping the future destiny of Eurasia. Apparently, the Eastern Partnership has been at the core of this dramatic change of the European and Euro-Atlantic security environment. However, other factors, such as the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West; and the chronic persistence of the protracted conflicts have also been at work in bringing up the collapse of the post-Cold War European security system1[1]. What role did the Eastern Partnership really play into this tragic evolution on the European continent? What lessons could the EU learn regarding its relations with the Eastern neighbors?
 
Eurasian Integration: A Manageable Challenge or a Threat for the EU
 
Western experts have warned that the Eurasian Economic Union-EEU might evolve in the future in a way that might be challenging the European Union as a "normative power" in its "shared neighborhood" with Russia. For example, a paper published by the Chatham House stated that: "A corollary of Russia’s aspirations to return to a ‘great power’ status is its claim to hegemony in the ‘near abroad’. Much doubt has been cast on its status as a rising power.
 
To dispel these doubts, Russia has shifted its focus to a legal, rule-based domain of integration. [...] While both the EU and Russia endeavor to influence this space, ‘what for Brussels is just one of its “neighborhoods” is for Russia the crucial test case which will either prove or dismiss the credibility of its Great Power ambitions’." [2]
 
Unfortunately, Russian post-imperial project totally failed in the 1990s under ex-president Yeltsin. The West and the Central & Eastern European states have made (most likely involuntarily) a significant contribution to this failure. From the year 2000 on, Mr. Putin proclaimed again the imperial mission of Moscow. In the 2000s, the US war on terror, while it marginalized its relevance in Western eyes, allowed Mr. Putin to build a stronger internal and external basis for his neo-imperial project. Again, obvious signs of building up Putin's neo-imperial project have gone largely ignored/dismissed in the West: the Russian opposition to the Color Revolutions in the FSU, the 2008 war in Georgia, the collapse of the CFE, the Medvedev European Security Treaty, the regional partnerships with China and Turkey, while the West naively hoped that Putin's project will imminently fail through internal political and socio-economic implosion. Such an implosion looks highly unlikely today in spite of ongoing Western sanctions and other political and economic pressures. We should therefore take Russia and deal with it for what it is (i.e. a neo-imperial project supported by nationalist feelings and by an increasingly influential national security sector), rather than for what we would like it to be (a Western-values based democracy with strong institutions under public control). The West has not developed yet a solid strategy to effectively approach a prospective neo-imperial Russia, while, without such a strategy in place, the limits of Putin's neo-imperial paradigm may be hardly seen by the Russian people anytime soon. From this perspective, the Russian tough stance against the West and the post-Soviet states willing to develop broader ties with Western institutions is counter-productive, and it will negatively impact further on the Eurasian regional integration process.
 
Hopes to see Russia changing from within seem rather futile unless a major crisis (similar in its impact to the crises of 1917 or 1991/1998) would severely affect it. Former Soviet countries have a critical role to play in stimulating change in Moscow by rejecting any return to a new form of Russian empire under the Eurasian Economic Union. The European Council on Foreign Relations has recently published Belarusian, Kazakh and Armenian perspectives on the EEU3[3]. There are at least two points which come out straight forward from all three perspectives:
 
* Neither of these EEU members would like to see this organization evolving into a Soviet Union or Tsarist Empire 2.0. If Moscow chose that path, it would face a serious risk to stir political conflicts within/with the other EEU member states.
* The Western sanctions against Russia have unintentionally hit the other members of the EEU due to existing high economic interdependence. This situation should, on the one hand, be seriously considered in Moscow when making further decisions on Ukraine with a view to consulting its economic integration partners on the potential impact of Russian foreign and security policies on their domestic situation, and external relations. On the other hand, it should be also carefully considered by the West who should somehow compensate Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan, on a bilateral basis, for the collateral damages undergone by those countries because of the sanctions against Russia. It is definitely not in the interest of the West to isolate those countries from the global economy or to inadvertently create socio-economic challenges to them.
 
The conclusion is pretty clear: the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West is damaging the prospects for both the European and the Eurasian integration processes and thereby it undermines the regional stability of a broader region. Finding ways to stop its further development should be sought both in Moscow and in the Western capitals.
 
At the end of the day, what the EEU will become, isn't going to depend on Russia alone. Other actor's approaches to this organization may decisively influence its prospective evolution. Here one may include the EU and its member states, the US, China, Turkey, as well as the other EEU members and post-Soviet states. If all these other actors opposed turning the EEU into the Soviet Union/ Tsarist empire 2.0., and would instead struggle to have it develop into an Eurasian replica of the EU than it may become a constitutive element of the global economy.
 
On the other hand, the Eurasian Economic Union's role in keeping Russia within the framework of the global economy shouldn't be underestimated by the West (the EU in particular). How to make the European and the Eurasian integration processes compatible with each other looks key to the future relations between Russia and the West.
 
The Geopolitics of the Eastern Partnership
 
Why did the Eastern Partnership exacerbate Russian pressure on EU’s Eastern partners aimed to push them into unwanted choices between European and Eurasian integration?
And why did Moscow perceive the Eastern Partnership as a path to a zero sum game with the EU?
 
What the EU perceived as a purely technical, norms setting process of modernization, it has been seen by others (i.e. Russians, and potentially other regional powers) as a geopolitical process because of its wide-ranging consequences: while standards create legislation, and legislation shapes political and economic interactions, defining common standards eventually becomes an effective means for building geopolitical identities.
 
One big mistake by the Ukrainians (and not only by them) is that they thought of the conflict on their territory exclusively through a geopolitical lens: go West, or go East. This has been a problem for the Ukrainian identity for many years in the post-Cold War. Unfortunately, the globalist view on Ukraine has utterly receded, particularly after the 2014 start of dismantlement of that country. How could Ukraine as one sovereign and independent state respond to the challenges posed by the process of economic globalization? Again, in most experts' views, geopolitics trumped globalism for most viewed Ukraine either in the EU or in the EEU. The true revenge of globalism over geopolitics in Ukraine is due to come when Ukrainians will start to see their country as a key strategic partner of both the EU and the EEU. Perhaps, peace in Ukraine might eventually come on that basis. Until then, it will probably be for the military to lead in addressing the conflict enshrined in the post-Cold War Ukrainian identity.
 
Frankly speaking, the EU can’t be exonerated of geopolitical responsibilities just because it was unable to have them formally assumed. On the contrary, the lack of transparency on its geopolitical intentions in the Eastern neighborhood has been interpreted as a hidden attempt to undermine the interests of rival regional powers. Therefore, Brussels should assume full geopolitical responsibility in its Eastern neighborhood if it was to succeed in meeting the objectives of the Eastern Partnership. . Otherwise, the Union could hardly overcome the “current clash of European norms and geopolitical realities”4[4].
A process of review of the Eastern Partnership is currently going on. The outcome of this process should be placing the Eastern Partnership into its geopolitical context as EU’s main instrument to address the emerging challenges in Eurasia5[5]: the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West; the resolution of the protracted conflicts; and the dilemma of post-Soviet states between European and Eurasian economic integration.
 
A more pragmatic Eastern Partnership focused on key EU regional priorities such as trade, security and energy6[6], may revive EU's relations with all Eastern Partnership states, and may save this major EU initiative from potential post-Vilnius ineffectiveness or even irrelevance. However, those Eastern Partners who strive for democratic development should continue to receive EU support proportional with their needs and proved willingness to reform. Enhanced coordination between the EEAS and the Commission is also indispensable to its further successful implementation.
 
A Way Out of the Current East European Deadlock: European AND Eurasian Integration?
 
Just before the Ukrainian crisis, it seemed that Russia was keener than the EU to establish a Common Economic Space (CES) stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. However, according to sources from the European Commission, establishing such a CES would be hardly feasible since Russian trade policy would be inconsistent with the free trade norms of the WTO. Another obstacle to establishing a CES would stem from EU's policy to conclude bilateral agreements with individual states, as third parties, which would be conflicting with Russia's claim that the EU should negotiate any free trade arrangements with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) rather than with individual members. In addition, there would be a blatant incompatibility between the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements, concluded by the EU with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, and the commitments that should be made by a member of the EEU. This incompatibility would place third parties in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between joining the EEU and setting up free trade with the EU. This dilemma of the post-Soviet states is rather creating favorable conditions for turning the myth of "re-Sovietizing" Eastern Europe and Central Asia into reality. In the first half of 2014, Kiev has already paid the price for having made such a choice with losing political control of Crimea, and with getting involved in a post-Soviet conflict in the Donbas.
Destroying the EEU is not a wise aim for Western policy against the post-Soviet states, since it may inevitably lead to either regional chaos or feed the neo-imperial aspirations in Russia. The wiser longer term aim should make the EEU work within the global economy, instead of turning it into an isolated regional economic system, feeding anti-Western frustrations. Therefore, “When circumstances permit, EU leaders should signal their willingness to overcome tensions and to engage with Russia. […] The EU needs both to uphold the principles that have generally ensured peace and stability in post-cold war Europe and to be pragmatic in taking Russian perceptions of its own interests, and of the shifting balance of power in Europe, into account. In the long run, the question of working toward a common economic space throughout Europe should be considered.”7[7]
 
From a geopolitical perspective, encompassing the EU and the EEU in a common economic system would come against the current mainstream perception that regional integration in the Eastern Neighborhood would be a "zero sum game". On the contrary, the EU and Russia should struggle to find a way to overcome such controversial perceptions. Such a geopolitical perspective may be forged on the analogy with two pairs of concentric circles whereby the membership of the EU and the EEU would be represented each with one of the inner circles. To avoid conflict between the inner circles one should find feasible solutions for those who need "to sit on the fence" for a while, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan. Here the second concentric circles come into play whereby the EU and EEU external circles should be able to overlap each other, without generating the kind of geopolitical pressure which is currently plaguing those countries. Furthermore, interactions between those from one of the inner circles willing to interact with the other inner circle should be transparently and conditionally made possible. To that end, European and Eurasian standards have to be made compatible with each other wherever possible. That is a huge work laying ahead, but it might be the only way to avoid major conflict in Eastern Europe in the foreseeable future.
 
It has been a huge mistake to separate the EU-Russia and EU-Ukraine relations since this eventually meant pushing Kiev towards choosing between Russia and the EU, which was the main cause of the (ongoing) Ukrainian war. Conversely, it might be better to think of a triangular economic integration format: EU-Ukraine-Russia/EEU built upon harmonizing European and Eurasian trading norms. The main advantage of such an approach consists of removing the current competition between European and Eurasian integration norms, at least as far as they concern the Eastern Partners of the EU. It should not exclude the possibility that either of those countries may one day become a member of the EU or of the ECU or of both (if the latter will prove one day feasible, of course). That would be a real Win-Win solution for the EU, Russia and Ukraine. The US might not oppose it if that wasn't pursued at the expense of American economic interests in Europe. In the South Caucasus, Turkey should also partner with the EU and Russia in bringing the local post-Soviet states closer to regional integration. If that approach worked, it might mean that Brzezinski and Huntington were both wrong, at least as far as Eastern Europe is concerned. If it didn't work, everybody should be prepared to accept the negative implications of their theories.
 
To avoid future Ukrainian-like tragedies, the EU and the EEU Commissions might, at the appropriate political moment, sit at the same table to discuss their differences and how they might be overcome without endangering the integrity of their normative systems. Establishing relations between the EU or EEU institutions and individual members of the other organization, respectively, should be actually promoted as a way to adapt the EU-EEU relations to the actual needs of their members, rather than being prevented by juridical norms. The end goal of such talks might consist of establishing a broader FTA from Lisbon to Vladivostok. However, an agreement on such a FTA shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of abandoning the ongoing negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).


Conclusions and Lessons Learned
 
       
The geopolitical perspective on the Eastern Partnership could recommend effective ways to compensate for EU's weakening soft power across the European neighborhood, hence for its decreasing political influence and economic attractiveness, in the aftermath of the Euro crisis. It might provide, for example, that maintaining Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, and Georgia on the European track while preserving the unity and stability of these countries, would require the EU to learn how to work with Russia, rather than how to counter or exclude Russia. The same might be also true for maintaining all the other Eastern partners (i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus) onboard of the European integration process.
 
Working with Russia on improving governance in the common neighborhood would be unlikely as long as the EU and Russia remain at odds on ideological matters, specifically on democracy, and individual rights and freedoms. However, if “The review [n.a. of the ENP] would question the assumption that “shared values” are the basis for European polices toward neighboring countries.”, and would “acknowledge the growing prevalence of values and practices in a number of these countries that are very different from those prevailing in the EU itself”8 [8] the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West might be gradually bridged by pragmatic ways to harmonize European and Russian political and human values. Such pragmatic changes in Eastern Partnership policy would clearly prove that the EU has learned from its past mistakes, particularly from those that were made in Ukraine.
 
The Eastern Partnership might ultimately enable EU-Russia power sharing in the common neighborhood, and might aim at harmonizing the European and the Eurasian integration systems. In effect, measures to harmonize the European and the Eurasian integration projects might also revitalize regional economic cooperation in the common neighborhood, which would be in the best interest of Turkey and the regional post-Soviet states facing the dilemma of European vs. Eurasian integration. Eventually, the Eastern Partnership might be opening opportunities for further regional integration in highly sensitive areas of the common neighborhood, such as the South Caucasus, where protracted conflicts are still raging.
Finally, as the Armenian decision to shift focus from European to Eurasian integration has proved9 [9], the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus and in Transnistria do undermine efforts to implement the objectives of the Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Partnership might therefore envisage measures for conflict management and resolution, which may help overcoming the chronic deadlock in which they have been muddling through since the end of the Cold War. For example, it might provide for better regional strategic coordination of the existing crisis management mechanisms; strengthen the regional ownership of the peace processes, in particular through the formulation of a joint post-conflict regional vision; and counter the fears of some local actors of Russian-imposed solutions.
 
 
 
 
§" Avand in vedere importanta cu totul deosebita a acestui text, prin care Domnul George Niculescu ,  colaboratorul Asociatiei , isi argumenteza propria opinie referitoare la viitorul " Parteneriatului Estic " , redactia pune la dispozitia  colaboratorilor  si cititorilor paginile "Politicii la Est "  pentru dezbaterea punctelor de vedere exprimate de autor ".

[1] G. Niculescu- “The Evolving Challenges in Eurasia”, March 2013, http://www.cseea.ro/publicatii/view/brief-analysis/the-evolving-challenges-in-eurasia
[2] Rilka Dragneva, Kataryna Wolczuk - "Russia, The Eurasian Customs Union and the EU: Cooperation, Stagnation or Rivalry?" from http://www.chathamhouse.org/
 
[3] See on http://www.ecfr.eu/wider/P24
 
[4] St. Keil- “At Vilnius, the EU Must Reconcile Norms with Realism”, German Marshall Fund of the United States, “Transatlantic Take” Series, 27 November 2013
 
[5]G. Niculescu –“The Evolving Challenges in Eurasia”
[6] Elzbieta Kaca- "Is The Eastern Partnership Weakening? The Consequences of EU's Institutions Powershift to Neighborhood Policy", Polish Institute of International Affairs, November 2014, from  http://www.pism.pl/files/?id_plik=18756
 
[7] M. Leigh- “A New Strategy for the European Neighborhood”- GMFUS Policy Brief, September 2014, from  http://www.gmfus.org/wp- content/blogs.dir/1/files_mf/1409689683Leigh_NewStrategyforNeighborhood_Aug14.pdf
 
[8] M. Leigh- A New Strategy
 
[9] G. Niculescu- “Armenia's choice of the Eurasian Union: A stunning end to its European integration?”, published in September 2013, http://gpf-europe.com/forum/?blog=external_relations&id=146
 

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