The European Union will hold a summit of the Eastern Partnership, its flagship program to build closer ties with former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), in Vilnius on Nov. 28-29. The highly anticipated summit was expected to make significant progress with a number of its target states, but the past few months have seen intensified competition between the European Union and Russia over the Eastern Partnership states. Moscow's notable gains over Brussels, particularly in Ukraine and Armenia, have greatly tempered expectations over what can be achieved at the summit. Various obstacles, including Russian opposition, EU divisions and the domestic political constraints of the target states themselves, stand in the way of the Eastern Partnership's effectiveness moving forward.
The Eastern Partnership program, launched as an initiative led by Poland and Sweden in 2009, has been the European Union's primary avenue to strengthening relations and integration between the bloc and the six former Soviet countries on its eastern periphery. The Eastern Partnership was initiated as Russia expanded its own influence in these countries, especially during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, which formally marked Moscow's return as a regional power. The explicit goal of the Eastern Partnership was to enhance economic and political ties between the European Union and the six target states, but it was also implicitly created as a means of preventing Russia from building a dominant position in these countries.
The main pillars of the Eastern Partnership program are the association and free trade agreements, which are designed to integrate the legal, judicial and economic systems of the target states to fit EU norms. The Eastern Partnership also provides financial assistance to assist member states in reaching these goals. Though the agreements do not officially guarantee that these countries become EU members, many EU officials — especially those from Central and Eastern Europe — have said that they serve as an important stepping-stone in this direction.
Russia's maneuvering has thus deprived the European Union of two key countries that were expected to move forward with their agreements at the EU summit.
The program, however, has had only limited success since its founding. The actual payouts and impact of the scheme have been relatively modest so far, with 600 million euros allocated for economic and democracy-building projects in participating states from 2010 to 2013. Certain countries such as Belarus and Azerbaijan have shown little interest in applying the political reforms designated by the Eastern Partnership and ultimately are not trying to become EU members. Indeed, Belarus has undergone further centralization of political power, becoming subject to EU sanctions rather than integrating more closely with the bloc. Nevertheless, other countries with a stronger Western orientation, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, have made significant progress in the application of reforms needed to reach the association and free trade agreements. Even Armenia, which is strongly integrated with Russia, has made substantial efforts to comply with the accord.
With expectations of continued progress, the Vilnius summit became the most highly anticipated meeting since the Eastern Partnership's founding. Many predicted that Ukraine would make the significant move of signing the association and free trade agreements during the summit, and that Armenia, Georgia and Moldova would initial the deals before signing them the following year. Despite the initially optimistic prognosis, however, recent obstacles have made it likely that these expectations will fall short.
Russia has actively sought to disrupt this integration process, largely because talks between the European Union and eastern periphery states reached such an advanced stage. For example, Moscow threatened to raise natural gas prices in Armenia while simultaneously offering financial and security incentives to Yerevan if it halted its integration with the European Union. As a result, Armenia announced it would join Moscow's rival Customs Union, effectively eliminating any prospect of moving forward with the EU deals. Russia applied even greater pressure on Ukraine, primarily via the implementation of trade restrictions on many of the country's exports. Russian officials explicitly stated that such restrictions would intensify if Ukraine followed through with its EU intentions. Realizing that such action would have a devastating economic impact, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich announced last week that the EU talks would be frozen and instead proposed a trilateral format to discuss economic and energy issues with the European Union and Russia.
Russia's maneuvering has thus deprived the European Union of two key countries that were expected to move forward with their agreements at the EU summit. In the meantime, officials from Moldova and Georgia — both of which are set to initial the deals at the summit — have said that they intend to move forward with these plans, giving some indication of progress. But even if these countries are to initial before signing, there are several factors that would dilute their importance. First, these countries are much less strategically relevant to the European Union than Ukraine in terms of their size and significance. Second, initialing the deals will not necessarily lead to signatures, as the Ukrainian case has shown. Furthermore, Russia has already begun to increase pressure on these states as well; Moscow has threatened Moldova with trade and energy cutoffs if it continues with its planned integration, something Chisinau will have to take seriously moving forward.
It is not only Russia that is hampering the effectiveness of the Eastern Partnership program. From its inception, the program has been much more actively supported by Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania, which have greater historical and strategic interests in the borderland states than the more distant Germany and France. Internal political issues within the Eastern Partnership states have also created obstacles, as the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko has shown.
Even if countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia can muster substantial public support for EU orientation — which would guarantee a continued effort at building EU ties — there are also significant domestic elements that are politically opposed to any firm swings toward the union. These factors, combined with Russia's active opposition to EU influence in the Eastern Partnership states, will continue to present significant obstacles to the program, the effects of which will likely be seen in the upcoming Vilnius summit and beyond.