Tomas Janeliūnas. The main Advocate of the EU Eastern Partnership Programme

11The Lithuania Tribune presents an opinion article by Tomas Janeliūnas, an associated professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University, which is based on an introductory speech delivered at a symposium on Japan-EU Cooperation ‘EU Eastern Partnership and Security Situation in East Asia’ on 11 October 2013 in the Seimas.

As the meeting of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit is getting closer (it will take place in Vilnius on 28–29 November 2013), the issue of the importance of the Eastern Partnership has suddenly found itself in the spotlight.

One interesting thing is that this happened not because of the activeness of the EU or the Eastern Partnership programme’s countries, but because of Russia’s actions. Paradoxical as it may sound, it’s Russia that can save this EU initiative.

For quite a long period time, the Eastern Partnership programme hadn’t been considered significantly successful and effective. Those goals that were set at the start of the Eastern Partnership programme in 2009 weren’t actually met. Democratisation, the reforms of the free market, and the strengthening of human rights – all these processes didn’t gravitate the programme towards the positive side.

Even on the contrary – because of Ukraine’s actions against the Opposition’s leaders, the EU suspended the process of signing an association agreement and added new conditions which would prove that Ukraine still followed democratic principles, the rule of law and didn’t administer selective justice.

A concern was raised regarding Georgia’s political processes. Isn’t Georgia, which almost served as an example of democratic reform, trying to use certain means of political execution of opponents?

Politically, there haven‘t been any major changes in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s presidential elections on 9 October presented no surprises – the winner was obvious beforehand. The OSCE said that the presidential elections of 9 October lacked freedom of speech and that not all candidates had equal opportunities.

The political situation in Belarus is still frozen and there are no signs that the EU could change it somehow.

Out of six members of the Eastern Partnership three – Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – have basically dropped out of the programme and remain only formally. The chances of these countries signing an association agreement with the EU and joining the free trade area are very slim.

That‘s why Ukraine is at the centre of attention before the Summit in Vilnius. Can Ukraine, the largest and most important member of the Eastern Partnership programme, make this programme a success?

The importance of Ukraine lowered slightly Georgia and Moldova’s motivation to strive to meet the Eastern Partnership programme’s requirements. Because certain reservations for Ukraine will in any case put Moldova and Georgia’s drawbacks, which could slow down association agreements with the EU, into shadow.

It may sound like a paradox, but Russia will most probably end up saving the Eastern Partnership programme from failure. Russia’s oversensitivity to this programme forced the country into making inadequate actions. As we know, Russia is seeking actively to include the Eastern Partnership programme’s countries into the Customs Union and, perhaps, – Eurasia.

For Russia, this may be the last chance to save its authority as a regional power and the perspectives of managing the matters of at least a major part of Europe. Russia’s leaders understand that Ukraine’s decision will have the biggest impact on this change.

More than 15 years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book The Grand Chessboard forecasted that Ukraine would be the deciding factor whether or not Russia would be able to be reborn as an empire – without Ukraine Russia simply cannot be a significant regional power. It seems that the critical moment of choice will occur during the EU Easter Partnership programme Summit in Vilnius this year.

Russia’s attempts at foiling Ukraine’s signing of an association agreement with the EU at all costs confirm blatantly that Kiev’s geopolitical choice is a matter of life and death to the Kremlin.

The significance of the Eastern European countries to the EU is completely different. The majority of the EU citizens and even politicians don’t really understand why this year’s EU Eastern Partnership Summit is getting so much attention and the possible signing of association agreements is compared with another wave of EU enlargement. Save for Russia’s increased political and economic pressure, trade limitations with Ukraine and other neighbours, and escalated tension, most probably these events would otherwise pass unnoticed.

For a long period of time, Ukraine’s possibilities to sign an association agreement had depended on a purely political decision – will former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko and the other opponents of the current Government get released from prison.

For the EU, this looked like a very important and valuable matter – it had to show whether or not Ukraine was European, upheld human rights, and didn’t administer selective justice when dealing with political opponents.

For Ukraine and its current President, Viktor Yanukovych, that was a hard-to-understand condition because it had nothing to do with the free trade or the legal system reforms. On the contrary – it looked like a stubborn repetition of a principle, forcing to defend their position. The prestige of the Ukrainian President and the Government in their own country depended on it. Some may even say – the maintenance of authority in the society and political perspectives.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s problem cornered the EU, which risked losing the most important partner of the Eastern Partnership because of a different view on political values.

But Russia solved this issue just in time.

Russia’s rough pressure on Ukraine (chocolate wars, threats to change tariffs), the blockade of Moldovan wine, hindrance of Lithuanian carriers at Russian customs offices, and the halt of dairy import created a reaction which became a wake up call of sorts.

Russia’s aggression helped to unify Ukraine’s politicians and led them to decide to maintain national self-esteem and not give in to Russia’s blackmail. I think that these events also encouraged making the necessary formal decisions at Ukraine’s Government and Parliament.

Similarly, the EU politicians are showing resentment towards Russia’s economic sanctions. When the competition is obvious, a wish to gear up and win arises. Rejecting Ukraine’s association agreement wouldn’t just mean seeing Ukraine as having failed to meet the requirements. It would mean the demise of the EU Eastern Partnership programme and the defeat of the EU’s soft power.

The current tension between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU has increased  the importance of the Vilnius Summit dramatically. Its outcome is far from being clear. That which started as a boring and bureaucratic EU external support programme became a serious clash of the EU and Russia.

The Vilnius Summit will not solve all the geopolitical issues. But an important tendency can be already seen. Russia, despite various declarations about a possible common European safety or economic zone, still applies the rules of a zero-sum game to the world.

The instigated soft power conflict between the EU and Russia will most probably increase the gap of differences between the two even more; i.e. the differences in values, trade systems, and political behaviour. Should Russia want revenge, for example, by interfering actively with Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2015, then this conflict may become the EU’s key battlefield, in which it will have to prove the EU’s status, values, and solidarity.

Unfortunately, doing so will not increase safety and stability in the Eastern European region. Neither will it help Russia to solve its domestic problems, but maybe it will become a pretext to allocate effort to external competition, instead of dealing with Russia’s social and economic issues.

Nevertheless, this may encourage the EU to give more energy and attention to not only strengthen the Eastern Partnership programme, but also more intensively seek the expansion of free trade zones – not only with Eastern Europe, but also with the US and Japan.

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