After a year of diplomacy dominated by the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Riga on May 21–22 will focus on the wider challenges of the surrounding region. Yet most EU member states appear reluctant to bring forward new agreements or promises to EaP states.

Many aspects of the EU’s response to Russian geopolitical assertiveness have been strong and admirably balanced. Yet there is a danger that EU policy is shaped primarily around the Russia factor rather than around the underlying challenges that come from the EaP countries themselves. This approach risks turning the six EaP partners—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—into passive objects of a perceived Russia-EU geopolitical rivalry instead of treating them like sovereign states with their own specific identities and needs.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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To rectify this danger, the EU needs to remold its support for fundamental political reform in EaP partner states—and use this as a firmer base from which to assuage tensions with Russia. The Riga summit should aim to make a tangible contribution to this process.

Minimalist Ambition

Since the current crisis erupted in 2013 with antigovernment protests in Ukraine, EU leaders have repeatedly asserted that the EaP needs to move into a higher gear. In practice, however, a number of factors are holding EU member states back from upgrading the partnership. While some member states talk of the Riga summit representing a last chance for the EaP, others hold positions that risk making it a nonevent.

The EaP strategy has in some ways evolved and become more sophisticated. The “more for more” concept—which the union has prioritized since 2011 and which promises bigger EU carrots in return for partners’ stronger commitment to EU principles and values—is a sensible advance. This incentive has drawn a useful distinction between those states that have genuine affinities to the EU (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) and those that do not (Azerbaijan and Belarus), with Armenia being something of a swing voter between those two positions.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.

Yet the legacy remains of the initial EaP logic that includes all six countries in a single framework defined only by geography and proximity to Russia. This was the impression given by the previous EaP summit in Vilnius in 2013, and the Riga summit should avoid equally prioritizing the notion of a single six-country framework simply to declare a political success story.

The EU would do better to focus on a select number of practical reform priorities within each of the EaP states—as these countries have taken political trajectories that are very different from one another.

If at the Riga summit the EU were to aim for an ambitious set of outcomes, it could quite feasibly offer visa-free travel to Ukrainians entering its territory. The union could also propose some kind of graduated membership deal for Moldova and Georgia that goes beyond the current Association Agreements, which create a framework for political and economic cooperation without holding out any prospect of EU accession.

However, in recent months the EU’s level of ambition has appeared increasingly uncertain, and doubts are growing that member states will be courageous in the Latvian capital. Governments’ prevailing outlook is one of inertia and geostrategic caution.

There are a number of reasons for this restraint. Most notably, some governments seem to be waiting to see how the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine evolves before significantly strengthening their focus on other EaP states. European governments’ priority is to avoid rocking the boat with Russia and upsetting the extremely fragile calm that is scarcely holding together in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region despite a ceasefire deal in February 2015.

The broad lesson that most member states seem to have drawn from the turbulence of the last two years is that they must take greater heed of likely Russian reactions to EaP commitments. This is because of the extent to which Russia has been able to complicate the smooth implementation of many EaP policies, which the EU devised without considering Moscow’s interests in the region. In the future, the partnership looks set to resemble a framework of negotiated order, within which Russia has a de facto if not a formal voice. The dynamics of assertively extending EU rules and norms are in retreat.

More practically, EU officials warn that the existing Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova need to be implemented gradually before other prospective changes are brought to the table. In the cases of Armenia and Belarus, the EU is now focused on very modest offers of cooperation that fit around the still-evolving rules of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

There is much convincing logic in the EU’s prevailing caution. Yet there is considerable scope for heightened EU ambition within the parameters of sensible geopolitical prudence.

Review Processes Are Not Sufficient

Beyond the question of ambition, there is also a risk that effective responses to fast-moving conditions on the ground become hostage to the union’s elaborate and drawn-out internal institutional procedures and timetables. The EU has promised repeatedly to correct this often-seen shortcoming in its foreign policy. Even the most charitable observer would be hard-pressed to prove that it has done so.

Central to these internal procedures are the various review processes currently under way in Brussels; these include one on the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), of which the EaP is the Eastern dimension, and another on the EU’s security strategy. There is a broad consensus among diplomats and analysts that the EU needs to take stock of its basic approach to foreign affairs, given the far-reaching changes unfolding in its immediate neighborhood and farther afield and, indeed, the shifts in the tenets of effective international power. As a result, many diplomats feel that it would be premature to forward radical new commitments in Riga before these reviews make any headway.

Among those involved in the ENP review process, there is general agreement that EU policies need to be more flexible and more tailored to each partner country’s domestic specificities. This is true, but it is not a reason for delaying new action. It is not necessary to await completion of the review processes to develop policies that are more differentiated and effective, or for there to be a more nuanced use of conditionality and more locally owned funding priorities.

The more important consideration is this: while the various review processes are entirely sensible and necessary, they should not be taken to imply that a modest fine-tuning of EU instruments suffices.

EU and member-state diplomats certainly understand the need for flexibility, ownership, and differentiation. Yet in practice, they approach such principles as relatively modest design modifications. These principles should not divert the EU’s attention from the more viscerally political questions with which the EaP should be grappling—questions ranging from simmering conflicts to rising illiberalism to corruption.

Such principles do not in themselves offer the secret to unlocking a more geopolitically sensitive neighborhood policy. The EU needs to design its differentiation much more specifically as part of a comprehensive focus on political reform processes. When it comes to bilateral relations between member states and EaP countries, day-to-day politics still frequently undermine EU officials’ efforts to establish more effective, flexible conditionality.

Illiberalism and State Weakness in the Neighborhood

This need for a more comprehensive approach to the Eastern neighborhood leads into another current concern: the EU still lacks a fully political diagnosis of the root problems in the EaP region.

The EU should not weigh its commitment to EaP countries against engagement with Russia, as if these were two counterbalancing policy options. The EU’s policies since 2013 have been framed primarily in terms of how to respond directly to Russia. But the containment-versus-engagement debate with respect to Russia provides at best a very partial lens on the preconditions of peace and stability. The most important geopolitical question is not simply what and how much the EU should offer to EaP partners, but what kind of states these countries will become.

There is a deeper source of tension than the way the EU frames its policy that to some extent has contributed to Russia’s choice for strategic confrontation. That is the trend of rising illiberalism.

All six EaP countries, including the three that profess to be pro-European, suffer from serious domestic problems. Azerbaijan has turned into an authoritarian state on the Central Asian model and now has the worst human rights record in Europe. Belarus and Armenia have entrenched elites that govern with a somewhat lighter hand and allow elections, but in the knowledge that the results are preordained and that the economic and political power of the leadership is not challenged.

Ukraine’s massive state problems—a powerful oligarchic class and pervasive corruption—are well-known. The fact that Ukraine is by far the largest country in the EaP also makes it much harder for the EU and other outside actors to help Kyiv tackle these problems.

Despite being praised as a European champion and holding free elections, Moldova suffers from endemic state corruption in which leading members of the political class are implicated. Minority rights legislation and judicial independence exist more on paper than in reality.

Georgia is probably the best performing of the six. A precedent of clean elections seems to have taken hold. The media and judiciary are mostly, if not fully, independent. But law enforcement agencies still wield disproportionate power, and the country still suffers from a culture of intolerance.

Above all, these states are unacceptably poor, and the gravity of the problems facing them should not be underestimated. With a GDP per capita of under $4,000 each, Georgia and Ukraine are less than one-third as wealthy as Poland. More than two decades after gaining independence, the EaP partners are all still weak states, with high levels of poverty and unemployment and associated socioeconomic problems. High rates of emigration have resulted in a brain drain of professionals and created large migrant populations in Russia. A recent census in Georgia revealed that the country’s population has declined by more than 14 percent since 2002—years associated in the minds of most outsiders with a Georgian success story of reform and economic growth.

Reform as Resilience

These socioeconomic challenges have a geopolitical implication. Russia’s ability to dominate or influence EaP countries is in direct correlation to the state weakness caused by such problems—problems that have also helped strengthen populist and extremist parties.

The EU and its member states assert repeatedly that their most effective geostrategic policy is to support political and economic reform in EaP partners. This is because the EU should not and cannot seek to match Russian sources of power on a like-for-like basis. The union’s influence must be of a different order.

However, the EU remains a long way from improving the effectiveness of its support for fundamental reform in countries in the EaP region. Two years into the current Eastern crisis, it is difficult to see where the EU’s support for reform has been massively upgraded and revamped.

In Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, support for reforms has been downgraded. In Georgia and Moldova, it continues at a level similar to the precrisis period and has been unable to quell the democratic pathologies that now smolder in both countries.

In Ukraine, the EU has extended additional loans and commenced a number of reform initiatives. Yet most observers in Kyiv feel that the conflict in Donbas has reduced European pressure on the government of President Petro Poroshenko to deepen reforms—and that the EU’s failure to revise its use of conditionality means much new money is simply being poured into a black hole of political nepotism.

While a large number of conferences and articles cursorily conclude that support for political reform in EaP partners needs to be strengthened, their focus is primarily on the EU’s Russia strategy. There is much less focus on the detailed tactics of how the EU needs to make this support more meaningful and effective. Yet it is at this deeper level that improvement is needed if the EU’s reform-oriented approach to geopolitics is to succeed.

The EU is right to keep the door open to engagement with Russia and to take on board some of Moscow’s concerns. But the union is mistaken in thinking that it needs to dilute its support for reforms in the EaP states as part of this equation. Supporting reform is not an anti-Russian option. Contrary to much recent analysis, pulling back from reform support in the EaP is not a kind of implicit prerequisite to more constructive engagement with Russia.

Some analysts argue today that the focus on reform is expendable because the nature of geostrategy and international power has fundamentally changed. This argument is overstated because reform processes can and should be shaped as a means of strengthening EaP partners’ state resilience. Better-functioning institutions could give EaP states stronger de facto sovereignty and the confidence to choose their own forms of strategic identity—which in many cases will include an element of (multivector) balance between the EU and Russia.

A much more highly prioritized and systematic focus on governance reform and on tackling deep-lying problems would give the EaP project a strategic anchor—a much-needed antidote to the growing sense of extempore shapelessness.

Toward a More Differentiated Partnership

For the EU, a corollary of this emphasis on state resilience is that it requires a yet-more-differentiated EaP strategy. This means biting the bullet of offering Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine the big incentive of an eventual EU membership perspective. This could be done on some kind of innovative, graduated basis, in full awareness that this goal cannot be realized for perhaps fifteen or twenty years.

By the same logic, the EU should stick by its principles and not unconditionally give any special status to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus, each of which pursues illiberal domestic policies at variance with EU norms. This position should come with the proviso that normal foreign policy discussions will continue and that the door remains open to a more privileged relationship in the future.

Discussions should continue on a modernization pact with Azerbaijan. Diplomacy should advance with Belarus, especially as the sanctions the EU has imposed on the country since 2006 have not worked. These steps are important because some form of engagement is needed to cajole regimes to contemplate a degree of reform over the medium term. With Armenia, which came close to agreeing an Association Agreement with Brussels in 2013, discussions should deepen on how the EU can maintain a relationship with the country since it entered the Eurasian Economic Union in January 2015—and in case that Russian-led project fails. Yet all these avenues of engagement would best be pursued outside the framework of a privileged EaP relationship supposedly based on commitments to shared values.

In Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the reverse side of offering a membership perspective should be a more hardheaded EU approach to the reform agenda. In particular, all engagement should be based on the understanding that if corruption continues at such high levels, no amount of foreign aid or economic reform will make a difference.

EU ministers and other senior officials now routinely stress how much they support the principle of local ownership and a more demand-led EaP. But the imprecision with which EU officials talk of such notions suggests they have little idea of what they mean—or where they would actually take the Eastern Partnership over the longer term.

The EU certainly needs to support more demand-driven initiatives that originate from EaP partners if it is to quell growing frustration in these countries with the union. But from an earlier tendency to follow a uniform, Eurocentric script, the EU risks tilting to the other extreme of molding itself in an overly ad hoc fashion to redlines drawn by regimes with less-than-stellar democratic credentials. Giving partner regimes whatever they want is not in itself a foreign policy. Review processes, policy documents, the EU high representative, and European commissioners can all breezily allude to key principles. But if the EU raises expectations that are then not fully met, its geostrategic interests will be seriously weakened. Unfulfilled expectations will hasten, not prevent, the region’s incipient de-Europeanization.

Rather than putting all hope in a revamped EaP, EU member states should use their scope for more agile and immediate bilateral policy initiatives. Member states could easily commit to pumping in additional funding to EaP partners by pooling new resources to maximum effect outside the scope of slow-moving EU budgets. Despite all the official rhetoric about the EU’s unprecedented geopolitical challenge in the East, member-state governments have reduced, not increased, their funding levels in the EaP region. Instead of waiting for yet another EaP policy document talking of the same generic motherhood-and-apple-pie principles, national governments could launch concrete and specifically funded new initiatives—now.

A final, very practical policy suggestion: independent analysts and civil society actors in EaP states should turn the tables on Brussels and prepare their own progress reports on the EU—to assess the union’s follow-through on its stated principles. The EU publishes progress reports every year that take EaP partners to task for falling short of their commitments. Organizations in the six EaP states should produce similar progress reports that monitor the EU’s success or failure in delivering on its own promises.

This kind of reform-targeted shaming might be a much bigger catalyst for concrete EU policy improvements than any number of high-level summits that are long on rhetoric but short on substance—the kind of imbalance one fears might prevail in Riga this May.