Europe's eastern partnership: why Riga matters

Russia's aggression towards states such as Georgia and Ukraine is a crucial test for the European Union. The forthcoming summit in Riga is the moment for a decisive response.

Kakha Gogolashvili Lasha Tughushi
13 May 2015

When Russia attacked Georgia in August 2008, the European Union acknowledged that political blunders by Georgia's then president Mikheil Saakashvili had played a part. But its unanimous strategic judgment was that the short but hugely destructive war was rooted in the ambitions of Vladimir Putin to re-establish control over issues of security in the post-Soviet realm. Later, Dmitry Medvedev - then serving as president, in the interregnum between Putin's terms in the job - confessed that the war's true aim was to stop Nato's expansion towards Russia’s borders.

During and after the crisis, Europe's active diplomacy made a sound contribution to preventing further occupation of Georgian territory. However, the EU never mustered enough courage to impose sanctions on Russia. It didn’t even halt negotiations on a new framework agreement with the Russian Federation. Of the main European bodies, only the European parliament explicitly described the Russian action as "an occupation".

The message of the Russian leadership’s military assault was well understood in Europe: namely, that no country from eastern Europe was to be admitted into Nato in the near future. Yet the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008 had declared that “Georgia will become a Member of the Alliance”, and later confirmed that this statement remains “true and unchanged” (though without specifying any precise uncertain timeframe). Two subsequent Nato summits failed to clarify this pledge. At the time, even after the war with Georgia, nobody in Europe thought that Russia would create the same problems as regards the EU’s normative engagement with its "eastern neighbourhood". But the establishment in 2009 of the Eastern Partnership with its far-reaching integration goals provoked Moscow's anger against such "intrusions" into the "realm of [Russia’s] legitimate interests".

The Russian leadership stepped up its challenge to Europe’s "creeping expansion" by establishing the Eurasian Customs Union with the ultimate aim of transforming it into an economic and political union. Soon, Moscow started to drag neighbouring countries into this union. Of the six Eastern Partnership states, Belarus and Armenia were soon swallowed up. The Kremlin moved on to "convince" the next targets, Ukraine and Moldova, to join.

Russia’s true intentions were witnessed a few months after the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November 2013, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented an armed conflict in the country’s south-eastern region. For Russia the minimum result of these  efforts will be to close Ukraine's European perspective, just as it managed to do with Georgia’s Nato-membership perspective after the Nato summit in Bucharest.

It is well understood now that the target of Moscow's revived geopolitical game is not just Ukraine but all of the Eastern Partnership states, including those who have already signed Association Agreements with the EU. People in Georgia were convinced that signing the country's Association Agreement in 2014 would guarantee that its European choice would be implemented. However, mounting Russian propaganda and the Kremlin’s soft and hard political instruments prompt ever more pessimism, making some think that Russia will still be able to devour Georgia and other neighbours with the tacit consent of its indecisive and cautious European partners.

A vital summit

These developments make the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on 21-22 May a vital gathering. Yet even though it is taking place in the wake of Russia's military aggression, occupation and annexation of territories in Ukraine, the strong indications are that the summit will see no truly significant resolutions or radical breakthroughs. But a united Europe cannot avoid its responsibility to clarify how it envisages the future of its eastern European neighbourhood.

Since gaining independence, the Eastern Partnership countries have travelled a long, complex, and challenging path. Their latest step was the Association Agreements with the EU signed in 2014 by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Those agreements, including arrangements to establish a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, represent a modernisation plan for these countries according to the European model, and will bring them closer to their ultimate goal - EU membership.

The process ahead will also be long and testing, as it involves carrying out important reforms in all spheres of public life.  But it is important to note that people in these three countries have made a firm choice in favour of  EU membership and recognise that there is no reasonable alternative to it. Georgia, for its part, sealed its preference for Euro-Atlantic integration in a referendum in January 2008.
Russian belligerence against Georgia in 2008, and the more recent events in Ukraine, leave the impression that states committed to a European orientation have become hostages, with their respective territorial problems and "frozen conflicts" equally used as pawns in the same geopolitical game. This, in our view, is a vicious circle which merely stimulates further Russian hostility. The Russian Federation is taking advantage of the status quo, in part via an antagonistic information campaign designed to strengthen the belief among the people in the Eastern Partnership countries that they have no possibility of joining the union and that strengthening links with Russia is their only realistic option.

Official documents adopted by different European institutions, as well as the Association Agreements signed with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, recognise the historical ties and common values shared between the Eastern Partnership countries and the EU member-states. These agreements welcome the European aspirations of the Eastern Partnership  countries and praise their European choice. Resolutions adopted by the European parliament also recognise this European orientation and the right of the countries to apply for EU membership under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. This is all deeply relevant to the Riga summit. EU institutions and Europe’s political forces need to draw important conclusions, and be internally prepared to show more determination over the future and fate of the Eastern Partnership states. 

What, then, should be the message of the critical Riga summit? We recommend a statement that explicitly recognises two things:

* the reality of Georgia’s, Ukraine’s and Moldova’s European perspective

* that in relation to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, aggression from a foreign country, annexation of territories, and partial occupation must not be allowed to become an obstacle to European Union membership.

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