The crisis in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have highlighted the limits of the EU’s attempts to shift the boundaries of its economic and democratic project eastwards. Split between the choice (and necessity) of accommodating Russia’s interests, and the goal of extending the European peace and economic project to its eastern neighbours, the EU has failed to provide an assertive and sustainable prospect for the countries in the region. Moreover, Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have underscored the EU’s inability to go to the lengths required to salvage its eastern policy or propose a new viable solution. On the other hand, Russia has not presented a project of its own in the region, but merely mirrored the EU’s actions by offering an opposing model based on short term economic incentives.
In this context of a bipolar ‘post-Soviet space,’ where both the EU and Russia seem unable or unwilling to implement effective strategies, the [unwelcome] drive for renewal might come from China. China’s recent focus on the region and its seemingly unconditional model of economic development has the potential in the medium term to pressure the EU into rethinking its eastern policy and becoming more assertive.
European Neighbourhood Policy
Since 2004, with the creation of the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU has been aiming for a central role in promoting economic development and democracy in the countries situated on its borders. This has taken the form of dangling the carrot of economic benefits, and wielding the stick that requires the development of democracy and rule of law in the EU’s near abroad. In the absence of any strong opposing power, the EU has had virtually a free hand in promoting its project through asymmetric economic arrangements.
In practice, the EU has only been able to offer its eastern neighbours an ambiguous and cautious project
However, the EU’s policy towards those countries to its east has very frequently encroached upon Moscow’s sphere of interest. Coupled with the choice of some member states to also accommodate Russia, this has meant that in practice, the EU has only been able to offer its eastern neighbours an ambiguous and cautious project, which was bound to cause frictions with Moscow. The EU has been frequently criticised for pursuing a one-sided approach towards its eastern near abroad; its preference for investment in consumer industries rather than the modernisation of its neighbours’ infrastructure, points to a lack of commitment towards the sustainable development of the region.
Some of the EU’s eastern neighbours, such as Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Georgia, have sought at times to play Russia and the EU against each other, hoping to extract from each as many economic benefits as possible. Russia has been overtly more assertive, and more hegemonic in offering short term incentives to the countries in its near abroad; these have taken the form of preferential energy prices, loans, investment or support for corrupt elites. The Customs Union and the Eurasian Union are a direct response to the EU’s eastern policy, and an effort on the part of Russia to maintain a buffer zone with the EU and China. How successful that policy is, however, very much depends on what happens in Ukraine, for without Ukraine, there is no buffer, and the success of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union must be in doubt.
A ‘New Silk Road’
China’s involvement in the region could transform this stalemate. China has already started to move its economic borders westwards: last autumn it launched the 16 Plus 1 Economic Forum in Bucharest, in which China stated its commitment to develop and invest in Central and Eastern Europe, and to cooperate with the countries in the region, especially in the areas of energy, infrastructure and manufacturing. Moreover, China is seeking to double its trade with Central and Eastern Europe by 2018, whilst also creating a ‘New Silk Road,’ which would engulf the whole ‘post-Soviet space.’
China’s economic model for the region offers a different type of understanding of international relations, which neither the EU nor Russia yet seem to fully grasp. China’s model might not deliver more democracy or a less corrupt political system, as Ukrainians have articulated for the past five months, but, drawing on the African example, it will certainly contribute to a higher level of economic development. But, while China seems more willing at this point to offer an alternative pathway to the EU’s eastern neighbours, it is clearly expecting significant economic and geopolitical returns. Bearing this in mind, together with the fact that Ukraine has highlighted the limits of the EU’s engagement in the Eastern Neighbourhood, the key question now is whether and how the EU will step up and propose a new and more assertive model for the region, in response to China’s involvement.