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The elephant in the room at Riga

Russia was everywhere and nowhere at the recent Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.

 

Cristian Nitoiu
26 May 2015

The Eastern Partnership summit, which took place last week in Riga, confirmed the expectation that the EU would not make any new important commitments to its Eastern European partners. Georgia and Ukraine are no doubt disappointed as the summit did not signal that an accession roadmap is on the horizon. While the new central and eastern member states were eager to scale up the EU’s ambitions, Germany took off the table the promise of future membership.

In its relations with the eastern neighbours, traditionally the EU has focused on technocratic co-operation in the areas of democracy, rule of law or economy. However, in Riga, addressing the geopolitical situation in the eastern neighborhood was clearly more important for German chancellor Merkel than upgrading the Eastern Partnership. Even though the EU sent a clear message to its eastern partners that it is committed to helping them, it also stressed that the Eastern Partnership is not a tool for ‘conquering’ the region. Thus, the outcome of the summit was limited to a series of uncontroversial issues, which do not strain even more the already tense relationship with Russia.

Context

The last few months have seen both Russia and the West reverting to Cold War rhetoric. Since the signing of the Minsk agreement in February, fighting has continued in the Donbas region, albeit with lower intensity.

Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Russia earlier this month is a sign that the US is understanding that further isolating Moscow can escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is also recognition of the fact that sanctions have not yet yielded the desired effect – that Russia would change course – and that a conflictual attitude is deepening Putin’s publicly expressed fears whilst fuelling Russian nationalism. Putin’s increasingly cosy friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping has also had an impact on the shift in US foreign policy.

The seemingly appeasing attitude of the EU towards Moscow comes in the context of the US softening its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. EU sanctions have had a significant impact on the Russian economy but have not managed to constrain Moscow’s engagement in the conflict in Ukraine.

The prospects for maintaining the EU sanctions regime against Russia are also bleak as Moscow will try to use Greece, Cyprus or Hungary as Trojan horses. Hence, the EU is now seeking to establish a nuanced relationship with Russia.

Moscow will try to use Greece, Cyprus or Hungary as Trojan horses.

Conflicts in the EU’s eastern neighborhood

Geopolitical considerations saw the summit visibly adopting a cautious attitude towards the conflicts in the eastern neighborhood, including the annexation of Crimea.

The joint declaration adopted at the summit contains merely symbolic language regarding the need to foster peace and stability in the region. Due to Belarus and Armenia’s reservations, Crimea and Russia appear only once in different parts of the declaration. No criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine or its annexation of Crimea is present in the text.

However, in Riga, EU leaders came to the conclusion that the Eastern Partnership is not an adequate tool for solving the conflicts in the eastern neighborhood. Rather than providing viable solutions, the Eastern Partnership has ignited Russian fears and deepened disagreements between some of the eastern neighbours. For example, in the past, Azerbaijan criticised the EU’s decision to recognise the breach of sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine but not in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Riga summit did not provide any clear solutions to these concerns but postponed them to a future date.

Two-tier Eastern Partnership

While the summit took off the table the prospect of future membership, it reinforced the idea of differentiation and introduced a two tier approach in the Eastern Partnership. From now on the EU will focus most of its efforts on strengthening the relationship with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus will be secondary priorities.

Geopolitics did not take the stage completely in Riga. The success of the EU’s technocratic approach was praised as the DCFTAs [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area] signed last year with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have led to increased trade. The most important achievement of the summit is the launch of the facility for Small and Medium Enterprises within the DCFTAs. This will provide around two billion euros in investments for the three DCFTA countries.

The issue of corruption, which affects all six eastern partners, was noticeably ignored. In spite of the EU’s financial support during the last years, for strengthening the rule of law, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia are still lagging behind in building effective democratic institutions. The EU’s silence on this issue is a result of the fact that most pro-European leaders in the three countries control corrupt political systems and starkly resist change. In Riga, European leaders underlined that the Eastern Partnership does not aim to interfere with these countries’ choice of political system or ideology.

The issue of corruption, which affects all six eastern partners, was noticeably ignored.

Energy security

The summit recognised Russia’s crucial role in the EU’s energy security. The debate shifted from the hitherto need to diversify EU’s energy suppliers, and help the eastern neighbours to become more independent from Russia. Here, the EU toned down its ambitions and now merely sees itself as a mediator in energy negotiations between Ukraine or Moldova and Russia.

The EU also made it clear that in the present context, its interest in co-operating with Azerbaijan and Armenia centres around their energy reserves. Co-operation with these countries on other issues such as the rule of law or democracy promotion is not a major priority for the EU. 

Geopolitics versus technocratic politics

The emphasis on geopolitics at the Riga summit is a result of the acknowledgment that the EU’s technocratic approach towards Russia and the eastern partners has largely failed. The only measurable success has been in the area of economic co-operation, where the DCFTAs have led to increased trade volumes with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Yet the softened attitude towards Moscow is unlikely to have a significant impact on the course of events in eastern Ukraine. Even if the EU sought to reassure Russia of its non-hegemonic intentions, the economic models offered by the European Union and the Eurasian integration project are still mutually exclusive. This situation is likely to remain unchanged and create further tensions in the short term.

In order to manage these tensions, and construct a more geopolitical approach that is effective, the EU has to develop new tools and mechanisms. The much awaited revision of the broader ENP will hopefully present the range of tools that allow the EU to manage the complex and tense geopolitical situation in the Eastern neighborhood.

The EU will have to be more upfront about its interests in the post-Soviet space, and not merely disguise them behind the mantra of a technocratic promotion of democracy or rule of law. 

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