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Russia and the Eastern Partnership: from zero-sum to positive-sum

Alexander Sergunin is right that Moscow is concerned the EU’s Eastern Partnership is setting out to undermine its sphere of influence. But this is a misperception, responds Sebastian Schaeffer, for it implies a zero sum game. In fact, the EU and Russia are mutually dependent and have overlapping interests. They need to work together more closely, and communicate better
Sebastian Schäffer
29 January 2010
Eastern Partnership Member Countries

Eastern Partnership: Member Countries

Although a mere nine months have passed since the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched at the summit in Prague in May 2009, this new EU regional initiative has already given rise to  considerable concern. EU member countries e.g. France and Spain, with their traditional orientation towards the southern neighbours of the EU, expressed doubts, as did EaP target countries like Ukraine, which feared they would derive no further benefit from the initiative. 

The most prominent concerns relate to complications inherent in the EaP for EU-Russia relations. One of Moscow’s main concerns is that the EU is trying to undermine Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet countries, which are the target countries of the EaP. The term sphere of influence is used by the Kremlin in a geopolitical context and therefore implies a zero-sum game. However, Brussels and Moscow have overlapping interests in the Eastern neighbourhood of the EU, so diffusion of interest would be a more accurate term. This would also allow the situation to be seen as a positive-sum game. For the best results to be achieved both the EU and Russia, but particularly Brussels, will have to improve their communications.  I will try to show that with better communication the main Russian concerns and problems, as presented in the article by Alexander Sergunin, could be solved. Rather than dealing with each and every point separately, I have grouped them together by topic:

Energy (supply) security: improved relations between the EU and the countries in the Caucasus might pave the way for alternative energy supply routes that bypass the Russian Federation. Although it is understandable that this is a major concern for Russia, the EaP will not be the main platform for fostering projects like Nabucco or White Stream. Additionally, the EaP affords opportunities for launching multi-national projects, including with third countries like Russia, which could lead to an improvement of the energy supply routes through Ukraine and therefore be beneficial for Moscow as well. No one side is dependent on the other:  Russia and the EU are interdependent.  Even with alternative sources for their energy needs, EU member countries will continue to need supplies from Russia in the medium and even long term. At the same time the Russian Federation needs the EU as a customer, because it is their main energy export market.

Frozen conflicts: there are without a doubt serious disagreements, not only between the target countries of the EaP (such as Armenia and Azerbaijan), but also between EU member countries and EaP countries (e.g. Romania and Moldova) and EaP countries and third countries (amongst others Georgia and Russia). The EaP could serve as a platform from which to take the first steps towards resolving those conflicts. The multi-national dimension and the possibility of third-country involvement with the EaP creates a special opportunity for closer cooperation and confidence building.

Funding and different priorities within the EU: it goes without saying that there are different priorities within the EU concerning the Eastern neighbourhood. These different priorities lead to a dilemma related to the funding of the EaP. EU members that have traditionally had more interest in other regions will not agree to funds being shifted to Eastern neighbours at the expense of their area(s) of interest. It is also obvious that much greater financial resources will be needed to implement projects in all the fields outlined in the EaP. Nevertheless, we should be patient and wait to see how the first initiatives work. Positive outcomes might attract more external funding and the new multi-annual budget of the EU from 2014 onwards could include significantly higher funding for all countries in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), whether in the East or in the South.

Duplication of initiatives: although regional initiatives can help to mitigate the huge difference of interests in a union of 27 and even more member countries in the near future, there is the danger that building too many regional initiatives will inevitably lead to double structures. This anxiety is particularly relevant in the case of the EaP and the Black Sea Synergy (BSS). However, the EaP has an advantage in that its group of countries is more coherent. The Russian Federation itself wants to have a different relationship with the EU and is therefore, by its own wishes, not a part of the ENP, of which the EaP is the Eastern dimension. Furthermore potential projects are not dependent on consent from Moscow, as has been the case with the BSS.

Heterogeneous target countries: although the EaP countries might be easier to handle as a group, rather than being grouped with Russia, Turkey or even the Southern neighbours of the EU, their relationships with the EU vary very considerably. While Georgia and Ukraine have a clear stated goal of EU membership, the aspirations of Azerbaijan to become an EU member are rather low. But this is exactly the field where zero-sum thinking needs to end because all parties involved could benefit if Brussels would send clearer signals. This would give all EaP countries a clear membership perspective, as it has for the countries of the Western Balkans. The EaP itself could then serve as an alternative integration approach, including initial integration in specific sectors without demanding progress in other policy areas. Countries that are not aiming to become members in the medium term could also take part in this development. It has to be made clear to the Kremlin that it is not either EU or Russia but in fact EU and Russia. Sectoral integration will also lead to a more stable environment in the Russian near abroad and give Moscow the opportunity to benefit economically.

The EaP has a high potential not only to improve the relationships between the EU and the target countries and between the target countries themselves, but also with third countries like Russia. In order to use this potential, the EU needs to put more effort into the fields mentioned above. Brussels also needs to improve its communication with Moscow. The newly established position of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy under the Lisbon Treaty might help to avoid sending the Kremlin conflicting and/or contradictory signals concerning the Eastern neighbourhood. The EU must take the concerns of Russia seriously and try to convince the Russian government of the potential benefits of the EaP for both sides. At the same time Russia needs to give up its zero-sum thinking in the whole CIS area. Otherwise it might lose its important role in this area to Brussels in the Western part and China in the East. Signs of this can already be seen in the withdrawal of Georgia from CIS (effective as of last August) and the absence of several heads of states (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) at the last summit in Chisinau.

Sebastian Schäffer is research fellow and lecturer at the Chair in Comparative Politics at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University Greifswald.

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