The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east

Krzysztof Bobinski
22 April 2009

The European Union's "Eastern Partnership" seemed a vaguely good idea at the time. The moment when the mood of slightly quizzical approbation that has surrounded it from the start began to sour was 5 April 2009. That was the day of Moldova's parliamentary election, when police in the capital Chisinau began to beat up detainees who were already assembling to protest against the conduct and outcome of the vote. Also on Europe's eastern problems in openDemocracy:

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Natalia Leshchenko, "Belarus's election paradox" (1 October 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

John Palmer, "The Czech Republic and Europe: uneasy presidency" (19 January 2009)

Irina Novakova, "Bulgaria and Russia: a cold marriage" (27 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

Juliana Sokolova, "Slovakia: in search of normal" (2 April 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to take sides" (14 April 2009)

The idea for the partnership arose when the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk heard Nicolas Sarkozy at a European Union summit extolling the virtues of his Mediterranean Union. Tusk thought: why not have a parallel "Eastern Union" which would draw the countries to the east of Poland closer to Europe? The notion won the support of Sweden's foreign minister Carl Bildt. The European commission worked on it, and at the summit in Brussels on 19-20 March 2009 it became European Union policy.

The partnership is to be officially launched at a summit in Prague on 7 May 2009 where EU leaders will meet with leaders from the six partner-states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Brussels has set aside €600 million ($775 million) to be spent in 2010-13 on multilateral and bilateral projects in these countries; the thinking is that these projects will encourage reforms and thus in time help make the six countries eligible for accession to the EU.

The lost heart

The initiative has been trumpeted in Warsaw as a success of Polish diplomacy, but it has met with some confusion in the target states. Ukraine has been upbeat: it sees the partnership as a significant step on its road to Europe. Belarus's dictator Alexander Lukashenka has viewed it as a chance to gain some credibility in the west. Moldova, which has established a number of government committees designed to build EU-compatible institutions, has acquiesced in the scheme. Georgia, which after the August 2008 war with the Russians has other problems, was happy to consent. Armenia and Azerbaijan too gave it the nod. At the same time, the Caucasus countries in particular couldn't understand why the EU was coming up with another scheme so soon after its "Black Sea Synergy" project had aimed similarly to enhance cooperation between states in the region.

Now, after the events in Chisinau, the confusion has wound its way back into the EU. The union's leaders are wondering if they really want to sit down with Moldova's president, Vladimir Voronin, after what his security people have done to detainees in police cells. Alexander Lukashenka on his own account seems likely to avoid the opportunity to socialise with Europe's leaders. At this stage, the Prague summit looks unlikely to advance the ambitions of the partnership.

The events in Moldova have put the underlying situation into sharp perspective. The election - which returned the ruling Communist Party to power (albeit only when this was confirmed in a recount conceded by Voronin) - was deemed less than free and fair by clear-eyed observers such as Emma Nicholson from the European parliament. There followed a "flash-mob" demonstration that put up to 15,000 people onto the street in protest at the way the election was handled. This was hijacked by rock-throwing youths who stormed and set fire to the parliament building - raising suspicions that this was indeed the work of provocateurs.

The ensuing arrests produced ample evidence that detainees were being beaten, with at least three cases of people being battered to death in custody. The authorities supplemented such brutality with harassment of local and foreign journalists, intimidation of local print and electronic media and wild charges of "fascist" provocation. Moldova's government seemed determined to live up to the caricature of an authoritarian regime seeking to stay in control using methods taken straight from the old communist textbooks.

The closing door

The problem for the European Union and its new partnership is that such methods are an extreme version of those employed in other capitals of the countries it seeks to reach towards. In February 2008 in Yerevan, force used to disperse crowds protesting the conduct of the election that saw Serzh Sarkisian ascend to Armenia's presidency left at least ten dead and several score in prison. In December 2003 in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev was elected president with 89% of the votes cast in what even the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said was a fraudulent election; the pattern was repeated in the parliamentary polls of November 2005 and the referendum of March 2009 allowing Aliev to remove a two-term limit on the presidency.   Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland" (25 May 2001)

"Poland's nervous 'return' to Europe" (29 April 2004)

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui!" (23 May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

"Poland's generational shift" (1 November 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

"The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked" (15 September 2008)

"Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

"Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka has a proven track-record of intimidation of the opposition. In Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili has been legitimately elected but faces a vociferous opposition unhappy about his authoritarian style and ever ready to mobilise in the streets in an attempt to force his resignation. In Ukraine, the rivalry between the president, Viktor Yushchenko and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is a constant impediment to coherent governance; both are mulling the option of using martial law to stop the other from winning the forthcoming election.

In the Soviet times, people protested most often about price rises. Now people demonstrate when they suspect the authorities of cheating at elections. That may be a form of progress. In any event, more protests in the region can be expected.

In these circumstances, the summit in Prague on 7 May risks being seen as a meeting of the EU with a group of kleptocrats who are ready to resort to electoral fraud and the use of force to stay in power. The realisation is also dawning in Brussels that the implementation of EU-style reforms (and this is what the Eastern Partnership is all about) will put an end to the rule of these people. The "partners" know it as well. Are they signing up to the scheme in good faith?

To make things worse, the Russians have signalled that they are unhappy with the Eastern Partnership. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, described it in Brussels on 21 March 2009 as a plan to extend the EU's sphere of influence. The Germans, still keen on their special relationship with Moscow, will see that as a clear signal to consign the whole idea to a filing cupboard. 

Indeed, some diplomatic chanceries in the EU are worried that the Russians may be bent on provoking unrest in the region just to demonstrate to the Europeans the cost of getting involved in such a volatile area. That unrest, the theory goes, will be met with Moldova-style crackdowns - with the result that these countries will move closer to Russia even as the EU steps aside.

The opening key

To consent to such an outcome would be painful and costly for the EU - even a betrayal. For the events in Moldova show that it would entail the EU abandoning a younger generation with no recollection of the Soviet past; with experience in many cases of work, study and travel in the west; and with a desire to live in a "normal" country. It was these young people who streamed onto the streets of Chisinau after the disputed election on 5 April (see Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to take sides", 14 April 2009).

They have, too, advantages in disseminating their message - including an array of electronic means of publicising official misdeeds and their own protests that surpass anything available to their dissident predecessors (more used to typing out bulletins in triplicate and passing them to individual foreign correspondents). The police methods may show a mentality deeply rooted in the KGB past, but Moldova also shows that a sophisticated network of think-tanks and institutes was able to assemble, gather information and protest in ways the authorities found it hard to track and subdue.

In this light the EU's choice is no choice. If anyone in the union is having second thoughts about the advisability of pressing ahead with the Eastern Partnership he or she should remember the Helsinki treaty in 1975. This was criticised by many at the time for legitimising the division of Europe; but it was also Helsinki's "third basket" on human rights which brought the subject to the fore and gave dissidents a foothold and reference-point from which to challenge the dictators of the time.

The EU must, then, stick by the Eastern Partnership - while also making it abundantly clear that the partnership's key element is the human rights and democratising aspect of the project. This is a message that should be heard in Prague at the 7 May summit, where NGOs as well as EU leaders will be meeting. Moldovan NGOs have shown the way. A network of like-minded NGOs needs to come together throughout the region ready to monitor the partnership project and react immediately if fundamental rights are infringed. The EU member-states must also signal that they will recognise that the NGOs have a vital role to play in the process.

The EU will declare in Prague that it has a partnership with the east. It must also affirm that its policy towards this region is based on principles of human rights and democratic action.


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