Staunton, May 23 — The EU’s Eastern Partnership program has proven incapable of being a buffer zone between Europe and Russia and must be radically reformed or scrapped altogether given that for foreseeable future, Moscow will dominate those states in the east which are not fully part of the European Union itself, according to Vitaly Portnikov.
That is clear from what has taken place at the Riga conference of EU Eastern Partnership countries, he argues, even if “none of the participants of the program have the courage to say that ‘the Eastern Partnership’ has simply exhausted itself…as a compromise with Russia,” something else its organizers “never admit.”
Officials of the EU like to compare the Eastern Partnership program with the one they devised for the countries of the Maghreb. But there is one obvious difference between the two: “cooperation with the countries of the Maghreb was thought up as cooperation with the countries of the Maghreb. The ‘Eastern Partnership’ was thought up as a compromise with Russia.”
Those who designed the Eastern Partnership “searched for a form of cooperation with former Soviet republics would which allow for the formation on EU borders of a civilized marketplace and at the same time preserve as inviolable those links these countries have with the Russian Federation.”
That explains why Brussels was “never particularly agitated” about the level of democracy in the partnership countries. Instead, the EU focused on developing a free market and lowering the level of corruption. That made it acceptable to Moscow and thus allowed the EU to assume that it always would be – at least as long as none of its members could ever join the EU.
But when the Eastern Partnership, in line with the Maghreb countries, moved to “the next stage of its development with the signing of association agreements,” Moscow “considered this as a demonstrative interference in the interests and integration plans of Russia,” something Vladimir Putin has not concealed from everything.
Today, within the Eastern Partnership, there are “two groups of countries: one, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova who have signed and want to join the EU eventually; and a second, including Belarus and Armenia, which haven’t and don’t. (Azerbaijan is an outlier and tries not to be in one or the other, although it won’t be able to do that for long.)
And that pattern, Portnikov continues, allows for “one simple conclusion: the program as a compromise with Russia has not worked out. There has not been and is not now any ‘buffer zone’ between the European Union and Russia.” In the immediate future, “whether the Europeans or Russians like it or not,” the border between Europe and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union will be the eastern border of states in the EU.
Consequently, the Riga summit is likely to be “one of the last, at least in the current format.” And the EU is going to have to pursue deeper relations with those who want to join and much less deep relations with those who don’t. It can no longer put off making a decision about that, Portnikov suggests.
“Yes, it is possible,” he says, “that the process of integration will last decades” and resemble that of Turkey, “but at the very least, the illusion of ‘a buffer zone’ is disappearing forever.” And then, as in the Maghreb, “the Eastern Partnership will become a partnership with the participant countries and not an attempt at compromise with another third country.”