Results of thefirst decade ofthe Eastern Partnership
In general, the main potential of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) has been and still is the ability to remove barriers and dividing lines between the EU and the partner countries. That is, to contribute to “reducing distances" in many areas: economic, political, social, and cultural. In this regard, the goal of the EaP — to make the "post-Soviet six" closer to the European Union — has been achieved. This conclusion is especially true for countries that have signed association agreements and created deep and comprehensive free trade zones with the EU.
In some partner countries (for example, Moldova), the very fact of the EaP’s inception gave rise to the hope that the country could move away from "timelessness" and make a leap into the future through: 1) institutional development, 2) technologies and, 3) investments (including into human capacity).
Thanks to the EaP, additional layers of contacts and cooperation projects have emerged between partner countries and the EU, and partner countries and individual EU member states: both at the intergovernmental and non-governmental levels. That is, a kind of natural routine appeared in the relationship, which would hardly have appeared without the EaP. A special role in facilitating working contacts the EaP has played for Belarus, which still does not have a bilateral framework agreement with the EU and, accordingly, no other permanent platforms for communication with Brussels.
The first decade of the EaP can be divided into two periods: 2009-2014 and 2014-2019. The watershed is obviously connected with the events in Ukraine, which significantly changed the regional political context and, accordingly, complicated the work of the EaP. Many serious changes (mostly producing new challenges) have occurred both within the EU and in partner countries.
In particular, yet another territorial conflict has arisen, which has already claimed more than 10 thousand lives and remains in a hot phase (albeit, of low intensity after the conclusion of the second Minsk agreements in February 2015). Centrifugal tendencies in the European Union contributed to shifting the focus of attention from the problems of the eastern neighborhood. The events in the east of Ukraine extremely aggravated the EU’s relations with Russia and intensified the polarization in the region.
The Eastern Partnership was originally conceived as a platform of cooperation that would be beneficial for all participating states. From the point of view of the potential of project work and sectoral cooperation, it can deliver just that; and it provides numerous opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction at various levels and among various state, public and business actors.
The EaP remains the only institutional framework outside the EU for cooperation in Eastern Europe. In the institutional sense, the added value of this platform is in the presence of Ukraine and Georgia, which no longer participate in the work of integration associations on the former Soviet territory.
However, the lack of clarity about the prospects of EU membership among EaP participants has generated different expectations. The countries that were initially perceived as the most successful in the EaP started looking for opportunities to accelerate the European integration process. New suggestions started to appear to divide the EaP into two leagues: for those “advanced” and those “lagging behind”. On the other hand, such ideas became a reflection of the initial challenge of the EaP: the heterogeneity and divisions inside the region, and the different foreign policy orientations of the participating countries.
Association agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are considered by many in the EU and partner countries to be the achievements of the first decade of the EaP. But the mere fact of concluding agreements is not enough to assess long-term results. The key issue is their implementation and the perception of the implementation process by various political, economic and social groups in these countries. Especially in light of the fact that in some cases “only a few people in the partner countries read the agreements completely before signing them”. And the decision to sign was made on the basis of a general political message that the association agreement “is a good thing”.
Therefore, it is not surprising that in the course of implementation difficulties began to emerge. And in some cases, representatives of ruling parties attempted to seek rents from the new tools.
Deep and comprehensive free trade zones themselves did not become an incentive for economic growth in the countries that signed agreements to create them. And the financial assistance of the European Union was not enough to stabilize East European countries.
Challenges of today
The EaP initially contained the problem of significant differences. The states covered by the program are not actually a single region: neither geographically nor culturally. In this regard, it should not come as a surprise that one of the problems of the EaP at the end of the first decade is the weakening of ties between the partner countries themselves. Over the 10 years, the level and intensity of interaction between the countries of the region have decreased. The EaP could reverse this trend. But for this to happen it is important to preserve the multilateral EaP-6 format without separating it into “differently-paced integration.” Moreover, these countries have a very large common denominator: deep historical and cultural ties, as well as often identical domestic and foreign policy challenges.
In this case, the Eastern Partnership would help to reduce regional risks and increase resilience. That is, through facilitating project and sectoral cooperation and maintaining constant communication between stakeholders in the countries of the region and in the EU states and institutions, the EaP can play a stabilizing role in the field of regional security. However, for this to happen, the EaP must overcome the problem of being perceived as a geopolitical initiative.
This perception is found not only in third countries — above all, Russia, whose representatives often call the EaP an anti-Russian project — but also in the partner countries themselves.
It is critical that the work of the EaP should take into account the key interests, constraints and capabilities in the field of security of each partner state.
Due to fears that the EaP could lead to geopolitical problems, elites in some countries in the region are especially wary of their participation in partnerships. They fear that the EaP may become a factor for further destabilizing the regional situation and, as a result, may push them towards having to choose in favor of one of the centers of geopolitical gravity. The very idea of such a choice is considered in these countries as artificial and not in line with their interests. However, other partner countries, on the contrary, strive to use the EaP to strengthen the geopolitical narrative of “breaking away from Russia”. Both these approaches limit the possibilities of the EaP to serve as the stabilizing regional platform of cooperation.
In any case, it is important to stop perceiving the EaP as a “zero-sum game."The example of Armenia, which, while being an EAEU member, was able to conclude the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU (CEPA), shows that this is possible. The political section of the document completely repeats the Association Agreement with the EU, and the economic section is as harmonized as possible with the DCFTA.
Eastern Partnership and Belarus
All these years, for Belarus the EaP has been the only formalized platform for regular contacts and cooperation with the EU in the absence of a basic agreement and extremely slow movement towards the conclusion of other bilateral agreements. Also, to some extent, the EaP is an addition to the bilateral format of interaction with other countries in the region, especially with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
Therefore, it is not surprising that back in 2009, out of all 6 partner countries, Belarus was most supportive of the creation of the Eastern Partnership.
Regarding this initiative, the official Minsk articulates the following key interests:
· To maintain the EaP as a holistic program with a unified approach and institutional framework for all participants, without identifying a group of “advanced” countries;
· To keep the EaP among the priorities of the EU foreign policy (as there is fear that, against the background of internal problems, as well as global challenges, Brussels may lose interest both in the program and in the region as a whole);
· It is important to stimulate and maintain interest and readiness for active work on the part of all partner countries;
· The EaP should be as practical as possible and meet the interests of citizens of partner countries;
· To have possibilities for at least minimal links and cooperation between the EaP and the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as with Chinese projects (above all, the Belt and Road Initiative).
In terms of more concrete ideas on the development of the EaP, the Belarusian leadership propose to promote the connectivity and furnishing of border infrastructure, and to simplify logistics both for commercial projects and to facilitate the movement of people.
What should the Eastern Partnership look like?
It is important that, after the Agenda 2020, a most concrete agenda with focused priorities for more distant future be developed and implemented. It can be a common framework for all six partner countries together with individual priorities.
At the same time, it is important to conduct a frank and critical monitoring of progress in the framework of the Agenda 2020 in order to fix implementation problems and understand what would be realistic to include in the next program. This will provide important empirical data to inform the proposed structured dialogue on the future of the Eastern Partnership.