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The Eastern European Winter

Eastern Europe has become an “unwanted child” for some Western countries, one they would prefer to forget about. From their perspective, the Eastern Partnership will absorb attention and financial resources as well as capabilities that should be exploited in the south of Europe. And yet the paradox is that success in Eastern Europe will be much easier to achieve.

February 13, 2014 - Dominik P. Jankowski and Paweł Świeżak - Articles and Commentary

13.02.2014 eap summit

Photo: Giacomo Manca

Eastern Europe is a mysterious area. It appears from time to time on the radar of world politics only to disappear again. This phenomenon was already noted by the eminent Polish historian Oskar Halecki in the famous speech he delivered in Brussels in 1923, titled “A history of Eastern Europe, its division into epochs, its geographical location, and its fundamental problems”.

Today, the European Union’s external policy serves as an excellent example. In April 2002, the United Kingdom and Denmark proposed a “New Neighbours Initiative” created for the purposes of increasing integration with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. By March 2003, however, Eastern Europe had already melted into the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy, which also encompassed North Africa and a part of the Middle East. In May 2004, based on the EU perspective, the region of Eastern Europe was widened to include the states of the South Caucasus – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – but it still could not be regarded as an autonomous entity. It remains unknown what would have happened to the Polish-Swedish proposal of June 2008 (solely dedicated to Eastern Europe) had it not been for the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. Ultimately, the result of this conflict was that six Eastern European countries came under the umbrella of the Eastern Partnership programme.

Attention elsewhere

Just as one security issue led to the birth of the Eastern Partnership, others may lead to its burial. Since 2011, the EU has allocated a total of 600 million euros for programmes carried out in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Meanwhile, support for war-torn Syria alone has amounted to more than two billion euros. In view of the dramatic events taking place in the South (such as the war in Libya in 2011, the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear programme and the waves of migrants flooding into France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria), most European interest in what goes on beyond its eastern borders has dwindled to a large extent. Completing the picture is the general uncertainty over economic developments, which, since autumn 2008, have absorbed the attention of the majority of the Western powers. The economic crisis prompted most EU countries and the United States to look for savings, with the sphere of defence becoming the first victim. The crisis has also reduced the tendency of the West to pursue an active security policy in areas not considered a priority.

Eastern Europe has become an “unwanted child” for some Western countries, one they would prefer to forget about. From their perspective, the EaP will absorb not only attention and financial resources, but also capabilities that should be exploited in a region that actually feeds them, i.e. the South. In May 2011, it seemed that a marriage of the East and South was, if only for a short time, again under consideration by Brussels. The European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, published A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood. A Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, a paper designed to respond to the democratisation trends in the Arab countries. This amendment to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) involved the introduction of the “more for more” principle, which was to promote those states showing progress towards democratic reforms. The hidden expectation was that this would mostly affect the countries from the South. That, however, has not materialised.

To the contrary, despite all reservations, the East has demonstrated if not progress, then at least a lack of regression. At the same time, the South poses a growing challenge in terms of security. The situation in the Southern Neighbourhood is such that the region has become an area of an increased EU civil and military operational involvement within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy.

Tangible testaments to progress

Simultaneously, the East has modernised in order to meet the requirements of the principle of “more for more”. An examination of the most important events in the eastern part of Europe would reveal: democratic transfers of power in Georgia (the parliamentary elections in autumn 2012 and presidential elections in 2013); the election of a pluralist Parliament in October 2012 in Ukraine, where the opposition is an equal opponent for the ruling Party of Regions; the election of a president in Moldova in 2012 that led to the end of a political crisis that had lasted for several months and, when problems returned in early 2013, they were resolved by parliamentary compromise, rather than on the streets.

To some extent, the West could feel reassured by the almost quiescent state of unresolved conflicts in Eastern Europe. The most optimistic signals came from Transnistria. With the resumption of negotiations in the 5+2 format in late 2011 (“5 + 2” refers to the members of the negotiations: Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as members and the US and EU as observers – editor’s note), the EU engaged itself in supporting confidence: building measures and funding a number of projects designed to increase trust between the parties.

Although the negotiations did not lead to any major breakthroughs, they certainly were not a failure. In addition, the Meseberg initiative, a German-led project designed to engage Russia in the resolution of the Transnistrian situation, is still waiting for a better moment to be implemented. And while the conflict in Georgia is locked in a stalemate, with very few prospects for a solution, there were at least no new incidents between 2009 and 2013 threatening a resumption of full-scale military activity.

Solution, not the problem

Nevertheless, a positive perception of the region, even if somewhat exaggerated, is important. What place does it play in the European way of thinking about security in 2014? A partial answer has been given in Catherine Ashton’s report of October 15th 2013 in preparation for the European Council in December 2013 that was devoted to, among other matters, the development of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy. This document underlines that the security challenges in Europe stem from the South; the conflicts in Eastern Europe are only mentioned in passing. The East is implicitly treated more as a domain of development policy, while the natural area of CSDP activities concentrates on the South.

The partners from Eastern Europe are considered contributors to crisis management missions and operations. Therefore, they are offered assistance in security sector reform, a dialogue on security and participation in CSDP training and courses.

However, as already noted, the West’s willingness to consider security issues in Eastern Europe as second-tier is premature. There is one more important factor co-defining the situation in the region: Russia. Unfortunately, its role cannot always be described as constructive. A turning point in Russia’s policy towards Eastern Europe was undoubtedly the 2008 war with Georgia and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict confirmed that Russia has set its own “red lines” in Eastern Europe, and recognised the area as lying within its “zone of privileged interests” (a term used by President Dmitry Medvedev at the end of August 2008).

For a short time, it appeared that changes in Russia’s foreign policy, particularly towards the Eastern Partnership countries, would be brought about by the Arab Spring of 2011-2012. Being unable to prevent friendly regimes from collapsing and getting closer to being trapped in its costly and damaging role of a supplier to Syria, Russia was losing its momentum and international authority. Russian diplomacy recovered, however, and the spectre of failure was transformed into a success. The agreement negotiated in September 2013 in Geneva by the United States and Russia, staved off the prospect of international conflict in Syria and led to an increase in Russia’s prestige on the international stage. This has also demonstrated Russia’s ability to achieve its objectives – in this case, defence of an allied regime.

During the crisis in Syria, Eastern European countries also offered concrete solutions. They were unable, however, to do much to move their own agenda. The proposal by Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, in September 2013 recommending the participation of specialists from Ukraine in the liquidation of Syrian chemical weapons went largely unnoticed. Instead, Eastern Europe became a centre of international concern as it was reported that some of the most radical Islamist forces involved in Syria were recruited from Ukraine (Crimea), Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Holistic approach

The situation in Europe’s neighbourhood is an argument for the use of a comprehensive and holistic approach by the West, first and foremost by the EU and its member states. Neither a focus on security omitting elements of sustainable development nor the opposite policy, i.e. the promotion of democracy without paying proper attention to security, are the suitable approaches.

There is a region where the EU has recently applied a holistic approach with success: the Western Balkans. A part of the political mix in this case is the prospect of membership. In April 2013, with the support of EU diplomacy and Catherine Ashton herself, Serbia and Kosovo took the very first steps towards normalizing their bilateral relations. In June 2013, Serbia received a promise to start accession negotiations with the EU, while Kosovo was authorised to open talks on the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

An analogy between the situation in Eastern Europe and Cyprus is also tempting. This case, though still in its infancy, shows the benefits of the right combination of tools: security policy, modernisation, and, eventually, integration. In fact, there is no reason, apart from psychological ones, why the Eastern Partnership countries should still be deprived of the possibility, however distant, of a European perspective.

At any rate, Eastern Europe should be a place where the instruments of security policy and modernisation are combined. Giving assistance to the Eastern Partnership countries with the aim of creating the conditions for sustainable social-economic development is the best security policy for the EU and the countries of the region.

However, the development of this modernisation policy requires a special protective cushion that the security policy tools can provide. Those worth mentioning here would include: an in-depth dialogue in the sphere of security policy with the Eastern Partnership countries, both in a multilateral and bilateral format, depending on the level of ambition and the quality of cooperation offered by a given partner; maintaining the EUMM in Georgia and the EUBAM in Ukraine and Moldova; inclusion within EU crisis management planning of realistic scenarios for the development of the situation in Eastern Europe; involving Eastern European countries in EU crisis management missions; support for security sector reforms; and taking into account the Eastern European security agenda in discussions with external partners.

Finally, it should be emphasised that the Eastern Partnership constitutes an opportunity for the EU. Success in Eastern Europe will be much easier to achieve than in the South. This is important at a time when the EU wants to restore its external image, so tarnished by the economic crisis. Brussels wants to be seen as an effective mediator and negotiator, as well as an actor setting the international agenda. The outside magnetism and glamour of the EU can only be enhanced through effective and successful activity in its immediate surroundings. Eastern Europe offers such a prospect to the EU. Anyone who fails to see this is strategically blind.

This is an abridged version of a longer text with the same title that appears in the current issue of New Eastern Europe. To read more about the issue, please visit: https://neweasterneurope.eu/component/content/article/1014-issue/1039-unmasking-belarus

Dominik P. Jankowski and Paweł Świeżak are expert analysts with the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland.

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