Can the Eastern Partnership bridge the divide?
For the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, or EaP, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union meant that independence was as much an urgent crisis as it was an overnight opportunity. Burdened by the seven decades of Soviet rule, the challenges of independence proved daunting as each of these states was unprepared for statehood and under-equipped for democratic governance. Although the starting point of independent statehood was roughly equivalent, their shared Soviet legacy was quickly replaced by a diverging trajectory with a pronounced variance in their political, economic and security reforms. Of these six states, four were constrained by a conflict from the very start, as Armenia and Azerbaijan were consumed by Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia was collapsing under the weight of a civil war and separatism, while Moldova was confronting the Transnistrian conflict. For the other two states, despite the absence of outright conflict in the early period of statehood, both Belarus and Ukraine were constrained by corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
For many in the West, the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an unexpected and sudden scenario. After decades of rivalry and tension throughout the Cold War, despite some obvious structural failings and internal faults, the implosion of the Soviet system was neither predictable nor necessarily pre-determined. Yet, beyond the surprise in the West, the impact on the republics of the Soviet Union was far more significant and immediate. Unlike the Central and Eastern and European states within the Soviet orbit, where the Soviet collapse offered more of an opportunity than a risk, for the former Soviet republics this was an equally unprecedented and unexpected crisis.
The urgency of the challenge for these states was driven by three main factors. First, the legacy of seven decades under Soviet rule left no preparation or even experience with pluralistic political governance or market-based economic management. This also meant that there was an absence of traditions and institutions essential for state-building. This was especially challenging for the states of Central Asia, given their absence of any native institutional foundation for state-building.
Within this context there were exceptions, however. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, were endowed with a more recent record of independent statehood which was proudly maintained despite their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. And in the South Caucasus as well, both Armenia and Georgia preserved their own national identity beyond, and even at times in conflict with, their Sovietisation.
A second driver of urgency stemmed from the acceleration of the conflicts that erupted in the waning period of the central Soviet system weakening. With the abrupt fragmentation of the Soviet military and security apparatus into the new national and state-centric units, there was no effective response to the threats to stability posed by these escalating conflicts. This new threat environment was complex, as in the South Caucasus it ranged from outright warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh, pitting Armenia against Azerbaijan, to the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia amid a quickly unfolding internal civil war in Georgia. This was also matched by the deepening of an insurgency and a low-intensity conflict against Russia in the volatile North Caucasus republics, while in Moldova the eruption of the Transnistrian conflict added to the wider scale of instability.
A third factor exacerbating the inherent vulnerability and daunting challenge to the independence was rooted in the rapid emergence of corruption and authoritarian regimes as real barriers to further development. These related obstacles, which quickly consolidated to resist real reforms, were especially significant in the cases of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, as evident to this day.
Against that backdrop, each of these countries adopted different policy responses and sought to adapt to the onset of challenges. Despite their shared Soviet legacy, however, each state quickly pursued diverging trajectories in terms of both economic and political reforms and strategic orientation. For the Eastern Partnership, as the one entity that binds these six states, the outlook has improved. Since the signing of the Association Agreements with the EU, Georgia and Moldova moved on to the implementation stage, while Ukraine sought to bolster its own implementation course through a more concerted effort to tackle corruption despite demands of an ongoing assault in the east from the Russian-backed forces.
With the promise of visa liberalisation extended to each of these countries, the EU delivered an important reward for reform. Although this tended to widen the divide between the “top tier” members, comprising Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and the “second class” group, composed of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, it did demonstrate a new sense of optimism and interest towards the EU in general and regarding the Eastern Partnership more specifically.
Moreover, the real progress for the Eastern Partnership program was driven less by that top tier of three countries, but rather stemmed from a new context of an opportunity for deeper engagement from the second class members. The clearest affirmation of this improved outlook, surprisingly, came from Armenia, which despite sacrificing its earlier Association Agreement with the EU back in 2013, was able to negotiate and “initiate” a new strategic partnership agreement with Brussels. And in part because of a reflection of the “peer pressure” and rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this move only encouraged the Azerbaijani government to abruptly return to talks with the EU, displaying a renewed interest in reaching its own “strategic partnership” with Brussels.
That new Armenia–EU agreement, formally known as the “EU–Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement” was initialled in March 2017, and was hailed by both sides as an “important step to broaden the scope of the bilateral relations”. More specifically, this “second chance” for both sides to repair and restore their relations also includes a framework to “strengthen the political dialogue and set a solid basis for the continuation of the economic and social reforms” with the “strong commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”, as well as forging a “stronger cooperation in sectors, such as energy, transport and the environment, for the new opportunities in trade and investments, and for the increased mobility for the benefit of the citizens”.
This Armenian return to Europe was also more than simply a renewed commitment. Rather it was also rooted in a clear cost-benefit analysis, whereby, in the face of the marginal economic gains and mounting costs, Armenia was increasingly aware of the “opportunity costs” of both joining the Eurasian Economic Union and being dangerously over-dependent on Russia. The new trend, therefore, is one of worry and wariness, providing the limits of its alignment with Russia and seizing a second chance to forge a relationship with the EU. This is bolstered by two factors: a new challenge to the asymmetry of the Armenian-Russian relationship, and a need for a greater external legitimacy, driven by the weakness of the Armenian government’s domestic position as a political transition begins.
The success on the EU side was also due to a more flexible set of the alternative measures to engage Armenia, evident in the policy of the “differentiation” and based on a more realistic recognition of the limits and liabilities of Armenia as a partner. And although Russian pressure on Armenia was apparently overwhelming back in 2013, in reality Moscow’s goal at that time was more to compel Armenia to “say no” to the EU than to “say yes” to the Customs Union. And now the victory stands out as a success in salvaging and redefining a relationship between the EU and Armenia, one that only enhances Armenia’s position within the Eastern Partnership.
But in terms of Armenia’s surprise second chance at reaching a new partnership agreement with the EU, there is also an important lesson from the 2013 Armenian decision to reject its Association Agreement and to turn instead to the Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. That lesson, most significantly for the other Eastern Partnership states, reveals more about Moscow than Yerevan. For example, it is now clear that the “U-turn” or sudden shift in the policy actually occurred in Moscow before Yerevan.
The absence of the Russian pressure on Armenia through the nearly four years of the negotiations over the Association Agreement suggests two conclusions. First, for the past several years, Moscow clearly failed to see the EU engagement as a real threat. Such a view may have been rooted in Moscow’s perception of the EU as neither a significant geopolitical actor, nor as a serious rival. Second, the rather last-minute shift Russia’s policy, as demonstrated by the imposition of coercive measures on the other states such as Moldova and Ukraine, viewed Armenia as more of a “sacrificial pawn”, designed to send a more important message of strength to deter any similar European aspirations by Chisinau and Kyiv.
On a broader level, therefore, this shift in Russia’s policy towards EU engagement stems from a much larger and more assertive Russian stance, driven by an attempt to consolidate Russian power and position within the former Soviet space and to deter Western “interlopers” in what Moscow views as its natural “sphere of influence” or the “near abroad” referred to as blizhneye zarubezhye (ближнее зарубежье), which was elevated and expanded into a wider “post-Soviet space”. Moreover, this trend of a boldly assertive Russia only deepened in recent years, and now is evident in the larger context of Moscow’s more aggressive and confrontational policies towards the West.
Another demonstration of this trend was Russia’s heavy-handed use of coercive measures targeting some of its neighbours. Yet, the utility of such a combative and assertive posture for Russian President Vladimir Putin, both politically and personally, is also important. As seen in Putin’s own personal imagery as a firm and decisive leader, the projection of a strong Russia endows a degree of power-based legitimacy for Putin too, a significant asset given his own decline in personal popularity. In this context, Putin exercised a much more combative and assertive “power posture”, allowing him to display strong leadership as defender of Russian interests.
Clearly, Ukraine remains the primary theatre of operations for Russia’s strategy of retrenchment within its “near abroad”, or the former Soviet space. As Russia seeks to define and defend its own sphere of influence among the former Soviet states, EU engagement is now seen as an unacceptable challenge, equivalent to the perception of NATO expansion as a direct threat to Russian interests.
Within this context, Russian policy consists of three primary objectives: 1) to undermine the implementation of the EU’s Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; 2) to divide and destabilise the EaP by weakening the top-tier states (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), and restraining the remaining states (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus); and 3) to consolidate Russian power and influence throughout its “near abroad” by leveraging a combination of hard power, or “hybrid war” in Ukraine, and soft power targeting the internal vulnerability of the other EaP member states.
One key component of this more assertive Russian policy of consolidating its “sphere of influence” in the near abroad is the launch of a revamped “Eurasian Union” project with broader reintegration of the former Soviet space. Against a backdrop of Russian power and coercion, the Eurasian Union concept represents an attempt to integrate the states within the near abroad. The move is a natural expansion of the existing Russian-led projects of reintegration based on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but with further building on both the Russian-dominated Customs Union.
Yet in many ways, the concept of the Eurasian Union is both incoherent and undefined, marked more by its lack of practical benefits and absence of any substance. Even the potential economic incentive for the states to enter the Eurasian Union is fairly weak, with membership offering meagre and marginal economic benefits while gains would mostly accrue to Russia.
While the Russian attempts to institutionalise the “reintegration” of the near abroad is not new, the timing suggests a belated Russian response to the recent trend of greater EU engagement along Russia’s periphery and a reaction to the Eastern Partnership. But the viability of the Eurasian Economic Union project was undermined by two developments, the obvious Russian loss of Ukraine and a rather unexpected resistance to Russian dominance by Belarus and Kazakhstan, each of them strongly defended their own economic interests and political independence within the Eurasian Economic Union.
Imperative to “bridge the divide”
Thus, for each of the Eastern Partnership states, the current course of deepening ties to the EU will depend as much on their own capacity for reform as on their capability to defend their own national interests and withstand Russian pressure. Thus far, the most instructive effort to accomplish these objectives and to effectively “bridge the divide” has been to forge co-operation and foster collaboration between the civil society and reformers within each of the Eastern Partnership states.
This text is thanks to a partnership with the Kyiv-based “Ukrainian Prism” Foreign Policy Council in the framework of the EaP Think Tank Bridge project.
Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center based in Armenia.