The Eastern Partnership project in Ukraine and Belarus
For the past decade, both Ukraine and Belarus have been members of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Project (EaP). Has it been a useful tool for the EU in drawing these countries closer? Have its initial and long-term aims been fulfilled? Is it a project that is worth continuing?
The two countries have taken very different routes. When Ukraine’s formal entry took place in 2009, it was on the eve of an important presidential election, which resulted in the victory of a pro-Russian Donbas-based leader, Viktor Yanukovych. Despite his personal predilection for closer ties with Russia, Yanukovych at least paid lip service to supporting an Association Agreement with the EU, which was to have been signed in Vilnius in November 2013.
The path that Ukraine then followed was tortuous, volatile and destructive. Yanukovych withdrew from the agreement at a late stage and following a visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The EuroMaidan protests that ensued had as their initial goal a return to the European path and decisively move away from the Russian orbit and the multi-vectored foreign policy followed by its leaders to that point. But the consequences have been catastrophic: over 100 killed on the Maidan and a prolonged war in the east that has resulted in 13,000 more deaths.
In some respects, Ukraine has made reasonable progress. It has a democratic structure. Its presidents change frequently and a variety of parties have held sway in parliament. Under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, however, it has faced extremely adverse conditions: the loss of Crimea in 2014, and a conflict in Donbas where rebel regimes hold sway in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions including both major cities. It remains deeply corrupt and the president himself is widely distrusted, as he is largely associated with these problems.
Ukraine has embarked further on a “de-Russification” campaign that includes a complete severing of links with the Soviet period, destruction of Soviet symbols, name changes, and veneration of anti-Soviet heroes, all supported overtly by the government in power since 2014. Above all, the inclusion of Ukraine within the EaP alienated and incensed the Russian leadership. Russia’s more ambitious plans to occupy much of eastern and southern Ukraine or to establish puppet regimes was short-lived. Today, all the same, it is committed to ensuring that Ukraine does not join EU structures, and especially that it does not join NATO. Most of the events of 2015-18 cannot be attributed to EaP initiatives, but Ukraine’s problems have arisen in part because of an underestimation of Russia’s willingness to respond with force. Other EaP states, other than Georgia, have in various ways made some accommodation with Russia. Armenia and Belarus appear the most stable and yet are also the most pro-Russian of the six.
Belarus is an interesting study, in that for several years it engaged in debates that were sometimes contentious with the EU, particularly over its human rights record, the arrest and detention of political prisoners, its lack of a free press and its manipulation of parliamentary and presidential elections. Over the past two years, the human rights record has deteriorated, with the difference that violent mass arrests have been succeeded by heavy fines. At the same time, the Lukashenka regime – in power since 1994 – has moved close to the EU in a number of ways, thanks to several initiatives. Though one should not overestimate their importance, they do merit attention.
First, the initiation of a visa-free regime with 80 countries in 2017 has effectively opened Belarus to the West. The five-day visa-free regime was expanded recently to 30 days. Second, Lukashenka, partly through his Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei, has opened a dialogue with the West that has allowed Belarus to move closer to Europe without breaking its ties with Russia. Surprisingly, Belarus is the success story of the EaP, though the terms on which it has been achieved have all been in Lukashenka’s favour: it has conceded little, but hopes are high. Third, Belarus has attempted to play the role of mediator in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Since the winter of 2018-19, Russia has paid belated and serious attention to this development, condemning the opening of the western borders and demanding closer coordination within the Russia-Belarus Union using economic pressure to assert its will. Belarus for the present has lost its oil and gas subsidies and its economy faces a freefall through Russia’s new energy taxation laws. In one respect this move opens a way for the EaP to develop deeper relations, but it now faces much more resistance from Moscow.
Further, the EaP’s apparent neglect of demands placed on Belarus in return for economic support and integration has placed pro-western opposition groups in turmoil, solidifying the Lukashenka dictatorship and enabling it to act with impunity with regard to its internal foes. Moreover, the chances of long-term EaP success are minimal, since the population of Belarus is overwhelmingly supportive of Russia’s moves in Ukraine, as well as close relations between the two countries.
Whereas Ukraine has tried – I would argue with partial success – to cut all ties with Russia, Belarus cannot survive without Russian support. Most Belarusians favour an independent state but prefer closer links to Russia than to the EU. Russia has strengthened this support through an extensive social media propaganda, installing a plenipotentiary ambassador last August (Mikhail Babich) who is prepared to exceed his mandate on Putin’s behalf. Babich has made trips to Belarusian factories almost in the role of a Russian governor.
Thus in 2019 the EaP faces some stark choices. The EU of the present is also very different from that of 2009, with populist parties dominant in some countries and the lengthy saga of Brexit, weakening unity and rendering it less a model for states to the east. None of these factors should negate the worthiness of the EaP initiative but it will need to anticipate Russian responses to further moves, at least as long as the current leadership remains in Moscow.
David R. Marples is a distinguished university professor of Russian and East European History at the University of Alberta. He is the author of sixteen single-authored books, including Ukraine in Conflict (2017), Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (2014) and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (2008).