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How the EU could help re-energise peace processes in the Eastern Partnership

For years, unresolved territorial conflicts in the Eastern Partnership countries have been stuck in geopolitical limbo. While overcoming the security dilemma is crucial for post-Soviet states, they also face the competing interests of Russia and the European Union. This deadlocked situation calls for new peace strategies.

January 30, 2020 - Elkhan Nuriyev - Articles and Commentary

A Georgian villager is left behind the barbwire installed by the Russian troops along the South Ossetia-Georgia contact line. Photo: Jelger Groeneveld (cc) wikipedia.org

Almost three decades on from the fall of communism, the European Union’s Eastern neighborhood remains embroiled in protracted conflicts that have hampered regional integration, bred mistrust, and encouraged wasteful military spending. This is mainly because the leaders of the Eastern Partnership countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—lack flexible reconciliation strategies that may help build peace and foster political stability and economic prosperity.

Complex lingering conflicts have made the European Union’s eastern partners the objects of a damaging geopolitical tussle between Russia and the EU. While Moscow and Brussels have different visions of their roles in the shared neighborhood, the eastern neighbors continue to struggle to find their way between competing European and Russian narratives. To varying degrees, they are trying to seek an equilibrium between three major factors: internal stability, Russian influence, and European integration.

In recent years, there have been many initiatives aimed at peacefully resolving the conflicts in the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and the embattled Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, but there has been little success in finding lasting solutions. Each conflict is intractable and in a different phase. They range from small-scale military clashes to attempts to initiate basic confidence-building measures. However, the success of each peace process hinges on how prepared local and international actors are to craft viable strategies against current deadlocks.

Today the most difficult knot to untie is the security dilemma in the entire region. Against the background of the worsening conflict in Ukraine, the absence of any progress in this peace process has created diverse new challenges that presage a serious crisis in the European Union and Russia’s shared neighborhood.

Russia’s endless shadow

The security dynamics in the post-Soviet space are relevant because of the Eastern Partners’ relations with Russia. Moscow has enough leverage to alter the status quo and bring about peacekeeping initiatives, not because of its reputation, but because of its capabilities and reach. All six countries face complex political, economic, and social processes that inevitably affect the security of Russia itself. For this reason, Russia’s mediating role in the region is firmly rooted in common security interests.

Most incumbent leaders believe it will be difficult to find a way forward for a lasting agreement by ignoring Russian national interests. This puts Moscow in a position of power as the central arbiter of a future peace settlement, but it also reinforces Russian responsibility if something goes wrong. It is in Russia’s interest to re-energize the peace process, mitigate risks, and prevent a renewed outbreak of hostilities. Russia may further enhance its geopolitical clout in various, subtle ways so as to develop and execute problem-solving scenarios that would gratify not only Russia’s interests but also the entire post-Soviet neighborhood. The Kremlin seems to be waiting for a suitable time and favorable circumstances before putting Russia’s weight behind a solution to regional security issues in the region. It remains to be seen, however, whether Moscow can eventually turn obstacles into opportunities.

Shortcomings and weaknesses of EU policy

In turn, the European Union lacks a visionary and principled approach to resolving regional security issues. Brussels has practically no active role in conflict settlement and therefore lacks the necessary tools to intervene in the peace process, instead offering only confidence-building activities. These limitations have questioned the adequacy of the Eastern Partnership in times of geopolitical turmoil. The challenge faced by the European Union in advancing a more integrated and effective policy is not only external but also internal to the member states that still share relatively different views about the rationale, importance and ultimate goal of the Eastern Partnership. This situation strongly restricts the European Union’s influence in its eastern neighborhood and dramatically hinders Brussels’s capacity to formulate a meaningful policy to deal with simmering secessionist conflicts. In effect, the EU seems to have agreed to Russia’s leadership role, yet Brussels remains very worried about Russian hegemony extending to Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and beyond.

Although major European powers have considerable peacekeeping potential, they have little understanding of their eastern neighbors’ national interests. The European Union has therefore proved to be unprepared even for gathering information in this troubled region. The union should take a more proactive and coordinated approach in seeking viable solutions to regional conflicts in its immediate neighborhood, preferably in strategic cooperation with Russia.

Time for new innovative ideas

Significant progress on the political settlement of conflicts in the shared neighborhood seems unlikely in the near future. Peace building, however, is in the interests of Russia, the European Union, and the eastern neighbors because it promotes interdependence and has the potential to bring conflicting parties together to reach a breakthrough. Two major questions arise then: what can be done to prepare the ground for a phased resolution and what particular steps should be taken to re-energize peace process in the entire region. The most important, yet unexpected key to success in achieving tangible outcome is introducing concrete and practical solutions that may help stimulate people-to-people exchanges and so foster greater stability at the grass-root and community levels.

Novel ideas are required to overcome deadlocks in promoting mutual trust and understanding. The way ahead should be to find a model of interaction that will provide the Eastern Partners with development that is free from external pressure. Fresh conflict resolution mechanisms can stimulate a new security order in which Russia does not feel its interests threatened and others find a voice.

Perhaps the time is ripe for the European Union—probably through closer collaboration with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations—to launch a new regional security initiative focusing on conflict resolution in the Eastern neighborhood. The main goal would be to establish a new dedicated platform that could help alter the conflicting narratives in Ukraine, Moldova, and the South Caucasus to attain progress on negotiations and reconciliation.

This platform would consist of an ‘Eastern Table’ and an ‘Eastern Peacefare.’ The Eastern Table should have separate baskets on common regional economic projects, transnational security threats, and confidence- and security-building measures. The Eastern Peacefare should place a strong focus on special study courses and training programs for military officers, diplomats, journalists, scholars, and civil-society actors. This initiative could form a new Eastern Partnership tool that aims to increase understanding of conflict dynamics and promote informed dialogue, linking capacity building and cooperation with peace activities in an innovative way.

A shorter, abridged version of this article was originally published in ZOiS Spotlight.

Elkhan Nuriyev is a senior fellow with Alexander von Humboldt Foundation based in Berlin and a guest researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). He has just recently been selected as Fellow of the Leibniz ScienceCampus “Eastern Europe-Global Area” in Leipzig.

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