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Czech presidency can revive the faltering Eastern Partnership

In mid-December, Brussels hosted a key summit of the Eastern Partnership. The Czech Republic has long placed great emphasis on this form of EU neighbourhood policy. However, reluctance on the part of some EU states suggests that the meeting’s outcomes may not live up to the country’s hopes.

December 27, 2021 - Pavel Havlicek - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Government of Latvia flickr.com

The Eastern Partnership aims to deepen cooperation between the European Union and the post-Soviet countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, the ongoing pandemic has recently sidelined this project within the EU. The Eastern Partnership summit has been postponed a total of three times. This is in spite of the fact that the existing plan for the initiative – the 20 deliverables for 2020 – expired at the end of last year. Following these postponements, member state leaders met in December under the leadership of the Slovenian presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The region of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus has itself, in the meantime, been faced with a series of crises and political upheavals. In addition to last year’s pro-democracy protests in Belarus, the region was also shaken by fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia has been struggling with internal problems, including, among other things, the arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili on his return to his homeland this October. In politically polarised Moldova, Maia Sandu became the first woman to hold the presidency following hotly contested elections. Traditionally, Ukraine has faced rather unique problems, as it is still heavily affected by military aggression from Putin’s Russia in the Donbas region. Kyiv is also struggling with the growing influence of oligarchs and domestic political tensions. 

The Eastern Partnership was officially established in 2009 during the Czech presidency of the EU Council and remains an important project for the country’s diplomacy. Nothing has changed in this respect in the four years since the initiative’s last regular summit. During this period, Czech foreign policy has fallen in line with a group of like-minded states particularly supportive of developing the EU’s Eastern policy. The Czech Republic played an active role in attempts to resolve the crisis in Belarus. For example, Prague supported an extraordinary summit of EU leaders and started to provide more assistance to Belarusians who had to flee the country. In the case of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Czech diplomacy called for a halt to the violence and offered to act as a mediator between the two sides. Beyond this, the country has tended to stick to the wider EU position on the issue. This approach was marked by an emphasis on humanitarian issues and addressing the immediate impact of the military conflict on local citizens. 

In addition, the Czech government joined a group of countries calling for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to Eastern Partnership countries, which were suffering from shortages in this regard. Despite this, the flow of vaccines from the multilateral COVAX programme has not proven very effective and has rather undermined Europe’s reputation compared to other global players in the region. Individual EU countries compensated for this issue by offering their own help, most often to their closest neighbours. The Czech Republic decided to send protective equipment effective in fighting COVID-19, as well as financial assistance. However, the country has not yet offered its own vaccines to the Eastern Partnership countries.

A new chance

The Czech Republic will hold its next EU Council presidency in the second half of 2022. This presents a good opportunity for Prague to promote some elements of the Eastern Partnership agenda at a higher level. These issues are particularly related to the social resilience of the participating post-Soviet republics. This includes the fight against disinformation and hybrid threats, or further foreign interference in domestic politics, especially on the part of Russia. Of course, helping with the economic recovery of these countries after the pandemic will also be important. It would also be desirable to involve these states in the green transformation. This can be accomplished through various investment projects and by sharing know-how from European practice.

At the level of the Visegrad Group, which alongside the Czech Republic consists of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, consideration is being given to the strengthening of security cooperation with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. These three states have all signed association agreements with the EU. The Visegrad Four referred to this issue in a joint statement on the future of the Eastern Partnership in April this year. In addition, the document also promotes the basic principles of this partnership and expresses solidarity with those countries that are facing challenges to their sovereignty and territorial integrity from the Russian Federation. Moscow continues to de facto occupy parts of these three states’ territories. 

The Eastern Partnership countries face a number of challenges on the path to European integration. Among other things, they need to complete their social transformations and carry out much-needed reforms. Due to this, it will be important for the Czech Republic to double down on this Eastern policy format within the EU, especially when it is questioned by those member states that have other priorities. 

December’s Eastern Partnership Summit needs to agree on a sufficiently ambitious agenda that can be addressed in the new year. The “Joint Staff Working Document”, a background document outlining the EU’s priorities in the region after 2020, has outlined some possible agenda items. After the summit, it will be necessary to put what has been agreed into practice. Czech diplomacy subsequently has an opportunity to make some concrete commitments based on the EU’s long-term Eastern policy priorities. These include, for example, strengthening investment in the reform of public administrations in individual countries. Another important issue is digitisation, on which the Czech Republic has traditionally cooperated with Estonia.

It is clear that the various crises in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus will not simply disappear. In addition, Belarus, which has become more dependent on Moscow following last year’s rigged elections and subsequent mass protests, has officially declared its suspension from the Eastern Partnership. This naturally further restrains EU policy in the region.

How to restore your credibility

Given this context, EU and Czech diplomacy should focus primarily on the three countries that have signed association agreements with the EU. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova clearly want closer cooperation with the EU27 and ultimately hope to formalise this growing alliance. Prague should continue to emphasise the western orientation of Ukraine and Georgia within both the EU and NATO. A great opportunity has appeared given recent developments in Moldova, where pro-reform and western-minded elites have become an influential force. This was made clear in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections. In any case, contact with civil society in all six countries remains in the Czech Republic’s long-term interest. This is true even if this means only cooperation with opposition circles, as is the case in Belarus.

Czech foreign policy should use all available means to ensure that the Eastern Partnership receives not only sufficient financial resources but also greater flexibility regarding the involvement of individual actors. Specifically, this means that the three countries with signed association agreements should be able to establish closer contacts more easily with the EU. At the same time, the Czech Republic must not retreat from the basic objectives of the Eastern Partnership even after twelve years. These long-term priorities include tackling corruption, promoting the rule of law, consolidating democratic processes, defending human rights, and supporting the non-profit sector and independent media.

This will be particularly important in the case of the EU’s future stance towards Belarus. The Czech Republic should look for creative ways to involve the country and its citizens in the Eastern Partnership, while minimising contacts with the dictatorial regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Minsk is eliminating all forms of protest and is increasingly subordinating itself to the interests of Moscow. We can see this in the case of the current migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, which is largely the result of Lukashenka’s own personal provocations. The situation surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will continue to require a clear stance. This is especially true given international interest in the conflict, with the dispute also involving Russia, Turkey and other actors. A new opportunity for Czech diplomacy is also presented by the Crimea Platform, initiated last year by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This project aims to promote the return of occupied Crimea to Ukraine. Within the framework of this international cooperation, the Czech Republic can restore its credibility as a supporter of an independent Ukraine and build on its reputation as a state that defends human rights and democracy around the world.

Pavel Havlicek is a Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs’ Research Centre. His research focus is on Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia, and the Eastern Partnership. He also deals with questions of strategic communication and disinformation as well as democratisation and civil society support.

This article is supported by the Czech-Polish Forum of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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