|Author: Sebastian Schäffer|
RUSSIA’S POLICY IN THE NEAR ABROAD – COMPETITION OR COOPERATION WITH THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP?
When the European Union launched its Eastern Partnership (EaP) at a summit in Prague in May 2009, the reaction from Moscow was rather harsh. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov used terms like “sphere of influence” and “blackmailing”, that have normally been used by Western politicians when speaking about the Kremlins intentions in the common neighbourhood. According to some Russian experts, the EU was even trying to establish a protectorate on the target countries of the EaP, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine . Once again, as after the five days war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 and the gas crisis between Moscow and Kiev in January 2009, the EU-Russia relations were put to a test and rhetoric from the times of the Cold War found its way back into the discourse. Since then nothing substantially has changed in these problematic areas, nevertheless – despite the lack of development – the tone between Moscow and Brussels concerning the EaP softened. This is to a certain extent surprising since due to the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2011 and March 2012 a much more aggressive foreign policy especially concerning the common neighbourhood would have been expected. But this doesn’t mean that the Russian Federation has accepted the EU’s ambitions with the Eastern Partnership in the near abroad, as the countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are often referred to by Russians. The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is well aware that for a modernisation of his country, he needs the European Union and since it still has not been officially decided if he will run for a second term, the Kremlin has been less opposing towards the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), of which the EaP now functions as the Eastern dimension. The more important reasons, however, are the developments within the European Union and the mass protest that have been toppling regimes in its Southern neighbourhood. The so-called Arab spring and the struggle to stabilise the Eurozone have pushed the Eastern Partnership down on the current Brussels agenda. Therefore the Moscow didn’t have to be too concerned about the development of the EU’s policies in the common neighbourhood. With the current Polish presidency – Warsaw was one of the initial supporters of the EaP – the attitude of the Russian Federation might change again in the future.
The Eastern Partnership and the Russian Federation
While the Kremlin views politics in the near abroad as a zero-sum game, and therefore any initiative from other players in the region automatically has to lead to a negative outcome for Moscow, the Eastern Partnership is first of all a continuation of the already existing European Neighbourhood Policy. The Russian Federation is by its own will not part of it and therefore also not a target country of the EaP. However, the EU’s focus on the common neighbourhood after the enlargement of 2004/2007 directly challenges the Kremlins foreign policy in that area. Furthermore the EaP includes Belarus, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the past decade, which was so far excluded from the ENP due to the autocratic Lukashenka regime.
Within the framework of the EaP, new association agreements are being negotiated, through which the EU offers deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (DCFTA). Furthermore Brussels aims to improve the administrative capacity by assisting the target countries in order to enhance the fight against corruption, organized crime and illegal migration. An important part of the programme deals with closer cooperation in the field of energy to ultimately enhance energy security between the EU and the countries covered by the EaP. As one of the strongest incentives for the participating countries, visa-free travel is foreseen as a long-term goal.
The Eastern Partnership has two dimensions. The first dimension aims to replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements, that the EU signed on a bilateral level in the 1990s with all EaP-countries except for Belarus, with Association Agreements. Negotiations with with Moldova started in the beginning of 2010 and on May 10 of the same year the General Affairs Council of the European Union adopted negotiation directives for the future Association Agreements with the countries of the South Caucasus. Negotiations with Ukraine have been going on since 2007 and were expected to conclude by the end of 2011, however the recent trails against members of the previous government, including the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, might affect the ratification process in the member states of the EU. So far Belarus is still excluded from this bilateral dimension due to their lack of progress on the issues of human rights and democratisation. Nonetheless, cooperation within the multilateral dimension is, to a certain extent, foreseen. Within this multilateral framework the four thematic platforms have been established: 1. Democracy, good governance & stability, 2. Economic integration and convergence with EU policies, 3. Energy security and 4. Contacts between people.
Another important aspect of the EaP is the formation of a Civil Society Forum (CSF). During the first meetings the format has demonstrated to have considerable potential in order to promote democratic and market oriented reforms based on shared values, i.e. respect for democracy and human rights, the rule of law, good governance, principles of market economy and sustainable development as conceptualized by the EU.
The EU and the Russian Federation – competing in the common neighbourhood
While cooperation in the multilateral dimension with Russia is not ruled out and in certain areas also encouraged, the Eastern Partnership means in many respects competition for Moscow. Especially the CSF and the possible resulting development of the civil society in the target countries directly challenges the Kremlin. The Russian Federation has been able to have much better relations with countries in its neighbourhood that have autocratic regimes than with countries that are in democratic transition, as the cases Belarus and Georgia show. A strengthened civil society might bring change to the Lukashenka regime similar to the revolutions in Georgia or Ukraine with potential spill-over effects to the Russian Federation.
But also the energy component of the initiative is very sensitive to the Moscow. Being able to set gas prices through the government-controlled company Gazprom has been a major source of influence in countries like Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin has also been using its role as the biggest gas exporter to the EU to sign bilateral contracts with member states as in the case of the North Stream pipeline project with Germany. With the Lisbon treaty Brussels now has the competences allowing the Union to establish measures relating to energy policy, which is a major step towards a common energy policy of the EU. With helping the target countries of the EaP to modernise their energy structures and become less dependent on Russian gas deliveries by establishing alternative energy transport routes, the Russian Federation could loose a major leverage for policy making in the area.
Finally, the bilateral dimension of the EaP with the deep and comprehensive free trade agreements could be an obstacle for a further economic integration of the area with Russia. An enlargement of the customs union between the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakhstan is only possible if the countries of the Eastern Partnership decide against the DCFTA offered by the EU. This puts especially pressure on Ukraine to choose for one option, although it seems unlikely that Kiev is willing to stop the integration process with Brussels.
For this reasons the overall Russian position towards the EaP remains sceptic, however a lot less aggressive in rhetoric over the last two and a half years. This is mainly due to the fact that the European Union wasn’t able to deliver a coherent approach towards the Eastern neighbourhood. While some Russian experts still fear that the EaP is part of an imperialist expansion from the EU, recent developments contributed less to undermine the Russian role in the region. Despite good efforts, the EU has still not been able to deliver a clear commitment towards the Eastern neighbourhood. The overall enlargement fatigue in the European Union makes a perspective for membership for the target countries unlikely in the near and even mid-term future and therefore is unable to use its most powerful foreign policy tool. Due to the lack of substantial funding from the EU (600 million Euro for the period 2011-2013), only specific projects will be able to be implemented. A problem that could be again be solved by a membership perspective, since the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance offers more financial aid. Other reasons are the still not finished implementation process of the Lisbon treaty. The rather unknown Cathrine Ashton in the position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has been busy establishing the European External Action service, rather than trying to develop a common EU foreign policy. Brussels attention and especially the attention from the EU member states towards the Eastern neighbourhood have constantly been decreasing. The Euro-crisis and the Arab spring have shifted the attention towards the South and to internal affairs.
Consequently the Kremlin came to the conclusion that currently no major threats to its position in the near abroad from the EU can be expected, while non-cooperation could further undermine the Russian influence in that area. Lately Moscow even has carefully signalled interest for more involvement within the EaP. The Polish initiative to form a group of friends of the Eastern Partnership, which is now the Information and Coordination Group, was positively picked up by the Kremlin and a participation in that group together with Turkey, the United States and Japan seems possible.
The future of EU-Russia relations in the context of the Eastern Partnership
While the overall opinion of the Kremlin towards the EaP has not substantially changed, the current global political and especially economic developments make Russia less opponent towards this initiative. Moscow understands that it also benefits from development in their near abroad, especially interesting here is the area of visa liberalisation. Improving energy security is also in the best interest of the Russian Federation since it needs the Western European states as much as a consumer than the EU needs Moscow as a deliverer. However, the Kremlin will never accept a Brussels dominated role in the energy sector of the EaP countries. Russia is well aware of the potential loss of influence in the region through alternative energy routes. The recent talks of the EU with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan about a gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe were equally commented by the Russian foreign ministry as the launch of the EaP.
If the Polish presidency can provide a new impetus for the Eastern Partnership and foster closer relationship with the target countries despite the current focus on internal developments of the EU and the revolutions in Northern Africa, the Russian aggressive rhetoric could easily return. The second Eastern Partnership summit will take place in Warsaw from 29-30 September 2011 and it remains to be seen if the EU is willing and able to further engage itself in the Eastern neighbourhood. While the outcome of the presidential election in March 2012 in Russia will have no real impact on Moscow’s stance towards the EaP, there seems to be a slightly better position for the EU if Medvedev is re-elected. In order to be successful in his goal of modernising the country and in order to emancipate himself at least a bit from Putin, he needs the support from Brussels. However since this is beyond any influence from the EU, the member states should be prepared for either scenario. A clear commitment to the Eastern neighbourhood despite all internal and external developments – be it in Russia or the Arab world or the Eurozone – from Brussels is necessary. Furthermore a common approach needs to be pursued, to avoid Moscow being able to play the member states off against each other for instance in the field of energy security. Moreover a convincing argument of the mutual benefits from the Eastern Partnership for the common neighbourhood can only be achieved, if all member states back the decisions of the European Union. This will in turn then lead to a more conflicting relationship with the Russian Federation, but a united European Union might even be able to convince Russia.