1. Challenges for Europe’s security: Instability and geopolitical tensions
“The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a joint policy initiative which aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the European Union (EU), its Member States and its six Eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.” (European Commission: Eastern Partnership, last updated 18.07.2019 (1)). According to the “Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit” of May 2009
“The main goal of the Eastern Partnership is to create the necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries. The significant strengthening of EU policy with regard to the partner countries will be brought about through the development of a specific Eastern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy. With this aim, the Eastern Partnership will seek to support political and socio-economic reforms of the partner countries, facilitating approximation towards the European Union. This serves the shared commitment to stability, security and prosperity of the European Union, the partner countries and indeed the entire European continent.” (Council of the European Union: Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit, Brussels 07.05.2009, p. 6 (4)).
This partnership is guided by the EU’s Global Strategy and the revised European Neighbourhood Policy that aim at the stabilization and resilience of the EU's Eastern neighbours. To reach this aim the EU has created four main priority areas of the Eastern Partnership: “Stronger Economy” referring to economic development and market opportunities, “Stronger Governance” to strengthen institutions and good governance, “Stronger Connectivity” referring to connectivity, energy efficiency, environment and climate change, and “Stronger Society” aiming at mobility and people-to-people contacts. The relations between the EU and its six Eastern Partners are guided by bilateral agreements, as Association Agreements, Association Agendas and the Partnership Priorities and the “EaP 20 Deliverables for 2020”. Cooperation then takes place both at bilateral and at regional level, depending on the nature of the action.
In 2004 the EU introduced the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and stepped up its marginal role to become a driver for reforms in post-Soviet countries. This meant a growing rivalry with Russia, although the EU prioritized low politics there, especially economic and social issues. But a problem of this ENP was that it failed to offer tangible rewards in return for these countries’ reforms. This changed in 2009 when the EU launched the EaP that offers, for example, an increased market access and easier mobility. Laure Delcour (Scientific Coordinator and Senior Research Fellow under a EU-funded project referring the security of the Caucasus) considers this policy as a “turning point in the EU’s approach to domestic change in the region, as it is a shift toward massive diffusion of the EU’s acquis combined with hard-law integration and sector-specific conditionality” (Delcour, Laure: The EU and Russia in Their ‘Contested Neighbourhood’. Multiple external influences, policy transfer and domestic change, Abingdon, New York 2018, p. 39), that is, an increasing emphasis on legal approximation with EU rules and standards.
For Russia the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have a high priority in foreign and security politics and it strives for a formation of a “good-neighbour belt”. But in the decade that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russians had no clear strategy for the region and its policy towards these states was fraught with contradictions as its engagement in regional conflicts shows. Thus, Russia supported the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh against the central authorities of Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan to get a powerful leverage over them. In the short-term this policy indeed yielded results, but in the long-term it ran against its own interests as these countries and Ukraine became more interested in closer links with the West. In the 2000s, against the background of eastward enlargements of NATO and EU, Russia started using energy, trade and security dependencies to support friendly countries and to pressure pro-Western ones like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova - however, with a limited impact, as this did not succeed in reversing their foreign policy orientation. In 2010 Russia launched the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) as a geopolitical instrument to counter the EU’s growing influence in Eastern Europe. In 2015 it was upgraded to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). But beyond the three founders Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan it failed to attract other members (except for Armenia) as they regard the EU as a much more attractive model. This didn’t even change through the pressure Russia exerted on post-Soviet countries, as in particular on Ukraine (Delcour, Laure: The EU and Russia in Their ‘Contested Neighbourhood’, 2018, pp. 62-82).
As for the current status of the relations between the EU and the EaP partners, there exist two groups of partner countries: one that comprises those countries who already have signed an Association Agreement with the EU, an agreement about the creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and one about visa liberalization, that is Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; and another group that has not signed such agreements, but only a visa facilitation and readmission agreement in 2014, that is Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus (General Secretariat of the Council: Eastern Partnership (3) (retrieved 23.11.2019)).
The EaP was launched in 2009 when the consequences of the global economic crisis had just begun to unfold. But now, ten years later one can say that the aim of a steady increase in prosperity, democracy and stability was not achieved. Thus, the EUISS analysts and Russia/ Eastern Europe experts Stanislav Secrieru and Sinikukka Saari stated in July 2019: “Economic growth has been uneven and its proceeds distributed unequally. Corruption has been exposed but often not punished. Oligarchic regimes and structures have demonstrated a high degree of resilience. Societies have mobilised and pushed for change, but elites have often been unable – or indeed unwilling – to deliver reform. And even when they have done so, the reforms have been patchy and carried out half‑heartedly. Russia has used military force and coercion to assert its supremacy over the region. Moscow’s pugnacious foreign policy posture has in turn exacerbated the turbulence and uncertainty. Despite the EU’s efforts to break the cycle of instability, geopolitical tensions persist and corruption and clientelism are still widespread.“ (Saari, Sinikukka and Stanislav Secrieru: Introduction. Doom or bloom for the Eastern Partnership?, in: Secrieru, Stanislav and Sinikukka Saari (ed.): The Eastern Partnership a Decade on. Looking back, thinking ahead, European Union Institute for Security Studies, Chaillot Paper 153, Paris, July 2019, pp. 5-6, p. 5 (2)).
But, so the authors, one consequence of the EaP was that the people in these Eastern European states now demand more reforms from their leaders. A second consequence was that the access to the EU market has offset some of the negative effects of the global financial crisis and the numerous trade restrictions that Russia enacted against most of these states. A third consequence of the partnership was that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine managed to fulfil the EU’s criteria and achieved Association Agreements in 2014 and that they meanwhile have achieved “substantial approximation” with EU regulations and standards. And even Russia-friendly Belarus and Armenia increasingly turn to the EU to reduce their overreliance on Russia and/or get support for domestic reforms.
In general, the region is affected by six trends shaping its present and the future trajectories. The first one is that Eastern Europe was previously solely dominated by Russia but that since the late 1990s, and above all since the 2010s, the presence and role of other players like the US, China, Turkey, Iran and some of the EU states slowly but steadily grew in the region. Moreover, “Russia’s pugnacious politics have not been able to rein in the growing independence of the EaP states nor to stifle rising polycentrism […]. In fact, Russia’s tougher approach has increased its neighbours’ demands for the EU to have a greater role in the region’s security. Russia’s assertive posture seems to have even strengthened and accelerated the trend” (Saari, Sinikukka and Stanislav Secrieru: Shifting Ground. How megatrends are shaping the eastern neighbourhood, in: Secrieru, Stanislav and Sinikukka Saari (ed.): The Eastern Partnership a Decade on, 2019, pp. 7-27, p. 10f.) with the EU getting involved in deploying missions and enforcing sanctions.
From this weakened power of Russia results the second region-wide trend: The growing regional security deficit. This has forced the EU to gradually increase its role in conflict management in the eastern neighbourhood although for a long time it was reluctant to get involved there because of its concern about how this might be perceived or interpreted by Russia. However, progress in conflict resolution in all of these cases has been meagre at best, and the EU’s presence tends to become permanent. Moreover, “[t]he regional security deficit is likely to continue to exist and to cause conflicts in future.” (Saari, Sinikukka and Stanislav Secrieru: Shifting Ground, p. 13).
Let’s finally have a look at the third trend, which is another important one in this context: the emergence of the “post-post-Soviet region”. That is, the region’s transition from a shared history, a shared culture, shared economic ties, or a shared set of challenges to more nationalized and different political, economic and cultural paths. Thus, for example, Belarus and Armenia are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and of the EAEU, while, at the same time, Georgia and Ukraine are seeking membership of NATO. Furthermore, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova became associated members of the Eastern Partnership and hope to join the EU. Belarus and Azerbaijan are not yet members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), whereas the other EaP states are.
2. The EaP countries
In the first years after the start of the EaP, Ukraine was not too enthusiastic about this form of cooperation with the EU as it “was perceived as having little added value for Kyiv since Ukraine already had the core bilateral elements of the EaP on the table”, like the Association Agreement and the visa dialogue. It was perceived as disappointing that the EaP did not offer the EU membership. But Ukraine’s relation with the EU improved significantly after the decision of its former president Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the Association Agreement in November 2013, what sparked the Euromaidan protests. And Russia’s aggressive policy accelerated the reform process and widened its scope. (Zarembo, Kateryna and Leonid Litra: Ukraine. New engines for the partnership, in: Secrieru, Stanislav and Sinikukka Saari (ed.): The Eastern Partnership a Decade on, pp. 28-41).
Thus, after a pro-European government in Kiev joined the EaP in May 2009 and the country became the front-runner of the initiative, in 2010 Russia friendly Yanukovych came to power and the Ukrainian relations with this country improved. But as Ukraine continued its negotiations with the EU on the signing of the Association Agreement, Russia started a trade war and, some months later, offered Kiev 15 billion US dollar immediate support and preferential gas tariffs. As a consequence, the Ukrainian president did not sign the Association Agreement in November 2013. On 1 December over half a million persons protested against the government’s decision and in February 2014 Yanukovych fled to Russia. Meanwhile, the Euromaidan protests brought to power a pro-Western government.
Fearing the loss of its strategic positions in the Black Sea, Russia now prepared the occupation of Crimea. On 26 February pro-Russian military forces without insignia started taking control of the peninsula while Russia denied any involvement in these events. On 16 March, after a decision of the Crimean parliament to join Russia earlier that month, the Crimean population was asked in a referendum if they too wanted Crimea to become part of Russia. According to Russian and Crimean official data the majority was in favour of that. After the Russian approval, Crimea was annexed. Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine, in Donbas, pro-Russian forces started demonstrations against the pro-European government in Kiev. Supported by Russian military men they occupied buildings of the administration there. In April 2014 the insurgents proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). Putin thought, meanwhile, publicly at the concept of Novorossiya that includes even more parts of Ukraine. In May 2014 started the Western sanctions on the annexation of Crimea. After the escalation of violence in Donbas, the DPR and the LPR signed a cease-fire agreement with Ukraine in September 2014, the Minsk Protocol, that included the decentralisation of power to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. But this agreement was violated some days later. Thus, in February 2015 the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany concluded a second Minsk cease-fire agreement that was also violated, but not to the same extent. (Rotaru, Vasile: Russia, the EU, and the Eastern Partnership. Building Bridges or Digging Trenches?, Stuttgart 2018, pp.136-151).
The Association Agreement with the EU was signed on 21 March (the political part) and 27 June 2014 (the economic part). The latter one includes the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) (Official Journal of the European Union: Association Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and Ukraine, of the other part, Brussels, 21.03.2014 (5); European Commission Directorate-General for Trade: Ukraine (6)). Since 2016, the year of the provisional application of the DCFTA, Ukraine’s volume of trade with the EU has grown and its exports have outgrown the pre-war years. But according to a report of the European Commission corruption and illegal migration are still a problem in Ukraine: “immediate actions are needed to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the anti-corruption benchmark. Immediate actions are also needed to address the irregular migration challenges.” (European Commission: Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. Second Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism, Brussels, 19.12.2018, p. 13 (7)).