L’Invité D&B: The EU’s eastern neighborhood at a new crossroad – between electoral riddles and security crises

Healing the Eastern Neighborhood from anti-democratic shortcomings and insecurity must become a European priority, and to achieve this goal, the EU needs quick and preventive strategic thinking and planning.

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

It is an inadmissible void and a sign of weakness that, in just two months (August-September), the European institutions were caught unprepared in the face of two crises, whose configuration dates back to the 90s …

The spread of instability in the eastern neighborhood of the European Union (EU) imposes on it the responsibilities of a geopolitical firefighter, who, however, does not have adequate equipment or authority. The mission of crisis management is complicated by several conditions. On the one hand, crises tend to synchronize and therefore require the potential for a concomitant reaction. However, the destabilizing political situation in Belarus overlaps with the complete unfreezing of the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh. The genealogical features of these crises, on the other hand, drastically reduce the real ability of the European institutions to locate quick and feasible solutions.

For this reason, although the European presence has increased considerably in the Eastern Partnership region since the initiative started in 2009, the EU’s practical influence has remained limited. In only three countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – does Brussels’ voice have relevance and impact respectively. The same is imperceptible or non-existent in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, where the logic of action is not determined by agreements with the EU, but by the geopolitical local-regional dynamics and the intersection with the interests of other geographically or otherwise close actors.

The deterioration of the epidemiological situation in the EU and its eastern proximity further aggravates the capacity to prevent and reverse trends of political destabilization and hard insecurity. Inevitably, the health crisis dictates a minimum degree of cooperation between the EU and all Eastern European capitals, even if the derailing of the neighboring political regimes provokes (self-) isolation. The hand of the European institutions is visible concerning the associated states. Here, Europeanization is maintained along the waterline, due to the increased voluntary dependence between Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and the EU in the last half-decade.

Several circumstances determine the clumsy features of EU actions vis-à-vis the group of states where the Europeanization is constrained – by the protectionism of local autocracies or by the alternative offered by Eurasian integration. First of all, it is worth acknowledging that the EU applies the principle primus inter pares (“first among equals”) by prioritizing the Ukrainian case. This was not disputed by any other than Moscow. Also, bilateral agreements negotiated or even activated with the Eastern Partnership hybrid group of states – Armenia (bilateral “sub-association” agreement), Azerbaijan (renewal of the old partnership) and even Belarus (visa facilitation) – have a sterile basis to give sufficient authority to the European side. This shortcoming stems from the lack of economic or financial dependence on the EU. Finally, the EU is a disadvantaged player where neighboring states rely on autocratic geopolitical competitors in the region – Russia (Armenia, Belarus) or Turkey (Azerbaijan). Between them and the EU, the animosities have been only intensifying in the last years. Consequently, the states situated in the middle are choosing to align with those that are alike or that supply them security, without following the logic of peace promotion or the prescriptions of international law. At the same time, the more negative the relations with Russia are, the stronger the attachment to the EU turns out to be.

The controllable Association

Expectations of the EU’s potential to influence neighboring countries’ political agendas are often exaggerated. The ideal formula in which the European factor prevails contains the following ingredients: (1) an incisive bilateral agreement; (2) an asymmetry as varied as possible in terms of bilateral links, but also exposure to conditionality (IPN, September 2020); and, (3) a majority of local political actors with a pro-European geopolitical predisposition. The three coordinates separate the group of associated states (signatories of the Association Agreements) – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – from the other participants of the Eastern Partnership. Therefore, maintaining these parameters in order is essential to keep controllable and manageable, respectively, at least half of the EU’s Eastern neighborhood.

Any attempt to cancel the agreements with the EU may face popular resistance, as citizens want to hold their elites accountable and engage with the Europeans. It is even more complicated to solve the problem of EU dependence, especially if it is beneficial for diversifying sales markets, attracting investment and importing governance technologies. Something else is happening at the level of internal political fluctuations, which are impacted by many internal and external factors. The governing failures of political leaders emerged on the wave of pro-European rhetoric weaken the critical eye of citizens. The geopolitical profile of political parties is beginning to matter less than the combination of tangible reforms and non-involvement in acts of corruption. These circumstances will mark the local elections in Ukraine (October 25, 2020), the parliamentary elections in Georgia (October 31) and the presidential elections in Moldova (November 1). In conditions of unconsolidated democracy, the citizens of these countries still cannot penalize or reward political parties effectively, based on merits. Therefore, the external post-election legitimacy conferred by actors, such as the EU, will compensate for the shortcomings of the local democratic exercise. Exceptions are the cases where the pro-European opposition is in a losing position, and the violation of the rules of the game is too severe to be ignored.

Almost 1-2 months before the elections, European diplomacy showed a distinct interest in the elections in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova (See Table below). Apart from official visits to Brussels (Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia) or Kyiv (EU High Representative Josep Borrell), the subject of the elections was well targeted only concerning Moldova. Seemingly, the highlighting of the Moldovan elections is due to the geopolitical electoral dispute – between supporters of pro-EU and pro-EU multi-vector foreign policy (IPN, September 2020). There is a striking contrast between the attitude towards Moldova and the one concerning Ukrainian elections. The EU seems to be ignoring the importance of the Ukrainian elections. Following the electoral reform and decentralization, the local administrations acquire an imposing political and executive role in the implementation of the reforms at the local level. At the same time, there are signs that pro-Russian parties are expanding in terms of popularity (Opposition Platform “For Life” – 22% versus the ruling People’s Servant party – 30%). The significance of the Georgian elections stands out from the remarks made by Josep Borrell, rather than from any targeted statements of the European External Action Service. After conditioning constitutional reform to liberalize the electoral process, the EU does not express severe concerns about the electoral process in Georgia. In reality, the oligarchic influence behind the ruling party (Georgian Dream) has not diminished but only adjusted, and the polarized state of society vitalizes pro-Russian parties (Civil.ge, October 2020) and propels far-right movements (FreedomHouse, 2020).

Table. Statements and remarks by the exponents of the European diplomacy (1 August-4 October, 2020)

 UkraineGeorgiaMoldova
Statements of the European External Action Service    0    01 – targeted statements (30 Sept); 1 – non-targeted statement /human rights (23 Sept.);
Remarks of the High Representative Josep Borrell    01 – non-targeted remark (30 Sept.); targeted remark (14 Sept.);    0

Source: Author’s compilation based on EEAS’s information

The uncontrollable alternative

While it has enough leverage to influence the associated neighboring states, the EU cannot do much in the case of the hybrid trio. It took more than 50 days for European decision-makers to adopt individual sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. Lately, the nurturing of international pressure through political statements has become the EU’s most popular tool. Between August 9 and October 4, the EU issued 9 public statements, and the head of EU diplomacy published two articles on his blog condemning the post-election violence validated by Lukashenko (August 13) and promoting the democratic approach of the protest movement (September 22).

In the absence of a minimum conditionality mechanism, already applicable to the associated states, the EU has zero impact on the Belarusian authorities. Under Russian protectorate, Lukashenko’s regime relies on the fatigue of the protest movement and the acceptance of the existing status quo by the international community. None of these expectations is materializing yet. Therefore, Lukashenko has decided to limit the channels of interaction with the EU. Such self-isolation can affect civil society and the media. To compensate for possible economic losses, state-supervised Belarusian business moves towards more interconnectedness with the public and private sector of the Russian economy (interaction with Russian regions, participation in the Russian public procurement system). Even after nearly 60 days of protests, Brussels has not drawn up a “roadmap” to prevent Belarus from slipping into Russia’s arms. Today, the EU is known for post-factum actions, which are sometimes too late and therefore with an expired effect.

A similar situation of unpreparedness encounters the European officials in the case of the Armenian-Azerbaijani military confrontation around the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region, which exploded at the end of September (September 27). Although the EU’s reaction was immediate, it had a sterile effect, as the EU cannot really influence any party to the conflict. Armenia protects the separatist region (Nagorno-Karabakh), which Azerbaijan is determined to return it, along with other territories under Armenian control for more than two decades (17% of the nation’s internationally recognized territory). The former emphasizes the strategic alliance with Russia, and the latter has security guarantees from Turkey. By no means is the EU seen as a strategic partner by any of them, nor as a capable mediator to replace the Minsk Group platform (OSCE – USA, France and Russia).

Already overwhelmed by the political crisis in Belarus, the EU has repeatedly unveiled its inability to manage the setbacks in the eastern neighborhood in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The political elites in the Eastern Partnership hybrid group are connected to other centers of regional power from which they extract protection and economic benefits. Material dependence on the EU is also limited or, on the contrary, the European side may be listed as a vulnerable party of the equation (imports of Azerbaijani natural gas through the Southern Gas Corridor). Moreover, the EU is reluctant to sanction instruments, with a predilection for step-by-step measures and engaging in negotiations. But replacing unilateral sanctions would mean that the European institutions must embrace the region’s realpolitik. To try to change the positions of governments in neighboring (sub-) or (non-) Europeanized countries, the EU needs negotiations with Russia and Turkey, respectively, which it can open on the OSCE platform and EU-NATO one respectively. Other ways to de-stress the situation in Belarus and around Nagorno-Karabakh are unlikely. Otherwise, the EU can continue to imitate the attempt to positively influence the situation, leaving problems to be solved chaotically and according to the “jungle rule” of the mightiest takes all.

In lieu of conclusion…

The EU operates with two categories of countries in its eastern neighborhood – those it can influence and others that are affected by other regional actors. When contributing to geopolitical transformation seems impossible, the European side abounds in political statements, which highlight its limited capacity to act.

Healing the Eastern Neighborhood from anti-democratic shortcomings and insecurity must become a European priority, and to achieve this goal, the EU needs quick and preventive strategic thinking and planning. It is an inadmissible void and a sign of weakness that, in just two months (August-September), the European institutions were caught unprepared in the face of two crises, whose configuration dates back to the 90s.

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