Eight years have passed since the first statement of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was issued, in Prague in 2009. In the period, the EU was often criticized for lack of ambition in relation to those Eastern partners that aspire to join the EU. Simultaneously, the nucleus of the EaP – the countries that signed the Association Agreement – disappointed Brussels or placed it on alert.
Georgia was the first country that revealed the political class’ inability to definitively root out the authoritarian practices not long before the initialing of the Association Agreement. The failure of Saakashvili’s party in the legislative elections of 2012 and the impossibility of running again in the presidential elections (2013) forced Saakashvili to leave Georgian politics. The fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime and the “dignity revolution” against the corrupt political system (2013-2014) was a serious challenge for the EU and a major danger to the functionality of the Eastern Partnership where Ukraine has a major weight. Later, the banking frauds were disclosed in Moldova (2014) amid the dysfunctions at state institutions caused by political corruption and politicization of institutions. All these showed that the EU anticipates in an awkward way the developments in the nucleus of its Eastern neighborhood. The EU’s expectations of the other EaP countries have never been ambitious owing to the powerful presence of Russia there (Belarus, Armenia) or to the authoritarian regimes whose self-sufficiency is based on the export of hydrocarbons (Azerbaijan).
The criticism leveled by the EU as to the quality of the EaP is sometimes unjustified as the content of the Prague Statement that gave birth to the Partnership showed that this is to be “developed together” by the EU and the Eastern European states and in a “transparent” manner. It couldn’t be anticipated that things would advance so much and the liberalization of visas in Moldova (2014) and Georgia and Ukraine (2017) confirmed this. It also couldn’t have been anticipated that the oligarchic groups would consolidate their political control in the region, and not vice versa (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine), coordinating efforts in a move to ask for clear European integration perspectives.
After eight years, the Eastern Partnership in 2017 turned out to be somehow more mature. The romanticism of 2009 is fully absent, while the lessons of 2014 (war in Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea by Russia, large-scale banking frauds in Moldova) require the introduction of security dimensions both in terms of civil defense and of protection of the rule of law. Certainly, the wishes of the national governments and civil society of the EaP countries do not yet coincide with the EU’s possibilities, but particular rapprochement tendencies are visible. This thing materializes when the EU overcomes the own complexes and existential problems. It is less probable that the EU would offer more to its Eastern neighbors – the European perspective – as long as the major challenges are not dealt with, such as the Euroskeptical populism, apathy of European citizens, socioeconomic and military crises in the neighborhood and destabilizing interference of Russia.
Moldova and revealing of corruption
The Eastern Partnership, more exactly the Association Agreement with the EU that took effect in Moldova in July 2016, created a sufficiently resistant legal and political framework for accelerating the disclosure of cases of corruption. Gradually, it became clear that the country is governed by oligarchic groups that, bypassing the principle of separation of powers in the state, suspended a large part of the autonomy of institutions in taking decisions (prosecution service, anticorruption authority, etc.). Finally, the clashes between oligarchs ended with the monopolization of the political power by the Democrats of Vladimir Plahotniuc, who became the actual ruler of the country.
The EU is criticized for facilitating the remaining in power of the so-called pro-European forces that embezzled funds in amounts that hadn’t been known until 2009. In reality, the political forces in Moldova, with or without the EU, have always been suspected of lack of integrity and inclination towards corruption. Thus, the EU became a victim of circumstances and of the pro-European rhetoric of Chisinau, as civil society and the population did, being unable to prevent the political stratagems of the governments that ruled after 2009. However, the criticism and dissatisfaction with the late reaction of the EU encouraged the latter to review its attitude. Consequently, the dialogue with Chisinau was besieged with approaches in favor of introducing more sophisticated conditionality elements, including political ones. The promotion of conditionality by the EU is also due to the civil society’s role in the reform process, which is ensured by the Association Agreement.
So, during the eight years of presence in the Eastern Partnership, the Moldovan political class has grown older and has become more diversified. The extraparliamentary opposition became more powerful than the parliamentary one, while civil society more credible at home and in Brussels than the pro-European governments. Nevertheless, in 2017 Moldova faces risks and uncertainty related to the country’s course after 2018, Russia’s real influence on President Igor Dodon and the population’s capacity to mobilize to defend the European course if the pro-Russian forces take over.
Besides the domestic developments in the Eastern Partnership countries, major changes were also witnessed in the behavior of the Russian factor. After making harsh statements against the European integration, Russia felt sufficiently sure to annex Crimea and trigger military separatism in Donbas region (2014-2015).
Moreover, Moscow initiated commercial restrictions (2013) designed to penalize the pro-European aspirations of the ex-Soviet states – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. The commercial bans, together with the propaganda disseminated through media sources, contributed to increasing the popularity of the Eurasian Union in countries like Moldova. In the case of Ukraine, considerable efforts were made to secure the media space against the information incursions of Russia. The military conflict maintained by Russia in Ukraine started to make victims, including among the European citizens (crash of passenger plane MH17), which stimulated the rhetoric of sanctions against Russia.
The hybrid war waged by Russia in the Eastern European states and the EU is also a reaction to the fact that the European integration via the Eastern Partnership started to have effects, even if these are small and slow. The hubris character of the foreign campaigns launched by Russia involve the information war, support for the Euroskeptical populists, interference in election campaigns and other measures aimed at weakening unity within the EU.
For these reasons, the survival and strengthening of the Eastern Partnership should be seen by the EU as a major objective for preventing the extension of the hybrid war waged by Russia. A stable and viable Eastern neighborhood means, now more than ever in the recent history of the EU, a safe investment in the future of the European project.
Instead of conclusions...
The expectations of the EaP should always be realistic and should result from the EU’s possibilities to offer more or not. The conditionality connected to reforms and financing is the most powerful transformation instrument that the EU should strengthen at the summit in Brussels, in relation to the Eastern European countries.
Aft eight years, the initiative aimed at modernizing Eastern Europe became more important than its authors could imagine. That’s why the region’s failure in coming closer to the European state and society functioning model will be a powerful signal of weakness for Russia, in addition to the already existing non-Liberal and anti-EU insurgency – Hungary, Poland and the Brexit.
The consolidation of the Eastern Partnership is a safe way of Europeanizing Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia and also, to a lesser extent for now, Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan. In the near future, the EU cannot offer something better than this. Any investment in this Partnership will bring double benefits to the E. The EaP’s success depends on the quality, profoundness and irreversibility of reforms that should become a salvation for justice and democracy in the region and an enemy of corruption and oligarchic interests.