With three weeks to go to the Eastern Partnership Vilnius Summit, the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and the Carnegie Moscow Center co-organized a conference to share their views on EU-Russia relations and the common neighborhood. During the three sessions of the conference, panelists offered their insights on the Eastern Partnership, EU-Russia relations, and national objectives for Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus.
Eastern Partnership and Its Prospects
The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin and Piotr Kościński, head of Eastern and South Eastern Europe program at PISM, debated the prospects of the Eastern Partnership. PISM research director Jarosław Ćwiek-Karpowicz moderated.
- A New Opportunity for Neighbors: Kościński pointed out that the goal of the Eastern Partnership is to offer EU’s eastern neighbors the same opportunities that the members of the well-functioning and prosperous EU have in terms of cooperation and association, without the need for full membership. The Eastern Partnership should be understood as an initiative to bring stability, democracy, and wealth to the shared neighborhood, rather than an attempt to go against Russia, he added. Trenin pointed out that the Eastern Partnership could be equally seen as an attempt to hinder the absorption of the common neighborhood by Russia and to create a more “comfortable” and secure zone along the eastern border of the EU.
- Willingness to Integrate With the EU: Kościński commented that recent polls show a greater willingness among eastern partners to integrate with the EU. While Belarus has shown preference for closer integration with Russia, Ukraine seems eager to sign the EU association agreement, and Georgia and Moldova may follow. In the case of Ukraine, 53 percent of citizens want Ukraine to be a member of the EU, 47 percent are in favor of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), and only 34 percent of those polled would prefer to join the Customs Union.
- Prospects of the Eastern Partnership: Although they were positive about the Eastern Partnership and the benefits of the agreements for both sides, both Kościński and Trenin emphasized that the EU and its Eastern neighbors have a lot of work ahead. The Vilnius Summit is only the beginning of a new stage in EU-Russia and EU-Eastern partners relations.
- Russia’s Perception of the Partnership: Ćwiek-Karpowicz added that although Russia originally saw the Eastern Partnership as a neutral initiative, it is now viewed negatively.
- The Eastern Partnership’s Problems: Trenin outlined problems that still face the Eastern Partnership. The partnership came into existence during a period of crisis in the European economic and integration model, emerging in parallel with Russia’s first integration project and the enlargement of the Customs Union. Moreover, EU member states support the Eastern Partnership to varying degrees, which is why this initiative has to compete with other projects in the EU neighborhood.
Eurasian Union and Its Importance for Russia-EU Relations
The Eurasian Economic Union between Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan is scheduled to be established by 2015. Alexey Kuznetsov, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), and PISM research fellow Anna Maria Dyner discussed the significance of the Eurasian Union for EU-Russia relations. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Natalia Bubnova moderated.
- Ongoing EU-Russia Competition: Bubnova pointed out that the Eastern Partnership countries want to join the EU, while still reaping the benefits of cooperation with Russia. These countries will have to choose between the two, however, since the requirements of the European Union and the Eurasian Union seem contradictory. The underlying question, she added, is whether EU-Russia competition could actually bring about more cooperation.
- The Eurasian Union as a Political and Economic Project: According to Dyner, although the main argument behind the establishment of a Common Economic Space and eventually the Eurasian Economic Union was to establish close economic relations between Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, the Eurasian Union is inherently a political project. Kuznetsov disagreed, arguing that the development of regional economic integration is essentially about Russia’s efforts to expand its internal market and to strengthen its economic position globally.
- Advantages and Disadvantages of the Eurasian Union: Dyner outlined advantages and disadvantages of the Eurasian Union. On top of re-integration of the post-Soviet area, Dyner expressed optimism about future trade relations between the two unions, particularly because the basic principles and economic policies of the Common Economic Space were modeled on the EU rules. On the other hand, politically the establishment of the Eurasian Union could lead to social deterioration and a decrease in economic competitiveness for member states, and even a reduction of political independence for Belarus—the weakest of the three countries.
- Future Trajectory: Kuznetsov said that the EU would remain Russia’s key trading partner. The Eurasian Union would not be an alternative to the EU, especially given the weak integration of Belarus and Kazakhstan into the world economy. In the short run, with Russia’s entry into the WTO, a lot of work lies ahead around the deepening of Russia-EU cooperation. In the long run, there will either be an association between the EU and Eurasian Union, once Belarus and Kazakhstan enter the WTO and Russia adapts to its norms, or trade wars and EU expansion to Ukraine and Belarus.
National Objectives of and Prospects for Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus
Kirill Koktysh, associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Vladimir Bruter, expert at the International Institute for Humanities and Political Studies, and Viktor Mironenko, head of the Ukrainian Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Europe, offered their insights on national objectives for Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. PISM research fellow Anita Sobják moderated.
- Belarus: Koktysh argued that Ukraine’s decision to sign the Association Agreement with the EU would be to the advantage of Belarus. Both Russia and the EU are increasing their focus on Belarus and the country’s economy is likely to see significant growth. Koktysh considers the two systems to be complementary, rather than inherently antagonistic, and given the current politico-economic situation in Belarus, both the EU and the Eurasian Union seem attractive in terms of prospects offered. Belarus’ main interest lies in protecting its internal market and using the basic principles of the Eurasian Union to benefit not only trade but also production levels.
- Moldova: The internal situation in Moldova continues to be very volatile, Bruter stressed. The leaders of the ruling Alliance for European Integration are embroiled in internal disputes and there exists a disconnect between political authorities and society. The European integration vector thus appears to be having a stabilizing effect on the internal situation in Moldova. Bruter pointed to the inconsistency in Russia’s policies toward Moldova and suggested that the Customs Union would not be a better alternative to the EU.
- Ukraine: As Mironenko pointed out, whatever the outcome of the Vilnius Summit, Russia-Ukraine relations have already undergone irreversible changes. The Vilnius Summit represents a historical moment for Ukraine, as it will determine the orientation of the country’s foreign policy and have an impact on its domestic developments. At the same time, an aggravation of economic relations with Russia seems inevitable. Mironenko nevertheless expressed optimism: in spite of initial difficulties, transition to EU standards and technical regulations will foster economic modernization and political liberalization in Ukraine.
While some panelists accorded decisive importance to the Vilnius Summit, others focused on the work that lies ahead, beyond the Summit. Ultimately, Russia-EU relations are of a technical rather than strategic character nowadays. A parallel functioning of the EU and the Eurasian Union would lead to more debate about strategic vision of Europe and the Eurasian continent.