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The Riga Eastern Partnership summit is a hapless event whose only point is to divide the post-Communist Europe into Russia and “not-Russia.” On the other hand, what could be more timely than that? That’s exactly what many Eastern partners want. They’d like to split away and fence themselves off from Russia, and can cite every reason and excuse for doing so—from Abkhazia, recognized by Russia and Nauru alone, to the recently-abandoned project of Novorossiya. But as it turns out, even the weightiest of arguments—those in the 45 to 60mm caliber range—aren’t enough for these very different countries to create a genuinely united front. European diplomats have told journalists about all the difficulties they had getting even the most general documents signed at these summits: Belarus and Armenia refused to sign a joint statement that would contain the words “annexation of Crimea,” leaving it to the linguists to find a synonymous phrase. Azerbaijan didn’t show up at all: why, with all the oil riches it has, run around trying to join some partnership when its successful neighbor Turkey doesn’t even want to join the EU anymore. All of this somewhat resembles the fate of GUAM, an organization of the former Soviet republics founded with much fanfare in 2005, but which last assembled in 2008.
The last Eastern Partnership summit took place in Vilnius a year and a half ago, in November 2013. That was where Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was supposed to have signed the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, but he changed his mind at the last minute. Everyone knows what happened next. Maybe that event will always be the organization's fifteen minutes of fame, the largest role in history it will ever play. It comes as no surprise then that assembling the next summit took some time.
It’s hard to find commonalities between Azerbaijan and Moldova or Ukraine and Armenia, other than that they are former Soviet republics west of the Urals. In this sense, the partnership looks like the CIS, but turned inside out— like a house where the chandeliers, sofas and family portraits decorate the outer walls rather than being hidden inside. These are the kinds of things you see after natural disasters—and so it’s no wonder we are witnessing something similar after a geopolitical catastrophe, to borrow Vladimir Putin's term.
The difference between the CIS and every other association between members of the former Soviet republics is very simple. In the CIS they are connected by Russia, just as they were connected for decades and centuries: bureaucratically, financially, logistically. Then the links grew weaker, and the CIS turned into an institution for a civilized divorce.
This didn’t happen to the Eastern Partnership because it is an institution of marriage, but not between its own members—Ukrainians give very little thought about how to start a family with Azerbaijan—but with Europe. And of course it's because of this that it doesn’t work. It’s marital limbo, a hellish circle for decent girls who are promised a proposal but never given one.
And so the former Soviet republics are perfectly justified in their fear that the partnership is just a ploy to keep them away from Europe.
This insightful thought was expressed by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, who voiced his concerns before the first Eastern Partnership summit in Prague in May 2009: “Ukraine doesn’t believe that dialogue within the framework of the Eastern Partnership is an alternative to our expectations of integration. We don’t want to want discussion of our EU membership to be substituted by other formats that don’t foresee Ukraine’s membership in the EU.” Petro Poroshenko repeated exactly the same thing on the eve of the current summit.
But that’s exactly how western Europeans view this dialogue. Where did the Eastern Partnership come from in the first place? It was part of the European Neighborhood Policy, which brings together countries not slated for EU membership. As all documents indicate, the program is geared toward creating cooperation between the EU and third parties. And as everybody knows, three’s a crowd. During the EU’s major enlargement in 2003-2004, when the number of members increased from 17 to 25 and the union’s borders shifted, the question of what to do with new members arose. Then, officials in Brussels came up with what was first called New Neighborhood (2002), then Wider Europe (2003), and finally European Neighborhood Policy (2004). The name change was the result of a merger between the two former blocs: the new neighbors (former Soviet Republics), and the old neighbors (North Africa and the Middle East). A whole range of countries from Morocco to Israel, from Lebanon to Ukraine and Armenia, ended up in the same boat. No one could stomach this cocktail for long. The Eastern Partnership is a fairly logical way to separate these two very distinct blocs into Mediterranean and post-Soviet neighbors.
But neither Neighborhood nor Partnership members sat at the same table as EU candidates. Neither program included Turkey (official talks on joining have been going on since 2005). Albania was also missing, and so was Serbia, which along with the entire former Yugoslavia is viewed as a potential EU member when the future looks brighter and when residents of western Europe no longer shudder at the words “EU expansion.”
When the partnership was just getting underway, the most active partners still hoped to make it somewhat of a stepping stone into the EU, and viewed it as a club that gave them at least a remote chance of joining. But the Europeans refused to see the partnership in the same light. Unable to lie or equivocate, Angela Merkel spoke to her parliament with typical German honesty before the Riga summit: “The Eastern Partnership is not part of European expansion policy. We shouldn’t encourage false hopes.”
Russia is also Europe’s neighbor to the east, so why was there no place for it in either the Neighborhood or the Partnership? Don’t we belong in hell or at the very least in limbo? But many post-Soviet partners wouldn’t like to share a place with the Russians even there. First of all, they didn't all struggle for emancipation from Moscow to glance around and see it just over their shoulders yet again. Russia’s presence in the organization would suggest that the correct answer to the question is no, the partnership is not about joining the EU. And no one would want deliver that kind of news to their publics.
Besides, Russia wasn’t exactly rushing to join the partnership itself. And it could have become a partner regardless of all the peculiarities of its domestic politics: after all, Lukashenko’s Belarus and Azerbaijan’s “monarchy” found themselves among the members. When the Treaty of Accession was signed in Athens in 2003, European bureaucrats actively encouraged Russia to join the Neighborhood-Partnership. But the Russian Foreign Ministry and the presidential administration signaled that Russia must have a special, separate relationship with the EU rather than sharing it with Moldova or Georgia, or later with Algeria and Egypt. Russia doesn’t want to be just another neighbor-partner in the group, it wants nothing less than special status and preferential treatment. The “Four Common Spaces” between Russia and the EU was created to give Russia exactly that—but the program has long collapsed because of the numerous conflicts between Russia and the West.
The Russian leadership has never seen itself as being a fragment of the Soviet Union—it doesn’t see the Soviet Union as something that previously existed, that then collapsed, and that now there are fifteen equal countries. Russia is not one of many, but is rather a slightly diminished Soviet Union, just without the communism. Internally we have changed, but we want to take the same place on the international stage as the Soviet Union did. You divided Europe with them, now divide it with us. Yes, we are smaller, but our core has remained unchanged.
No one wanted to give Russia that much, but they gave it something else instead: an assurance that the Eastern Partnership is not aimed against Russia. They have assured it that essentially nothing in this world is aimed against Russia—whether that’s NATO, the missile defense program, or the International Orthopedist Union. And even now, after Crimea and Donbas, the EU must maintain the same, paradoxical official position. Regardless of the fact that war-torn Ukraine is one of the partnership’s members, the Riga summit declarations can’t be too harsh or anti-Russian, in contrast to those made at European Parliament or even the EU summit. For his part, President Poroshenko claimed diplomatic victories over wording that would make PACE members laugh.
So what is the purpose of this organization? It is not a stepping stone on the way to Europe, nor can it condemn and oppose Russia with a single voice. The cooperation between Eastern and Western Europe has always provided decent financial incentives: western Europe is perceived a source of material gain. The Eastern Partnership also has a budget, but it makes for a lousy ATM. Moldova gets the most out of the Partnership—around 100 million Euros a year in the more prosperous years of 2011-2013. Lithuania, whose population is about the same, received 1.9 billion Euros in subsidies from the EU in 2013. To appreciate the scale, one can look to the east as well: the Eurasian Union Fund created in 2013 to help Kyrgyzstan join the Eurasian Economic Union started off with $1 billion.
The Eastern Partnership could have become a conduit for a visa-free travel to Europe. This alone would have given its existence enduring meaning. Western Europeans are used to simply buying a ticket to go anywhere and rarely visit countries that require a visa, so they often fail to appreciate the ease of hitting the road without a visit to the embassy first. But the partnership didn’t turn into something like that either. Georgian diplomats complain behind the scenes that their country has fallen victim to “solidarity”: Europeans could have granted them visa-free travel, at least on those conditions given to Moldova, but they believe it must be done simultaneously with Ukraine. Russia is quite familiar with this logic—Russians cannot enjoy visa-free travel because letting them visit Europe before their neighbors do would be “improper.”
The Eastern Partnership has almost no practical purpose. It’s common to use the term “Potemkin Villages” when referring to Russia—after all, they were invented here. The Eastern Partnership is the European Union’s Potemkin village. The only reason for its existence, apart from providing a career for a certain number of bureaucrats, is horror vaccui, or fear of the void.
First, there were member candidates to the east. Then they became members, and the EU was saddled with God knows what to its east: an assemblage of relatively poor and very diverse countries, moving in different directions, all wanting different things and changing directions. Plus, Moscow’s never far behind. A vacuum appeared east of the EU, and the Eastern Partnership is just a helpless attempt to fill it. We have to put something there, right? It’s impossible to just leave the void there, especially if what might fill it is Russia. How can these countries be left to their own devices? It’s simply dangerous. What if they start wars with each other, or civil wars, or wars against some other country? They have to be taken care of somehow, we need some organization to cobble them together. The Partnership is useless, but logical and inevitable. It simply cannot not exist.
But now we have wars— both internal and external ones. And Russia has arrived, and no partnership is going to stop them. If the partnership were about the EU, money, and visas, it would have made sense. But lacking all of that, it’s just an ineffective and archaic entity that automatically divides post-Soviet Europe into Russia and “not Russia.” There can only be one real partnership to the east of the current Europe, and it has to include Russia. And as is often the case, it’s long overdue.
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