The Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga between 21-22 May looked like a typical EU venue – a lot of compromise, soft blunt tone, backroom dealings, conflict avoidance, and little tangible result. W offer you this good summary of the summit by Alexander Chanadiri from EastBook.eu: The Day After Riga: Where Are We Now?
On one side, the EU leaders reaffirmed the Eastern Partnership and its core commitments which was important as much changed for the EaP states (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan) since the last summit in 2013. On the other hand, the very soft tone towards Russia and the clear message that the EaP is just a policy designed to provide some assistance and cooperation but no membership perspectives came under criticism by certain more hawkish observers (Anders Aslund, for example).
The real issue at hand
The topic of the relationship between EU and its Eastern partners from the EaP is a complex one. It is very difficult to actually provide an objective opinion as observers would always need to take up a viewpoint via-a-vis their own opinion of the EU’s eastern policy, like for example their view on general questions like enlargement or where Europe’s borders lie or how much the EU should involve in world affairs, etc.
Therefore, attempting to retain also some level of objectivity and non-involvement, the EU top in Riga produced another seemingly blunt declaration. The point here is that the EU top are not observers who need to be objective or unbiased but actual political leaders and statesmen (and women). The decisions of what is provided or promised via the EaP or who is to blame for aggression or destabilizing the region need to be political, and political rarely means objective.
But as the case usually is for EU’s foreign policy, a compromise needed to be struck between member states who seek good tone with Russia and those who want firmer action. Why Russia appears? Of course, it would be silly to believe that the Eastern Partnership can be looked at in isolation. Furthermore, I would even argue that the EaP states at the summit are just subjects of the relationship between certain EU states and Russia. Moscow’s own relationships with the 6 EaP states cannot be ignored and certainly Russian diplomacy has a say in how much certain states can swing in EU direction. And still, Russia was barely mentioned at the Riga summit. To avoid conflicting situations and preserve the level of compromise, the divisive topic of Russia’s shadow was almost ignored.
What are the implications?
With the soft tone and blunt declaration the EU states aimed at keeping the door open for dialogue with Russia. This is something of crucial importance to the EU as opposed to the USA for example. Since the collapse of the USSR European leaders have striven to keep Russia from international isolation as they feared its radicalization if left out of the general continental framework. Now we can see the same interest is still alive and probably well grounded judging by what domestic propaganda the Kremlin started to produce recently.
The danger in this approach is that as much as compromise, conflict avoidance, and cooperation work within the EU, the geopolitical realities of the periphery may not be best suited for the same set of tools. Lacking a clear geopolitical perspective, the EaP states risk losing motivation for reform and slowly may turn into gray zones. We observed the same just recently in Macedonia, although formally a candidate state the frozen accession progress and isolation led to political and social instability. Take for example Ukraine. The country is in a state of undeclared war currently frozen by the Minsk II accords. Ukrainians may need much more than unclear and diplomatic declarations within the EaP. People on the streets do not really understand the complexities of technical cooperation in terms of transportation or trade. They expect tangible results from their leaders or will quickly start questioning why endure hardship if there is no set goal in place.
While the EU needs stability and progress on its periphery, Russia does not, at least not in the same sense. It does not fear the gray zone concept as long as the political elites in those countries maintain a convenient policy and restrain social tension. If security of transit can be secured and Moscow’s foreign policy lines are respected, Russia would have met its core goals in the region. So, if the EU would fail in its attempt to maintain stability the way it understands it in the periphery it has much more to lose. Of course here, it is important to define what dimensions stability may have, but this is a topic of another article.
In the end, one clear message of the Riga summit is that the EU is not ready for radical changes of its Eastern policy. The situation is complex and not easy to resolve. Europe is indeed not ready for any round of expansion. What is worrisome, however, is the suspicion that the EU is just trying to postpone and shunt the problems to its East rather than proposing some sort of soft gradual resolution. It seems that the ballgame may now be in Moscow’s corner for the next move.