Just moments before the opening of the Eastern Partnership Summit at Vilnius, and only days after Ukraine made its startling decision to backtrack on plans to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, Angela Merkel spoke at a press conference in Berlin of the need to "overcome the last relics of the Cold War". Not terminology ever used lightly, it was clear from this point on that the question of Russia's relationship with its ex-Soviet neighbours and, by extension, with the EU, would dominate the Summit.
With Ukraine putting the brakes on further EU integration and Armenia's decision to join the Customs Union - a Russian initiative - instead, it would seem that Russia had succeed in affirming its hold over the countries on Eurasia's hinge. Though the Summit displayed numerous achievements, there wasn't a press conference or interview that went by without a noticeable echo of the word "disappointment" in the room. In a video recorded at an informal greeting ceremony, Angela Merkel can be overheard saying to Ukrainian President Yanukovich, "glad to see you here... but we expected more."
However, the overriding message was not one of defeat, but of indignation. Russia's flagrant disregard of the established norms of the conduct of international diplomacy and its indifference to the will of the people of Ukraine and even, perhaps, of its government, caused a palpable sense of outrage among the EU statesmen present. "The times of limited sovereignty are over in Europe," declared Barroso, while van Rompuy candidly condemned Russia's return to an obsolete era of "zero sum games".
In particular, it was Russia's offer of trilateral discussions with Ukraine and the EU that most riled the Summit's leaders. "What we cannot accept," said an unusually animated Barroso, "is a condition on a bilateral agreement to have a kind of possible veto of a third country. This is contrary to all principles of international law." Successfully placing themselves above these "geopolitical shenanigans", as Radosław Sikorski, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, described them the day before at the parallel Civil Society Conference, the EU left with head held high and with a self-described "ambitious agenda for the way ahead" delineated in its Joint Declaration.
The Eastern Partnership "was never an imposition, but rather a proposition," stated Barroso, hinting that the inverse was true of Russia's dealings with its neighbouring, ex-Soviet states. What the EU saw as a mutually beneficial economic process, which established a "win-win" situation for both the members of the Eastern Partnership and their large imperious neighbour, the Kremlin saw as a battle over spheres of influence, and reacted accordingly. Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament and leading member of an EU monitoring mission in Ukraine, described this reaction. It took the form of economic intimidation, he explained, of a "deliberate targeting of commercial enterprises" which caused "great distress", and of an application by Russia of "pressure that was real, visible, determined and deliberate".
This pressure came in various forms, all of which demonstrated the fact that Russia felt little need to conceal its underlying strategic aims. As Moldova indicated a more concrete move towards integration with the EU, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wine, sabotaging trade for 60% of the industry. The justification given was traces of plastic found in the product. There was a higher degree of these plastic traces found in Russia's own drinking water. The ‘Roshen' brand of chocolates, a Ukrainian export, was also banned due to fears for "consumer safety". The ban was lifted on the 28th of November, the very day of the Summit opening and the point of no return for Ukraine's decision to abandon the Association Agreement. Though denied by the Kremlin, further pressure on Ukraine is said to have included trade sanctions and threats of gas cut-offs. Or, as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitriy Rogozin reportedly put it to Moldova a few months ago, "I hope you won't freeze."
As Ian Bond of the Center for European Reform explained at the Vilnius Civil Society Conference, Russia's foreign policy is based on exploiting the instability of post-Soviet states, not only to prop up compliant, "hands-on" leaders, but also to ensure its leverage. Russia finances 60% of the budget deficit of the break-away state of Transnistria, at the edge of Moldova, and has its troops stationed in around a fifth of the territory of Georgia. It uses the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to play Armenia and Azerbaijan off against each other, by reportedly threatening to withdraw military support from Armenia just recently, and by signing a multi-million dollar defence pact with Azerbaijan.
A further form of intimidation was emphasised by a Civil Society Conference participant and representative of a legal firm in Baku that focuses on fighting for the legal right of freedom of assembly. The primary source of Russian influence on Azerbaijan, in his perspective, rests on the 3 million Azeri immigrants in Russia, and the nationalist pressure that is so often and so easily turned against them. The trial of Azerbaijani Orkhan Zeinalov, accused of the murder of an ethnic Russian, was seen by many in the Russian Azeri community as a sham, and the race riots that followed in the Biryulyuovo district of Moscow, where the incident occurred, saw the arrest of 1,200 migrant workers. Moldovans and Armenians are equally fearful of the growth of nationalist feeling and the threats of aggressive crackdowns on immigration by Russia.
Such strategies of intimidation have been relatively successful from Russia's perspective, with only Moldova and Georgia (which has already been distanced from Moscow by the 2008 war) choosing to face up to the pressure and sign agreements with the EU at yesterday's Summit. From the point of view of the EU, which does not see the Eastern Partnership process as part of a struggle for spheres of influence, the Eastern Partners have been bullied out of integration with the European Union. However, to some degree, they also have themselves to blame. In her closing remarks, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite took a harder line on Ukraine, declaring that: "external pressure cannot be used as an excuse for the decisions of a sovereign country... if you have the political will to resist and not give in, pressures do not work."
The question that has been raised frequently over the past two days is whether this attitude, as illustrated by Grybauskaite, is justified. Is the Eastern Partnership structure actually flexible and innovative enough to help countries through difficult processes of change, the cost of the reforms required to adapt institutions to EU standards and, most crucially, to deal with the pressure applied by Russia? For a country such as Moldova, almost completely reliant on Russian gas, the threat of a cold winter is serious, and it is not evident what the EU can do to counter that. A similar argument applies to Ukraine, and many analysts see one of the major causes of Ukrainian withdrawal from the deal as a consequence of the fear, particularly among elites, of the short-term costs of the EU integration project, and the social consequences this could have. The framework of the Eastern Partnership, its focus on civil society and small- and medium-sized enterprises, its long-term vision, and its habit of assuming that ‘civil society' implies opposition movements, does little to address the concerns of local elites. As they are still the principal actors in Partner countries, the EU fails to become an agent of change in the region. Victor Chirila, Executive Director of the Moldovan Foreign Policy Association, explained, "Moldova is the success story of the EaP, now we need to make the Eastern Partnership a success story for the Moldovan people, we need to feel tangible benefits." And soon.
Polina Ivanova was in Vilnius for the Eastern Partnership Summit for commonspace.eu
Photo: The leaders of the 28 member states of the European Union and the six Eastern Partnership countries at the summit in Vilnius on 29 November 2013.