George Vlad Niculescu,
Head of Research, The European Geopolitical Forum
The Eastern Partnership Summit, held on 28-29 November 2013 in Vilnius, was supposed to highlight the progress achieved over the last four years by the EU on political association and economic integration with its eastern neighbours (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine). Although it resulted in initialling the Association Agreements of Georgia and Moldova, and in signing a few minor agreements with other eastern partners, the summit was hijacked by the growing geopolitical competition between the EU and Russia. The primary victims of this competition have been Armenia and Ukraine, who, under strong pressure from Russia, put off their plans to sign Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements with the EU. Other eastern partners have also felt the cold wind blowing across Europe within their economic, energy or security relations with Russia.
The Eastern Partnership was launched in May 2009, in Prague, as a framework for reforms in partner countries aimed to facilitate good governance, promote regional development and social cohesion, and reduce socio-economic disparities. Association Agreements, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, Comprehensive Institution-Building programmes, and support for the mobility of citizens and visa liberalisation were deemed to be stepping stones.
In contrast to European integration, creation of the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and plans to launch the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by 2015 have created an alternative economic integration project in Eurasia. Western experts warned that the ECU might evolve in a way that could challenge the European Union as a ‘normative power’ in its ‘shared neighborhood’ with Russia. And, apparently, so it did. In early September 2013, from Moscow, Armenian President Sargsyan announced his country’s decision to join the ECU. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Yanukovich had second thoughts about firmly tying his country to the EU through a long expected Association Agreement, stating that: “We absolutely do not want to be a battlefield between the EU and Russia. We want to have good relations with both the EU and Russia.” 
Why did the Eastern Partnership exacerbate Russian pressure on Ukraine and other potential EU partners, aimed at pushing them into unwanted choices between European and Eurasian integration? And why did Moscow perceive the Eastern Partnership as a path to a zero sum game with the EU?
The easy answer assumes that “Russia views its Eastern Neighborhood as a strategic imperative and sees the Eastern Partnership as a tool for containment, accusing the EU of trying to undermine the relations of the peoples living in Russia and Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries in order to include them in its exclusive zone of interest” . Consequently, Russia would be “forcing the EU into a geopolitical battle with Moscow, which it does not want” . However, this is not a satisfactory answer, for it ignores the EU’s failure to place the Eastern Partnership into geopolitical context and implement it accordingly. As Steven Keil noted: “the European Union still finds itself attempting to reconcile its role as a normative actor with political realities in contested spheres of interest”. What the EU perceives as a purely technical, norms setting process of modernization has been seen by others (i.e. Russians, and potentially other regional powers) as a geopolitical process because of its wide-ranging consequences.
Frankly speaking, the EU cannot be exonerated of geopolitical responsibilities. On the contrary, the lack of transparency in its geopolitical intentions in the eastern neighborhood has been interpreted as a hidden attempt to undermine the interests of rival regional powers. Therefore, if Brussels was to succeed in meeting the objectives of the Eastern Partnership, it needed to assume full geopolitical responsibility in the region. Otherwise, the Union could hardly overcome the “current clash of European norms and geopolitical realities”.
For example, the EU should assume its own part in responsibility for the external pressures that led to its partners’ withdrawal from deeper engagement with the Union. If the EU had been a genuine player in the eastern European neighborhood, it could have either prevented Russian pressure against these neighbors or, at least, might have provided partners with significant support to resist Moscow’s manipulations. Unless it speaks with one voice and acts in a capacity of a responsible regional player, Brussels may not, for example, issue credible “explicit signals to Moscow that the cost of a trade war against Ukraine [or indeed against any of EU’s eastern partners] would also include increasing economic losses, diplomatic conflicts, and political tensions in Russian relations with the West”.
Where does the Eastern Partnership head in the aftermath of the Vilnius summit? The formal answer was given by the “Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit, Vilnius, 28-29 November 2013, Eastern Partnership: the way ahead”. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the Eastern Partnership is at a crossroads: either it is advanced while recognizing and adapting to the geopolitical realities, or it sinks into irrelevance. Therefore, a process of deeper reflection on why the Eastern Partnership, to put it mildly, has been delayed so far in meeting its objectives is more needed than ever. The outcome of this reflection should be to place the Eastern Partnership into its geopolitical context through a sound strategy crafted to address the emerging challenges in Eurasia : the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West; the resolution of protracted conflicts; and the dilemma of post-Soviet states stuck between European and Eurasian economic integration.
A geopolitical strategy supporting the implementation of the Eastern Partnership might be necessary since “…while the EU proposes functional integration, the post-Soviet elites’ preferences for closer relations with the EU  are often underpinned by geopolitical motives. […] Unsurprisingly, geopolitics is the prism through which these countries view their relations with the EU” . In addition, the same study of the European Policy Centre noted that “The lack of any underpinning strategy is also surprising given the wide gap between partner countries’ needs and capacities and the EU’s regulatory frameworks”. At the end of the day, since standards create legislation and legislation shapes political and economic interactions, defining common standards eventually becomes an effective means for building geopolitical identities.
The geopolitical strategy for the Eastern Partnership could suggest effective ways to compensate for the EU's weakening soft power across the entire European neighborhood, given its decreasing political influence and economic attractiveness in the aftermath of the Euro crisis. Such a strategy might indicate, for example, that maintaining Ukraine on the European track while preserving the unity and stability of the country will require the EU to learn how to work with Russia, rather than to counter or exclude Russia. The same could also be true for maintaining Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, if not all of the eastern partners, within the European integration process.
Working with Russia on improving governance in the common neighborhood is unlikely as long as the EU and Russia remain at odds on ideological matters, specifically on democracy, individual rights, and freedoms. Conversely, in case the political will to work with Russia prevails in both European capitals and in Moscow, the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West might be gradually bridged by pragmatic ways to harmonize European and Russian political and human values. To that end, a comparative study of European and Russian models of governance might help identify elements of convergence and ways to downscale elements of divergence, while turning what appears today as a zero sum game into a win-win strategy.
The geopolitical strategy of the Eastern Partnership should enable EU-Russia power sharing in the common neighborhood, and might aim at harmonizing European and Eurasian integration systems. In effect, these measures might also revitalize economic cooperation in the common neighborhood, which would be in the best interest of Turkey and the regional post-Soviet states facing the dilemma of European vs. Eurasian integration. Eventually, the Eastern Partnership could open opportunities for further regional integration in highly sensitive areas of the common neighborhood, such as the South Caucasus, where protracted conflicts are still raging.
Finally, as the Armenian decision to shift focus from European to Eurasian integration has shown, protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus and in Transnistria undermine efforts to implement the objectives of the Eastern Partnership. The geopolitical strategy of the Eastern Partnership should therefore envisage measures for conflict management and resolution, which may help overcome the chronic deadlock in which the area has been muddling through since the end of the Cold War. For example, it might provide for better regional strategic coordination of existing crisis management mechanisms; strengthen local ownership of the peace processes, in particular through the formulation of a joint post-conflict regional vision; and counter the fears of some local actors of Russian-imposed solutions.
In conclusion, in the aftermath of the Vilnius summit, the EU could do better in moving forward the Eastern Partnership if it considered the geopolitical implications of the standards-driven European integration process, and subsequently developed an appropriate geopolitical strategy. Such a strategy should devise ways and means to involve other regional actors in the process, including Russia and Turkey, as a key element for allaying their geopolitical concerns. It should also enable the Union to offer coherent and coordinated responses to potential geopolitical challenges stemming from the eastern neighborhood. Otherwise, the Eastern Partnership risks sinking into irrelevance as a consequence of the geopolitical naivety of its founders.
 A. Paul - “Beyond Vilnius: keeping the Eastern Partnership on track” from http://www.epc.eu
 St. Keil - “At Vilnius, the EU Must Reconcile Norms with Realism”, German Marshall Fund of the United States, “Transatlantic Take” Series, 27 November 2013.
A. Umland - “Raising the Stakes. Fending off Russian Strangulation of Ukraine’s Economy”, from http://valdaiclub.com/near_abroad/64904/print_edition/
 See G. Niculescu - “The Evolving Challenges in Eurasia” from http://www.cseea.ro/publicatii/view/brief-analysis/the-evolving-challenges-in-eurasia
 L. Delcour and K. Wolczuk - “Beyond the Vilnius Summit: challenges for deeper EU integration with Eastern Europe”, from http://www.epc.eu.
 L. Delcour and K. Wolczuk - Op.cit.
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