The EU and the “changing” Eastern neighborhood — between “post-factum diplomacy” and realpolitik

By Dionis Cenuşa

Subjectio.org @subjectio2020

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Belarus, Minsk: Theater students follow a course with Russian teachers at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts. © Pierre Crom

“The diversity of realities in Eastern Europe requires from the EU a “differentiated diplomacy” which emerges from the dynamics of local and external factors, dominant in the region …”

The European strategy for the Eastern Neighborhood is losing ground to the ever-changing reality. The ability of the European institutions to forecast rapid change, many of which are imminent and therefore predictable, is questionable. In some cases, the EU has shown a lack of preparation for scenarios that follow the disappearing of the initial status quo, as shows the situation in Belarus and around Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Predicting and anticipating the steps of political actors in the Eastern Neighborhood is a weakness for the EU, which has to be yet addressed. Several causes may underlie this deficit of observation and anticipation. It is these shortcomings that define European diplomacy of post-factum, which remains relevant in 2020.

Firstly, Brussels often resorts to an idealistic perception of political processes in the backyard of its eastern neighbors. Deviations from the rules of the game are considered exceptions rather than systemic behaviour, the fight against which requires a long series of electoral cycles and a continuum of lasting reforms. The predominant negative habits — corruption, oligarchic networks, counter-reform, autocracy — are treated as temporary, irreversible or reparable problems through simplistic interventions and, as a rule, which take place post-factum. From all the techniques used by the EU to react to developments in its vicinity, the so-called “diplomacy of statements” is prevalent. Belated actions come quite frequently afterwards. The second feature that abounds in the EU’s actions concerning its eastern neighbors is the tendency to focus credibility on a limited group of political actors. The pan-European parties, represented in the European Parliament, facilitate this. The European People’s Party is the dominant one, followed by the Social Democrats. These entities interact and promote the agenda of the partners identified in the national political configurations of the Eastern Partnership states, mainly in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. As a result, the EU’s alliances with political actors from the neighborhood become limited, failing to go beyond the binary geopolitical specificity of the domestic political class. The third dimension that marks the ability to manage the situation between the times of crisis and during the crises experienced by neighbors is the erroneous decoding of Russia’s geopolitical interests and resources. In other words, the EU’s idealist position contradicts the realistic approach of the Russian authorities. Therefore, the Russian side thinks in practical terms, engrained in traditional realpolitik, as opposed to the normative and post-factum diplomacy used by the EU in the region. First of all, Russia has structural levers that can influence the situation on the ground in the Eastern Partnership states. These levers include mechanisms for settlement of the (semi-) frozen conflicts, the susceptibility of populations to Russian information channels, membership in Eurasian integration processes and pro-Russian predispositions in the political class.

The cause of the disturbances in the Eastern Partnership is the endogenous intra-state problems (IPN, October 6, 2020). The quality of the assessment of the state of affairs by the European partners and / or the behavior of the Russian factor are variables that can also have an impact. For these very reasons, the European neighborhood compounds three categories of realities. The first category includes the positive effects of the association with the EU, as well as the reform procrastination — in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The second one integrates those circumstances where the reformist intention oscillates between the limitations produced by belonging to pro-Russian integrationist processes and the political-institutional abilities of the government to overcome them (Armenia). In addition to that, the third category includes the metamorphosis of autocracies under the pressure of internal democratic constraints (Belarus) or as a result of self-stimulation through exploiting the security agenda and the national pride (Azerbaijan).

“Associates” category

The situation in the states with which the EU has Association Agreements is unstable, and the reform processes are at constant risk of being reversed. The most complicated areas of reforms are related to the sanitation of the judiciary of the reactionary elements of the old system. The experience of Ukraine and Moldova is similarly negative, and oligarchic interests perpetuate in Georgia and Ukraine. In all cases, the focus is on the caste of judges who tend to compromise anti-corruption policies. Therefore, as sectoral reforms advance, political ones are challenged by the exponents of the old system.

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Ukraine, Sloviansk: A man inspects the rubbles of an hospital on the former frontline of Sloviansk.
© Pierre Crom

In Ukraine, the intervention of President Volodymyr Zelensky and Parliament was insufficient to restore the instruments of integrity, such as the broad applicability of the income and property declarations and the punishment of false declarations, annulled by the Constitutional Court of the country in October 2020. This counter-reform has worsened the overall picture of Ukrainian reforms associated with the EU. The continuing decline in Zelensky’s authority of promoting reforms is causing the rule of law failures. The “catastrophic” proportions of the pandemic (over half a million infections) reinforce the perception of ineffective governance. The latest polls illustrate the decline in the popularity of Zelensky and his political party — reaching 33% and less than 19% respectively in the autumn of 2020 compared to the spring data (KIIS, November 2020). The political decline of Zelensky’s team also was visible in the local elections of October 2020, where his party came in the first place in only 4 of the total of 22 regions. For the time being, the European institutions are applying a somewhat cautious critique of Ukraine. Although the seriousness of the rule of law setback and the inefficiency in combating the oligarchy is acknowledged, the EU does not resort to a sharp activation of conditionality on the part of financial assistance or the visa liberalization regime.

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Moldova, Chisinau: A car covered with chrystal strass is parked on the pavement. © Pierre Crom

Moldova is another eastern neighbor of the EU where justice reform is dragging on. The stalemate in this direction led to the fall of Maia Sandu’s government at the end of 2019, and the opposition convinced the EU that the pace of reform under Socialist rule is too slow and unconvincing. The system is too weak to heal itself. The recent cessation of the cases concerning the judges involved in the “Russian laundromat” is a telling example. Another one is the return of these judges to the office after the cancellation of the criminal investigations. Brussels described these cases as a “failure” of reform through the voice of its delegation in Chisinau. Fiasco to resolve other problematic issues in the field of justice — the banking fraud — are also symptoms of the old system. The pro-European opposition wants to fight it through “shock therapy” rather than gradual reforms. It also seems to the EU that the outcome of the reforms matters more than how this is achievable. Against this background, the presidential election and the rivalry between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu is perceived as the struggle between the old reactionary system and the promoters of a new system. The European institutions have not displayed their electoral preferences. However, in its attitude towards the first round of Moldovan presidential elections, the EU demonstrated a dose of impartiality, as it focused only on the irregularities found by OSCE / ODIHR observers, whose report included a balanced assessment. In the Moldovan 2020 electoral context, the Russian factor seems to have a predilection for the old system. From this reasoning, Russia expressed worries that the Moldovan diaspora in the West could influence the results of the presidential elections, in favor of the supporter of radical reforms — Maia Sandu. At the same time, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, warned against the inadmissibility of a possible “colored revolution” in Moldova, if Igor Dodon holds the victory. Following the presidential election, the view of the opposition concerning the political reforms a will prevail in the designing of EU diplomacy towards Moldova, more than its understanding of the situation on the ground and how it benefits non-democratic external actors.

Despite electoral violations, in the case of Georgia, the EU rushed to accentuate that the parliamentary elections were competitive, also acknowledging the plenty of registered shortcomings. The opposition has launched protests against the victory of the ruling party — the Georgian Dream (about 48% of the vote), led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Since 2012, the EU has failed to address systemically and principally the phenomenon of “state capture” in Georgia. Allegations of falsification of elections are, albeit indirectly, a consequence of the West’s tolerance of the oligarchic regime. In the context of the post-election crisis of 2020, both the EU and the US avoided discussing the negative role that oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is playing in the undermining of the democratic political process in Georgia. Instead, the emphasis of Westerners is on calming the political situation, without encouraging the opposition to annul the results of the parliamentary elections. On the one hand, the EU suggests to Ivanishvili’s regime to ensure a balance of power with the opposition. A minimum condition would be the conducting of fair elections in the electoral districts where the second round takes place and the “remedying” of major electoral violations. On the other hand, the European institutions reiterated the right of the opposition to protest, within the epidemiological restrictions, introduced by the government because of the spike of infections. The absence of an impartial and critical attitude of the EU towards the shortcomings of the Georgian democratic institutions can lead to the discrediting of the European vector. Such a situation could replicate the Moldovan case of 2009–2019 years when the capture of the country’s decision-making process by oligarchic interests have led to the severe discrediting of the pro-EU sympathies. At the same time, as the situation in Ukraine indicates, pro-Russian parties may (re) emerge, or the relevance of the pro-European movement may diminish. To that can contribute the growing influence of Turkey in the South Caucasus after the revision of context around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The category of “disturbed reformers”

Compared to the associated states whose room for manoeuvre concerning reform commitments to the EU is limited, Armenia has far superior autonomy. That is why, under other emergencies, Yerevan can set its internal agenda without really taking into account the suggestions of Europeans. Maintaining domestic political stability and ensuring security along Armenia’s “ethnic borders” around Karabakh are two directions of action that are currently consuming Armenia’s political resources.

By 2025, when the first 5-year interval of the agreement between Moscow, Baku and Yerevan, signed on November 10, 2020, under the mediation of Vladimir Putin, comes to an end, the Armenian leadership will be engaged in a painful process of revising the old modus operandi concerning the population and territory of the new, much narrower, Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of the adjustments towards the separatist region, previously semi-integrated into the Armenian political, socio-economic, cultural and security system, will require Russia’s direct participation. The emergence of a unique dependence on Moscow seems indispensable. Russian peacekeepers (less than 2,000 people) will ensure a more stable peace within Nagorno-Karabakh’s recently reduced territory, as Baku will be discouraged from advancing. Russian peacekeepers could also balance Turkey’s increased geopolitical potential in Azerbaijan.

Theoretically, the partial transfer of responsibility for peace from Karabakh to Moscow could open new perspectives for internal reform in Armenia. In practice, intense negotiations to reconfigure security parameters can trivialize the significance of the reforms. Moreover, in addition to re-conceptualizing security, Nikol Pashinyan’s government has a difficult mission to survive a cyclone of political instability. The emerging situation creates a “window of opportunity” for the players of the old system to return to the forefront of the political stage. They are trying to capitalize on anti-Pashinyan protests to compromise and reverse the dismantling of oligarchic networks and the eradication of political corruption. To demonstrate its usefulness in the eyes of Armenia, the EU can offer the confidence-building experience gained in settling the Transnistrian conflict to facilitate coexistence and contacts between Armenian communities and the Azerbaijani population, which will return to territories that were practically three decades military control. Located between Russia and the Azerbaijani-Turkish tandem, Yerevan must look for ways to involve additional geopolitical actors, with the EU being one of the most suitable candidates.

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Minsk, Belarus: An artist is veiled prior to a theater performance. © Pierre Crom

The category of “resistant autocracies”

The situations in Azerbaijan and Belarus contrast in terms of the feasibility of the authoritarian regimes. The September-November military operations, but primarily the Moscow-mediated arrangement, allow Ilham Aliyev’s government to restore more than 50% per cent of the Azeri territories, controlled by Armenia since the 1990s. At the same time, following the arrangement promoted by Russia, there is a semi-Transnistrianization of the conflict, as Russian peacekeepers are deployed in the narrowed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has diminished the risks of possible deviations of Russia from the agreements made by drawing Turkey into the equation. The latter, together with the Russian authorities, will form stationary “observation centres” on the territories returned to Azerbaijan, ensuring a certain degree of impartiality in the future peace process. Against this background, the Azerbaijani autocrat regime obtains a massive injection of local legitimacy, boosts bilateral relations with Turkey and creates the necessary platform to establish new economic contacts with Iran (in the energy field). In this regard, the EU will engage in dialogue with a more robust and more authoritative regime embedded in Turkey’s geopolitical calculations. Thus, in addition to increasing the role of the Russian factor in the southern region of the Eastern Partnership, Brussels will have to take into account all the implications of the strengthening Baku-Ankara tandem.

The autocratic regime in Belarus also shows resistance, albeit distinctly from the Azerbaijani case. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko owes his political survival exclusively to Russia. At the same time, the internal legitimacy of the regime has irreparably damaged. The constant protests stimulated and supported by the voices of the opposition in exile question the authority of Lukashenko. The EU had no choice but to substantiate “diplomacy of statements” to support the cause of Belarusian protesters against repression and calling for the release of political prisoners. The individual sanctions against Lukashenko and a limited number of officials (59 in total), introduced relatively late, reflect nothing more than the EU’s inability to influence the situation in Belarus effectively. The degree of violence in the crackdown on peaceful protests is so high that Lukashenko manages to shift the EU’s electoral concern (presidential election fraud) to that of protesters’ physical safety. At the same time, pressure from the West is being capitalized on by the Minsk regime that is borrowing additionally from Moscow and open up new economic opportunities to the East (participation in Russian public procurement, etc.). Although the Belarusian autocracy trades the country’s sovereignty for security guarantees from Russia, the regime achieves the goal of survival. Although the European influence may seem weak but it has a place because it has intertwined with the anti-Lukashenko protest mentality in Belarus. At the same time, objectively speaking, EU influence requires adequate channels to help the materialization of democratic changes in the state not only in society.

In lieu of conclusions…

The diversity of realities in Eastern Europe requires the EU a “differentiated diplomacy”, which should emerge from the dynamics of local and external factors, dominant in the region. The more realistic the EU becomes about the Eastern Partnership, the more effective its diplomacy can become.

While the European conditionality emanating from the associated countries — Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — can have effects, if used consistently and consistently, the same instrument is virtually non-existent in its relationship with Armenia. The influence of Brussels on states with autocratic regimes is becoming even weaker. The primary reasons are the ideational incompatibility and the presence of Russia and, more recently, Turkey.

In strict logic with the principle of differentiation, which the European institutions use towards its eastern neighbors and not only, differentiated European diplomacy will reflect the real capabilities of the EU, excluding the projection of exaggerated geopolitical powers. Thus, the expectations in the region towards the European actors will correspond to the realities and not to fictive calculus. Finally, Brussels will be able to carry diplomacy with a higher impact.

This analysis is carried out for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and for the IPN Press Agency.

Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.

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