On October 26-27, the German Marshall Fund hosted a conference in Kiev, Ukraine for experts and policymakers from Europe and the United States to discuss the eastern neighborhood of the European and transatlantic community. This conference was jointly organized with the Heinrich Boell Foundation and the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, Germany.
Over the last several years, the eastern neighborhood of the European and transatlantic community has received renewed and increased attention in international debate. The recent EU enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe has fundamentally redrawn the map of Europe and, as a result, of its eastern neighborhood. The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine have reinvigorated hopes for democratic reform and western integration of both countries. The European Union is struggling to determine policies and instruments to assist democracy, stability and security along its eastern rim, a concern its shares with the United States. A third major international player is Russia which has close historical, political, social and economic ties to all countries of the region, and a growing assertiveness in its foreign policy. Adding to this complex set of actors and issues are the eastern neighborhood's placement as a major line for European energy supplies, frozen conflicts and Europe's last dictatorship in Belarus.
The conference in Kiev's opening session was devoted to the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, recognized by many as one of the key countries in the region whose success or failure with democracy, stability and western integration will determine the prospects of the entire eastern neighborhood. Panelists to this discussion included Inna Pidluska of the Yalta European Strategy; Pirkka Tapiola of the Policy Unit, Council of the European Union; Marta Matselioukh of Chemonics International Inc, United States; and Oleksandr Potiekhin of the Centre for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy of Ukraine.
According to the discussion, these elections can be considered an important turning point. They were preceded by a substantive election campaign by all major political forces that included strong elements of Ukrainian identity, patriotism and a need to reform the country. The elections demonstrated to Ukrainian citizens that their vote indeed matters, and to political elites that elections provide an equal chance to hold office in the government. The eventual outcome of the elections, largely uncontested by rival political forces, substantially changed the composition of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada and indicated important territorial shifts in voter preferences, away from the often observed East-West divide in Ukraine. These overwhelmingly positive impulses of the elections for democracy in Ukraine, however, will have to be continued by the new government that faces a number of domestic and international challenges. Urgent reforms will have to address the constitutional system of checks and balances. Equally needed are steps to make Ukraine a competitive and attractive economy and reforms of the social sector that were promised by the campaigns of all political forces. Internationally, relationships with the EU need to be deepened, including a free trade agreement, while ties with Russia need to be guided by realism in assessing how this large eastern neighbor has been evolving politically. These and other issues facing Ukraine will, however, only be tackled effectively if the country's political elites, those in the new government and those in opposition, develop a sense of responsibility and pragmatism, negotiation and compromise that has often seemed lacking in the past.
The second panel broadened discussions beyond Ukraine and provided perspectives from further countries of the eastern neighborhood, including Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Russia, and indicated significant differences across the region. Initial inputs to this discussion were provided by Iris Kempe of the Center for Applied Policy Research in Germany, Tornike Sharashenidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Andrei Lobatch from the Belarus State Economics University, and Dmitry Danilov of the Institute of Europe in Russia.
What emerged from this discussion was a very diverse picture across the eastern neighborhood. Georgia, since its Rose Revolution, has made considerable progress in fighting corruption and encouraging economic reform, yet the political style of its government, its attitudes towards the opposition and limitations on independent media has increasingly drawn criticism. In Belarus, the authoritarian Lukashenko regime appears to remain solidly in power, as it has managed to retain economic stability and the resulting support of broad sections of society and induced an atmosphere of fear through an all-penetrating security apparatus. This provides the fledgling democratic opposition with little room to move, although emerging economic difficulties in Belarus, Russian pressure and a more proactive EU have recently fuelled hopes for democratic change in Belarus. Russia, in turn, seems to be fully set on further strengthening its "sovereign democracy". Its upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will likely further stall democratic reform at home and cooperative relationships abroad, a development that will have reverberations throughout the eastern neighborhood.
Given the long list of challenges facing the region, discussions also addressed a variety of ways to strengthen democracy, market economies and western integration. First and foremost, democratic reformers in the region and their western partners need to further prioritize free and fair elections as a key mechanism of democracy, advance the de-coupling of political and economic power, reshape systems of government towards more effective checks and balances, and strengthen decentralization. Such institutional changes need to be accompanied by the strengthening of a democratic political culture across the region. An important mechanism to enhance democratic developments is regional cooperation, among the countries of the eastern neighborhood and with EU partners, and on different levels ranging from technical partnerships to exchanges for young people to business relationships. If successful, the discussions maintained, democratic progress in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia is likely to have demonstration and spill over effects among neighboring countries including, in particular, Russia.
On this basis, discussions then turned to European and transatlantic strategies towards the Eastern neighborhood. The first debate addressed the transatlantic framework of eastern policy, introduced by James Sherr of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, and Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. The second discussion then evolved around the possible contours of a new eastern policy, featuring speakers including Mikko Kinnunen of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Victor Richter of the German Foreign Office; Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic & International Studies; and Hryhoriy Nemyria, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament.
Discussants cautioned that on neither side of the Atlantic, the region has received sufficient attention. The United States is faced with a broader set of foreign policy priorities, among which the eastern neighborhood is not prominent and has an opposition to international engagement more broadly. The European Union, in turn, seems to be focused on a narrower set of policy priorities and concerned largely with its internal functioning and development. Absent any democratic success stories and careful of Russian interests, there has long been little room for stronger involvement with the eastern neighborhood, and policies and instruments employed by transatlantic partners remained insufficient. Yet more recently, consensus seems to be emerging that this region plays a critical role and deserves stronger western engagement. On the European side, there is broadening acknowledgement that hitherto policies have been insufficient and adjustment of EU strategies has begun. Thus, the largely ineffective European Neighborhood Policy is being rethought, with several EU member states pressing for a stronger focus of this policy on Eastern Europe. Policies towards the eastern neighborhood and towards Russia policies are being de-coupled. Regional frameworks, such as the EU's Black Sea Synergy, have emerged and complement bi-lateral forms of co-operation, including possible sectoral agreements on free trade or energy security, and action plans between the EU and individual countries of the region. All of these may be precursors of new approaches and relationships of the EU with its eastern neighborhood, and they are largely paralleled by U.S. policy towards the region, which places an equally strong emphasis on democratic reform, economic development, stability and security, and regional cooperation.
It remains to be seen, to which extent this renewed interest and engagement will result in a new, and possibly transatlantic, eastern policy. What was indicated by the discussions was that the European Union will, likely and naturally, have primary responsibility in shaping relationships with and developments in the eastern neighborhood. The speakers stressed that in doing so the EU jointly with the countries of the region should develop a strategy of multiple dvided small steps, with clearly indicated goals, conditions, incentives and rewards. This can gradually and effectively advance democratic and economic reform in the region and, over time, strengthen the case of neighboring countries to pursue EU membership, an option that is principally open to them according to EU treaties but faces strong political opposition in many EU countries at present. For such a policy to take on a transatlantic format, strong and complementary U.S. engagement will be one important element. Others include the reconstruction of the transatlantic community as such, a strong consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that the eastern neighborhood is a priority region for western engagement, a joint emphasis on democracy promotion in the region, a common approach in dealing with Russia, and a clarification of the role of NATO and its relationship to the EU.
By way of summary, the eastern neighborhood is a work in progress, as one of the speakers pointed out. One may add, so are the transatlantic community, the European Union, and their policies towards this important part of the world.
Based on the debates at the conference, and further expanding on their substance, the German Marshall Fund and its partners plan to publish a book that will bring together contributions by experts from the Eastern European neighborhood, EU countries and the United States.