The In-Betweeners: The Eastern Partnership Countries and the Russia-West Conflict
In the Russia-West conflict, attention is often drawn to Russian President Vladimir Putin, trying to anticipate his next move. As a result, it becomes easy to miss the unlikely winners and drivers of this confrontation. One of the drivers is the domestic politics of the states in-between the European Union and Russia, and one big winner, at least in the short term, is illiberalism. It is not simply EU incentives or Russian pressure that influences the foreign policy orientation of these countries, but also their often less-than-democratic political and corrupt economic elite constellations. This dynamic is seen in the countries of the Eastern Partnership — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine — which have been at the core of Russia-West conflict. Domestic elites can downplay their undemocratic practices by capitalizing on the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the West — note the case of the lifting of Western sanctions on Belarus in February 2016 despite a lack of progress on democracy and human rights. The bargaining power of some Eastern Partnership countries vis-à-vis the West seems to have increased, although their compliance with the rules and norms promoted by the West have not meaningfully changed or have in some cases even decreased.
If the transatlantic partners want to achieve specific reforms in these countries, they need to provide commitment backed up by credibility, consistency, and (smart) conditionality, as well as continuous and clear communication. Western support to Eastern Partnership countries should continue and be in enhanced in return for tangible political and economic reforms, though conditionality should be differentiated and adapted to local conditions. The West should pursue further economic investment and closer security cooperation by providing technical assistance and expertise, especially in border control when necessary. At the same time, the West should more actively engage in negotiations over resolution of so-called frozen conflicts. Clear communication of the West’s policies and principles, and the benefits of these for local communities, is important in an environment where local media may be constrained in its freedom, Kremlin-controlled channels have wide reach, and yet there is also noticeable support for the EU.