Will Europe Lose its East?
This article appeared first in German in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 16, 2012. It can be read here in its original form.
Largely unnoticed by European politics and publics, a new division looms in the East of the continent. At the beginning of this year, the Eurasian Economic Space was established. Initially bringing together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, it envisages the inclusion of further republics of the former Soviet Union, and aims at the establishment of a Eurasian Union by 2015. On the surface, the new alliance seems to resemble the European Union; it has a Council and a Commission, and its main focus is economic integration. In reality, this is Russia’s latest attempt at reigning in its former satellites politically and economically. According to Vladimir Putin, this initiative will build “upon the best values of the Soviet Union.” If successful, this “USSR-lite” will thwart European efforts to ensure that its east is bordered by a ring of independent, democratic and cooperative states.
That has been the aim of European foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s it was hoped that, much as in Central Europe, a natural dynamic would propel these countries towards democracy, market economics and an orientation towards Europe. These expectations have been disappointed. Belarus and Ukraine are corrupt neo-authoritarian regimes. Geopolitical maneuvering between East and West is the norm. When enlargement moved the EU to the immediate borders of these countries it launched a neighborhood policy, now known as the Eastern Partnership, the ambition of which is to nudge neighbors towards democratic change by way of political and economic engagement. It has, so far, yielded little success. Instead, Belarus is a dictatorship and since the election of Victor Yanukovitch in 2010, Ukraine is headed in the same direction.
Why does the EU so obviously fail in the East of the continent?
Firstly, in these countries, Europe deals with a political class, whose overarching goal is to monopolize power and the opportunities for personal enrichment that come with it. Those goals, rather than any vision for their country, determine domestic and foreign policy. When opportune, democratic reforms are feigned, and repressions are launched against political opponents and independent media as necessary. Whenever tactically advisable, a pro-European chord is struck or close ties with Russia are stressed. This clearly undermines EU policy, which is based on long-term commitment to reform and Europeanization.
Such maneuvering is only possible because in the EU neighborhood, two development models confront each other. Russia considers the post-Soviet space as its exclusive sphere of influence, pushes individual countries towards a similarly “managed democracy” as exists in that country, and lends (or withdraws) political and financial support as opportune. These demands and incentives, likely to grow bolder under old-new president Putin are, not matched by the EU. Europe’s economic crisis has not escaped the attention of Belarusians and Ukrainians, and the EU does not even vaguely offer prospects of membership. Further, the EU is not nearly as present in neighboring countries as Russia, and European financial support for democratic and economic reforms is a fraction of what the Kremlin invests. As a result, the EU’s much-touted “soft power” is not nearly as powerful as it would like to think.
Europe’s presence is strongest in the economic field. About one third of Belarus’ and Ukraine’s foreign trade is with the EU. Europe further accounts for more than half of foreign investment in Ukraine. Both countries transport the bulk of Russian gas to Europe. Nonetheless, and much different from Russia, the EU is cautious to use its economic power when it comes to demanding fundamental legal and economic reforms, not to mention democratic standards. Without such political conditionality, however, economic interaction between Europe and these countries only helps to perpetuate the status quo.
Finally, Europe’s instruments for supporting all those who stand for democratic change in these countries are not effective enough. Civil society and independent media are invited to consultations within the Eastern Partnership, but they hardly receive any systematic support or funding for their important work towards democracy on the ground. The broader publics in these countries are neglected by the EU, despite the fact that half of all Ukrainians and 40 percent of Belarusians support the European integration of their countries. Although often promised, visa liberalization has still not materialized. Students from these countries cannot participate in EU scholarship and exchange programs. With this kind of approach, Europe frustrates precisely those in Belarus and Ukraine who are pushing for democratization and Europeanization.
It is hardly surprising if Belarus, Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors turn away from Europe and give in to Russian pressure. If this tide is to be stemmed, the EU needs a new Eastern policy urgently. It should guarantee Eastern countries the very same European perspective that was given to Central Europe, and it should support their European path with no less generosity or long-term commitment. Citizens-at-large, democratic civil society and independent media should be the recipients of EU support, no less than state institutions and decision-makers. Support for the latter, however, must be subject to strict conditionality, and noncompliance must have political and economic consequences. Europe must insist that the future of their countries lies in the hands of Belarusians, Ukrainians and other neighboring peoples, rather than with Moscow-sponsored autocrats, and Russia’s claims to the neighborhood must be countered.
In the current crisis mood, it is unclear if Europe will muster the political will to fundamentally change its approach to its Eastern neighbors. If it fails to do so, a Europe whole and free will remain unfinished business for a very long time.
Joerg Forbrig is an Eastern Europe specialist and directs the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.