Rising Experts Task Force: The Implications of the Eastern Partnership Program on EU-Russia Relations

Read Alena Sakhonchik’s working paper here: The Implications of the Eastern Partnership Program on EU-Russia Relations

On October 4, Alena Sakhonchik, international political economy scholar at American University, presented her working paper, “The Implications of the Eastern Partnership Program on EU-Russia Relations,” as part of CGI’s Rising Experts Task Force (RETF). Sakhonchik argued that despite heated rhetoric in the lead-up to November’s Vilnius Summit, EU-Russia relations would not be significantly damaged by the progression of the Eastern Partnership Program (EaP). The same cannot be said for the post-Soviet EaP target group, which faces increasingly difficult economic and political penalties as the states are demanded to “pick a side” between the EU and Russia.

The EaP, launched in May 2009, targets six post-Soviet countries—Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan—with the main goals of accelerating political association, deepening economic integration, and increasing regional stability. Significantly, the Partnership does not include any promise or intention of eventual EU membership. Sakhonchik noted that only four of the six states are truly on track to sign association and free trade agreements, as Belarus is considered the “black sheep” of the project and Azerbaijan is no longer seeking further integration (through either the EaP or Russia’s Customs Union project). Armenia’s recent back-tracking from a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement through the EaP further illustrates the differences in both readiness and commitment to the program among the six target nations.

Russia’s reaction to the EaP has been intensely negative, viewing the project as a threat to its close economic and security ties to the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called it an attempt by the EU to extend its sphere of influence, while President Vladimir Putin considers it a substitute for NATO expansion to the east. Sakhonchik outlined several of the economic threats Russia has issued to deter EaP progress, including possible cuts to gas supply delivery in EaP states, protective trade measures, and exclusion from the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Agreement. Bans on several key exports of EaP target states have been implemented by Russia already. As an alternative, Russia proposes that its Eastern European neighbors join the Customs Union (CU), an economic zone that some envision developing into a “Eurasian Union” in the future. The CU consists of only three states, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and so far has struggled to attract additional members.

Sakhonchik posits that because of Russia’s disproportionate regional importance relative to the EaP states, EU-Russia relations will remain stable despite tensions raised by the program. Formal political and economic ties between the EU and Russia far exceed those within the EaP framework; the role of Russia as an energy supplier and regional security balancer has forced the EU to adopt a more or less unified approach the country. EU member states’ reaction to the Polish-led EaP initiative, on the other hand, has been disorganized and inconsistent. The EaP continues to compete for attention and funding with several other EU regional initiatives, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The post-Soviet states’ economic weakness relative to the EU and unresolved territorial conflicts, ongoing in four of the six EaP target states, also add to internal concerns about the project.

Following Sakhonchik’s presentation, RETF participants discussed the effect of non-economic factors on the EaP program, particularly the role of national identity and state ideology. Several rising experts commented on the apparent identity crisis in the region, and especially in Ukraine – a country this is culturally and historically closer to Russia but is inching towards Europe for economic gains. The prominence of normative thinking in public statements from both EU and RF officials was mentioned as indicative of both sides’ zero-sum approach, a strategy that harms the fragile EaP states as they struggle to balance their national ambitions with economic and political realities.