Caucasus: Don't Let the EU's Eastern Neighborhood Initiative Become a Paper Tiger
On May 7, the Czech Presidency of the European Union will host a summit of high-level representatives of six former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The purpose for the gathering is the kickoff of the EU's new initiative called Eastern Partnership, the brainchild of Poland and Sweden. The initiative aims for deeper EU engagement with the six countries that, by virtue of their west-of-the-Ural-Mountains location, are at least hypothetically eligible for EU membership. Given the precarious position of these six countries, the Eastern Partnership is an urgently needed idea, although its current form is flawed.
This initiative has a number of attractive features. For instance, it escapes the trap of military-centered cooperation that has often dominated the West's relations with countries that are interested in NATO membership (Georgia, Ukraine) and that are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus). The Eastern Partnership is also intended to augment activities conducted under the auspices of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). Whereas the ENP is country-specific, the Eastern Partnership strives to be more regional in its approach.
As a part of the ENP, there is a plan to establish an inter-governmental platform to discuss democracy, human rights, and justice issues. This is a particularly welcome development since what the six countries share is a poor record of governance. None of them are classified as democracies in Nations in Transit, Freedom House's annual survey of democratic performance in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Azerbaijan and Belarus are led by authoritarian-minded leaders, Ilham Aliev and Aleksander Lukashenko, both of whom recently tweaked their constitutions to shelve presidential term limits. Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan, came to power last year after troubled elections and a violent post-electoral crackdown on the opposition, which had contested the election's results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And in April, Moldova held elections whose results came into question and resulted in arrests of demonstrators protesting the outcome.
Meanwhile, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, while presenting himself as a friend of the West, has been allergic to holding fair elections, or in tolerating oversight of his actions by the country's parliament. Finally, the leaders of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, have been locked in a debilitating squabble for years. They have made little progress in combating endemic corruption and, as a result, have led the country to the brink of economic collapse.
In short, all six countries could benefit greatly from the EU's assistance for reform in the spheres of governance and democratic institutions.
However, during a recent trip to the region I found a great deal of skepticism about this initiative among the local non-governmental experts. In one of the countries of the European Partnership, local analysts created a caustic acronym for it, using first letters of the six countries names to spell BUMAGA, which in Russian means paper. The meaning was clear: local NGO activists believed the partnership initiative was something devoid of substance and lacking real teeth.
Why is this well-intentioned initiative met with so much skepticism by the locals?
First, local NGOs find it next to impossible to access the funds that the European Commission allocates for support of their activities, due to a maze of requirements and conditions. Second, they point to the lack of results in the area of democracy and human rights of the last EU regional initiative, the European Neighborhood Policy. Third, and most important, they do not believe that a strictly inter-governmental process can promote European values of human dignity, justice for all citizens and respect for democratic institutions in a region whose rulers have not shown much interest in those values. Therefore, non-governmental activists are skeptical that the experience of the European Union's engagement and eventual enlargement in East-Central Europe, where human rights and democracy were an integral and key part of the process, can be replicated if the Eastern Partnership is left to solely to the devices of the governments involved.
To its credit, the European Union envisages the creation of a Civic Forum within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Yet, Brussels has been slow in announcing the details of the Forum.
The EU better hurry: political conditions in the six countries of the Eastern Partnership are steadily slipping. European values will not spread throughout the region by virtue of closed-door inter-governmental negotiations and without regular interaction of civil society organizations from the EU and the Eastern Neighborhood. In order to ensure that this laudable EU initiative does not turn into a BUMAGA -- piece of paper with little substance or impact -- civil society should be given a meaningful role in its development.
Vladimir D. Shkolnikov is the director of Freedom House Europe.