The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
The EU official insisted that “wider political developments,” however, are not causing the delay in the visa-free regime for Georgia and Ukraine. Citizens from Moldova, which also signed an Association Agreement last summer, already travel to the EU visa-free.
Georgia has yet to meet certain requirements, such as improving its policies on granting asylum, and toward visa and naturalization applicants. (A bill to loosen those requirements is awaiting a third-reading in parliament, Civil.ge reported.)
Asked if visa liberalization with Ukraine will be contingent on the country’s restoring control over its separatist territories, the official said that the EU would not want to link the two issues. No “specific calendar” exists for the visa liberalization-process, he said.
The talk of due diligence and commendations for being on the right path without a concrete timeframe for progress is likely to lead to a level of disenchantment among the Georgian public, which is looking to see the country’s robustly pro-European policies pay off. Already, one recent poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute indicated an upswing in support for the Eurasian Economic Union.
At the very least, it is likely to spark a fresh round of the blame-game in Georgian politics. Officials in Tbilisi have long touted the prospects of simplifying travel between EU and Georgia.
Yet Brussels appears to want to keep the focus on de-escalating tensions caused by the EU and Russia jousting over the Eastern Partnership region. The EU official said that the Riga summit is meant not “to create new dividing lines, but to create new opportunities.”