In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
If, before, the EU used to drop hints that about the Eastern Partners’ prospective accession to the bloc, now officials at best are saying that they cannot preclude these countries from having a "European dream." Merkel was the most blunt, saying that the “Eastern Partnership is not part of the “EU’s enlargement policy” and is not directed against anyone; read Russia.
The Eastern Partnership countries themselves have divisions about the EU. The group is split over strategic alliances between the European Union and the Moscow-led club intended as an EU-counterweight, the Eurasian Economic Union.
Armenia and Belarus tied their fate to Moscow by joining the EEU, and, therefore, are hesitant to take Russia to task over its land-lifting habits in Ukraine. The two opted out of a summit-statement condemning Russia for its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Reuters reported. The EU will offer them a "compromise text," an unnamed EU diplomat told the agency.
But the pair still wants to keep a dialogue with the EU going.
Belarus was notably more outspoken and worried of the two over the Russian meddling in Ukraine beyond Crimea, and has sought closer ties with the EU (and EU-fan Georgia) in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Armenia scrapped plans to sign the association agreement and its enclosed free-trade deal with EU, but Yerevan and Brussels are now looking to conclude a new, watered-down partnership-agreement to cooperate in the areas still left open.
Recognizing differences in their pro-EU fervor, EU is expected to unlink the six countries, categorizing them into two subgroups, EU-aspirant Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and countries with a general interest to cooperate, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
Azerbaijan, though, might be placed at the bottom of this group. At the last moment, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev bailed on the Riga-summit. Preparations for the June-12 European Games, a mini-Olympics hosted by Baku, are pressing, he claimed.