Friends with few benefits.

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EU's Cynical Plan to Use Eastern Europe

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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After two days, the Eastern Partnership summit that ended in Riga on Friday yielded a 13-page declaration and one insight: The European Union doesn't have much to offer to the six former Soviet republics to its east. Still, three of the partnership nations -- Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine -- aren't going to abandon their efforts to get closer to Europe, because the alternative is even worse: embracing Vladimir Putin's Russia. The other three -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus -- don't expect much from Europe, anyway.

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine made no headway toward their strategic goal of EU membership. The summit's final declaration had only this to say:

Summit participants reaffirm the Eastern Partnership objective to develop strengthened, differentiated relations between the EU and its six sovereign, independent partners. The scope and depth of cooperation are determined by the EU's and partners' ambitions and needs as well as the pace of reforms.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted optimistically:

Yet all involved understand the EU has made no specific promises on the timing of possible membership, or even on setting a date for citizens of Georgia and Ukraine to be granted visa-free entry to Europe. Only Moldova, population 3.5 million, has managed to satisfy EU inspectors and have the short-term visa requirement waived.  

Georgia and Ukraine wanted to move much faster. In March, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told voters that his country was likely to obtain visa-free status at the Riga summit. He was forced to backtrack after the European Commission judged that the country hadn't met the EU's terms. On Friday, Poroshenko expressed doubt that the Eastern Partnership format "could bring about a European future for those countries that see it as their goal."

Georgia has shown similar impatience. Tedo Japaridze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, complained:

Going home empty-handed is not good. A recent poll by the National Democratic Institute, a democracy-support NGO, indicated that 31 percent of Georgians were in favor of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union—and this in a country whose Euro-Atlantic trajectory has enjoyed a political consensus. So the ENP is not doomed, but it seems to have no reflexes. Policy is not an exercise in normative approximation alone. In Tbilisi, there are also expectations to manage. 


The EU, however, has little reason to worry about the concerns of Ukraine and Georgia or to invest too much effort in the Eastern partnership.

Armenia has already joined the Russia-led Eurasian Union, the economic bloc Putin is trying to set up to rival the EU. Belarus is a founding member of the organization, and is heavily dependent on natural gas that Russia supplies at a fraction of the market price. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan finds it hard to be involved in any group that includes Armenia because of a smoldering territorial dispute. In any case, Azerbaijan is more interested in a closer union with Turkey, to which it supplies energy.

As for the partnership's European-oriented countries, they can only accept whatever pace Europe sets for integration. Poroshenko and Putin hate one another, and neither is interested in making concessions to stop the war in eastern Ukraine. If Poroshenko were to attempt a rapprochement with Russia, Ukrainians would sweep him out of office as they did his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych. Georgia is in a similar situation:  Although it has strong economic links to Russia, especially through migrant workers' remittances, there is no political mandate for the government to move closer to Russia, which has grabbed pieces of Georgian territory to set up the puppet states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moldova, which has benefited the most from the Eastern Partnership -- along with visa-free travel, it has received hundreds of millions of euros from the program -- is also determined to stay the course. Pro-European parties won parliamentary elections last year, despite a strong Russia-backed challenge

To keep sentiment in Georgia from swinging toward Russia, the EU would only have to abolish short-term visas. It's a feasible goal and the effect would last a few years. By then, the volatile situation in the region may have changed and European politicians would come up with further enticements.

As for Ukraine, it has no place to go but West. In its case, too, the abolition of visas, perhaps sometime next year, may be enough to ensure loyalty. Russia has become a nightmare option, and that won't change quickly: Too many Ukrainians have died in the conflict with Moscow proxies.

In Riga, European Council President Donald Tusk said the Eastern Partnership was "not a beauty contest between Russia and the EU." Nonetheless, he added, "if Russia was a bit softer, more charming, more attractive, perhaps it wouldn't have to compensate for its shortcomings by destructive, aggressive and bullying tactics against its neighbors." 

Perversely, Putin's behavior has made it unnecessary for the EU to increase its commitment to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. That must be a relief, because the three countries contain frozen conflict zones (Moldova's, Transnistria, is the oldest and most stable). That means these countries are turning into classic buffer states. Perhaps they will even learn to appreciate this status and find trade advantages in it.

So, instead of reassuring them the EU wants them as members at some future date -- it doesn't really -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande of France spent much of their time in Riga trying -- without much success -- to convince Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that he needs to heed creditors' wishes. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net