WESS A. MITCHELL: “EUROPE MUST BE ENGAGED IN ITS WIDER NEIGHBORHOOD”
The importance and impact of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) could be substantially increased if the EU and U.S. would be able to co-operate. Such a synergy could bring very effective and impressive results. President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Wess A. Mitchell, examines the U.S. attitude toward the Eastern Partnership as the region contends with the prospects for transformative change and discusses EaP priorities.
With two years under its belt, the Eastern Partnership has not yet had a practical impact as EU countries have not entertained a clear concept of the cooperation with Eastern neighbors. It is evident that support is stronger within neighbors of the EaP countries, whereas countries like France or Italy have different priorities. How would you characterize the position of the U.S. toward this topic?
The answer to this question has changed dramatically since the start of the year. The on-going political crackdown in Belarus, coupled with popular revolts in North Africa and the Middle East, have catapulted the “values agenda” to the top of the EU’s external priorities and reinforced the message that Europe has to be engaged in its wider neighborhood.
In practical terms, these developments have translated into two immediate policy challenges for European governments and officials in Brussels. First, what is the most effective way to coordinate the momentum of joint U.S. and European attention toward the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods; and second, how should limited financial and human resources be dispersed along the long, restive arc that runs from Minsk, down through Damascus and Cairo and onward to Tunis? In light of this overlap, the greatest danger is to misplace the strategic importance of one region relative to the other.
This dilemma is shared in Washington, where the immediacy of NATO operations in Libya grabs headlines, but the unraveling rule of Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the uncertainty of Ukraine’s “multi-vector” foreign policy (cycling between West and East) and prospects for positive change under Moldova’s new government could all have lasting implications for the regional stability and security of U.S. allies, especially the Visegrád states. This is precisely where the Eastern Partnership Initiative can have the greatest impact.
In Belarus, assistance from the EaP is being retooled to focus on helping domestic civil society groups and in supporting the population at large. This is a needed change. In Ukraine, the human rights environment is far better than in Belarus. However the apparent backsliding in democratic governance on the part of the Yanukovych Administration calls for intensified Western engagement – not neglect. This is not the time for Europeans—or Americans—to backslide on their long-standing efforts to integrate Ukraine further into the West. Finally, in Moldova, the new government has shown a strong interest in adopting EU norms, building up state capacity and strengthening good governance. It is in Moldova that the EaP has enormous potential for fostering the spread of European values and best practices. Given these trends, the next two years in the EaP’s mission could eclipse the speed and significance of developments we saw during the first two – and that’s saying a lot.
From your response it seems that for the Eastern Partnership to be effective it will be necessary to prepare tailor-made projects for each country. Having described crucial points of prospective projects in Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, which priorities would you prefer in EaP programs focused on the South Caucasus countries?
The question of country-specific needs is exceptionally relevant for the South Caucasus, a region where the EU faces exceptionally complex foreign policy puzzles. From frozen—and not so frozen—conflicts, to energy security and the steady erosion of democratic governance, what happens on the extreme periphery of Europe’s neighborhood has a direct impact on regional stability and the immediate security perceptions of the Visegrád states.
In the case of Georgia, just three years have passed since the outbreak of hostilities with Russia in 2008. But the consequences of that conflict resonate even today. The war highlighted the vulnerability of Western energy links to the Caspian (such as the South Caucuses gas pipeline and the BTC oil pipeline); it demonstrated that frozen conflicts (such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are never as frozen as they might seem; and it placed added pressure on the emergence of a vibrant, democratic, pro-Western government in Tbilisi.
Yet Georgia is not alone. Elsewhere in the Caspian, the democratic outlook for countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan is even more daunting. And as the dispute over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh enters its third decade, the need for European engagement in this geopolitical fracture zone could not be greater.
Up until now, much of the EU’s outreach through programs like the EaP have been directed at expanding governing capacity, improving economic and social infrastructure and—in the case of Azerbaijan—strengthening the efficiency of that country’s energy sector. These are all practical goals that address country-specific needs. However, the strategic aspect of Europe’s outreach is not always explicit in the EaP’s programming.
One of the key lessons of the Arab Spring was that Europe must be engaged in its wider neighborhood. By providing assistance through programs like the EaP, the EU begins to accomplish this goal. But the purpose of this engagement should be overt. Under the EU’s new “more for more” approach, the Union plans to give more – but expects more in return. Under this rubric, policymakers should better emphasize the initiative’s strategic value in aligning partner countries with European norms, values and interests. Advancing “good governance” in a country like Azerbaijan is an excellent objective; but advancing democratic governance in that country is an even better one; more for more. The same goes for Armenia and Georgia, where continued democratic regression is a real threat.
By working to seed Europe’s periphery with well-governed, democratic countries, the EU could ultimately increase its regional security and promote prosperity both inside and outside of the Union. And in creating an overt link between the EU’s external policy objectives and the strategic aims of the EaP, policymakers in Brussels—and Visegrád capitals—can make a strong case for why these initiatives must be sustained, especially in an era of heightened geopolitical uncertainty.
When we speak about various possibilities of how to help South Caucasus countries, I think we should not forget the question of their relationships with each other, particularly the tension that exists between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Would it be possible, with the help of the Eastern Partnership, to improve the current situation? Maybe this question could become one of the crucial goals of the EaP. What role could the United States play in this context?
In large part, both Europe and the United States are deeply invested in both Armenia and Azerbaijan – and rightfully so. This is an investment in vital energy links, in people and in regional stability and security. But the case of the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh is particularly troubling – most notably because a final peace settlement remains so elusive.
I noted earlier that the Eastern Partnership is an essential platform for fostering the spread of EU norms and values in the wider European neighborhood. The peaceful resolution of national conflict is a founding principal of the EU – and one that has been the forefront of U.S. and European engagement with Armenia and Azerbaijan since the early 1990s. This approach should continue, even if the headwinds to peace are growing.
As a lasting resolution to Nagorno-Karabakh has failed to materialize, in recent years both sides in the dispute have steadily ramped up their defense spending. Armenian military expenditures now exceed 4 percent of GDP – more than double the level of most Central European NATO members. A similar trend is apparent in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Needless to say, an arms race in the South Caucasus is clearly undesirable from a U.S. and EU perspective. With both Yerevan and Baku channeling increased financial resources into defense, there is a persistent danger that a small-scale skirmish over the contested territory could lead to a series of escalating miscalculations. An eruption of armed conflict, even if it is brief, would be bad for regional security, bad for global energy markets and potentially disrupt the flow of NATO supplies into ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
But if these unwanted outcomes are great, the imperative of finding a long-term resolution to NagornoKarabakh should be greater. Together, America and Europe should continue to push both sides at the negotiating table. Washington and Brussels should maintain their sizable level of engagement through foreign and humanitarian assistance, and they should amplify the message that an equitable peace is clearly preferable and achievable.
Speaking about South-Caucasus it is impossible not to notice the role of Russia in the region. And not only there. Moscow from the beginning has viewed the Eastern Partnership with a certain suspicion, concerned that Russia’s position in the countries which are called „near abroad” will be weakened. From a theoretical point of view, Russia would be glad that in its neighborhood countries are trying to establish democracy and market economy. But the opposite seems to be true. Is there any hope that Moscow could change its position?
Among all of the policy puzzles facing the United States and its Central European allies, Russia’s relationship with the near abroad has far-reaching implications. The term itself is problematic, since it tends to reflect Moscow’s view that Russian commercial and political interests in this region should be held primus inter pares (first among equals). In countries where robust free-market competition and transparent, democratic governance are dominant, Russia’s ability to exert its “special” status is greatly diminished. The opposite is true, however, in places where these principles are not firmly embedded in the political culture.
There should be little doubt that Russia can and should play a positive and beneficial role in the economic, political and security affairs of its neighbors. The problem arises when officials in Moscow use their natural advantages to exert inappropriate pressure on downstream energy customers (Ukraine, Lithuania, Bulgaria), violate the borders of their neighbors (Georgia) or artificially extend the lifespan of frozen conflicts (Moldova).
So what does this mean for the future?
The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the selection of Russia’s next president. In the United States, there is an on-going debate as to the significance of putative “modernizers” like President Dmitry Medvedev relative to the “old guard” — and growing older by the year — of former security officials like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. If Putin returns to the Kremlin for another two terms, he will have presided over Russia for nearly a quarter century. That will be longer than the aged rule of Leonid Brezhnev. Yet during the next decade, Russia will face pressures from all sides: from managing the country’s demographic collapse, to securing its borders and contending with rising strategic competitors like China. In dealing with these very serious challenges, Russia will need able friends, not dependent neighbors whose local leaders are overly reliant on the Kremlin. If Russia’s political elite waits too long to change course, they could discover their mistake only after these pressures intensify and it is too late to repair the damage.