The summit of the Eastern Partnership that took place last week in Warsaw, Poland, turned into a bombastic event, complete with the ceremonial exchange of solemn words. The only exception was Moscow, which surprised everyone with its calm and even somewhat positive attitude. The Russian foreign ministry did not even rule out the possibility of cooperation. Compared with the passions that the Eastern Partnership elicited two or three years ago, when Russia denounced it as an expansion of the European Union, Russia's relaxed attitude this time seems out of place. What caused this change?
The Eastern Partnership, which was initiated by Poland and Sweden in the spring of 2008, was designed to be a symbol of the continued pro-European movement of the western part of the post-Soviet space – the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The initiative was put forth before the war in South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, but the feeling of rivalry over the post-Soviet states was already quite strong. Russia managed to postpone the admission of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, and so the Eastern Partnership was devised for them as a kind of consolation prize. European politicians and officials argued that the goal of the initiative was not to weaken the role of Russia, but few doubted their true intention, which explains Moscow’s negative reaction to the initiative.
The easygoing attitude that Russia is currently displaying is proof that the project has failed. The Eastern Partnership was expected to be stronger than the GUAM group of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, which was considered to be an anti-Russia force in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As an organization, the European Union has a great deal of inertia, and projects there drag on for years and even decades, even if only in virtual space. One relevant example is GUAM, which has still not been dissolved to this day. However, the Eastern Partnership has not materialized in a meaningful way, and this is unlikely to take place in the near future. It seems Europeans at the moment simply aren't up for it.
The situation in Europe has changed dramatically since 2008, not only because of the debt crises in Greece and several other southern European countries, although this has seriously undermined Europe’s ability to finance its projects. And not even because of the “Arab spring,” the consequences of which could be so dramatic for Europe that it may have to redirect allocations from the eastern partnership to a southern one. The main reason is that the EU is on the verge of having to launch fundamental reforms – not cosmetic repairs, but a thorough overhaul that could affect the very principles of European integration that were formulated decades ago.
Although it may remain officially united, Europe will most likely have to fragment into several groups of states. The core group with Germany at its center (the format of which is still unclear) will try to rescue the euro and prevent an economic landslide. The other groups will follow their own trajectories, some more removed from the center than others, and each with its own set of rights and opportunities.
Central and Eastern European countries, which only joined the EU in the last decade thinking they had at long last reached the harbor of stability and prosperity, may be thrown back into a sea of uncertainty. The situation is even more ambiguous for the western CIS countries, whose policy has revolved around Europe for years. EU membership has never been proffered to Ukraine, Moldova Belarus, or to the South Caucasus states, but the assumption has been that they will ultimately reach this destination once they adjust to the European criteria. Some of them progressed better than others, but they were all moving stubbornly toward this coveted goal.
It is unclear how their policies would change if their guiding star were to go out – that is, if they are deprived of the opportunity to join the EU even in the long term. On the other hand, the fragmentation of the EU could offer new opportunities to Ukraine or Moldova, because the looser and more nebulous a union is, the easier it would be for new members to join it. But the question of expansion can be removed from the agenda altogether, because the task of reforming a united Europe is too complex and painful to allow for diversions. The most the EU could venture in this situation is to launch imitation projects, such as the Eastern Partnership.
Perhaps there may be some alternative for these countries, for example, in their relations with the Kremlin. Russia has always been so sensitive when it comes to EU and NATO activities that it has been unable to formulate its counter-proposals clearly. The institutions that Russia created or supported, in their activities, were also purely imitative in nature. Furthermore, it did it only to prove that Russia also has a group of allies and associated structures. But any practical steps that Russia has taken toward integration have been blocked by the stubborn resistance of even such outwardly close partners as Belarus.
Russia has defined its priorities now: the Collective Security Treaty Organization in the area of politics and security, and the Customs Union, which it wants to expand into a Common Economic Space. Russia has been working since 2009 to transform these two projects into respected integration organizations with clearly defined rights and obligations. The process has been a rather squeaky one, but Russia does not intend to stop. Its chances have improved now that Europe has its own problems to deal with, but Russia must learn to capitalize on them.
It's typical for Russia to be accused of imperial ambitions, but in actuality, its attitude towards this is changing rapidly. Abstract notions of Russia’s domination and its “area of privileged interests” are giving way to a sober assessment of possible gains and losses. Relations with Ukraine, which have always been over-emotional and over-burdened with the weight of historical significance, will serve as the indicator of this change. Suppose that both bypass projects – the Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipelines – are built, and Russia’s dependence on Ukraine plummets. Will Ukraine retain its importance to Russia? The answer to this question will indicate the direction of movement for Russia and its neighbors.