The European Union's most ambitious outreach effort to countries on the territory of the former Soviet Union, known as the Eastern Partnership, is in trouble. Officials in Brussels say Russia has launched a concerted counteroffensive to destroy or at least severely stymie the project targeting six ex-Soviet republics.
Moscow's motives are not overly difficult to fathom. It sees itself as the natural hegemon in the region, while the EU has publicly admitted it seeks to offer countries an alternative to Russia's sway -- a sphere of influence in all but name.
Moscow is putting massive pressure on Belarus, Moldova, and Armenia, which it has identified as the weakest links in the EU outreach program. Georgia was severely destabilized in the five-day war in August 2008 and Ukraine, in turn, in the course of the natural-gas spat with Russia in January this year. Azerbaijan, a crucial link in the EU's hopes of gaining greater energy autonomy vis-a-vis Russia, has so far spurned a bid by Moscow to buy up its entire gas production -- an offer it is not meant to refuse.
The nightmare scenario in Brussels is that come the Eastern Partnership launch summit in Prague on May 7, it will be faced by less than a full set of Eastern leaders, with most of those present acting as Russia's proxies.
The Belarusian Unknown
Belarus represents the most obvious risk. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has responded to EU overtures over the past six months, but remains unpredictable. Some of his recent moves have appeared erratic, above all the last-minute cancellation of a meeting with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner last week.
But although diplomats in Brussels have little direct knowledge of Lukashenka's motives, EU officials are inclined to credit the Belarusian leader with pursuing an independent agenda understood to consist largely in trying to play Brussels and Moscow off one another.
But Moscow's forbearance with Minsk has a price -- the recognition by Belarus, sooner or later, of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenka has withstood the pressure so far, but it is "received wisdom" in EU circles -- in the words of one official -- that Minsk will eventually buckle. One senior EU member-state representative this week put the odds of the likelihood that Belarus will recognize the breakaway Georgian regions as sovereign countries at "70-30."
The worst possible outcome for the EU would be Belarusian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in advance of the May 7 summit. It's conceivable the bloc could then find itself in a position of having to entertain Lukashenka in Prague in the absence of one of its leading allies in the region, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has repeatedly signaled to Brussels his intention to boycott the event in such an eventuality.
On the other hand, the absence of Lukashenka himself from the summit table through some grievous failure to meet EU expectations would only be a marginally better outcome for the EU. The EU has allowed Belarus to become a symbol in its tug-of-war with Russia for influence and its loss would represent a painful reverse for the bloc.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the things that could go wrong for the EU's Eastern Partnership.
Ukraine presents the bloc with a whole set of headaches of its own, with its chronic political instability and economic chaos. Worse, the country also serves as a yardstick in exposing the limits of the promise the EU is holding out to its eastern neighbors -- and in more ways than one.
First, its leaders have long complained that the Eastern Partnership offer contains nothing new for Ukraine. Ukraine has already received assurances from the EU that it can sign an association treaty with the bloc paving the way for eventual free trade and visa-free movement for its citizens.
Second, Kyiv's own failure to capitalize on its success at the last EU-Ukraine summit in Evian, France, in September 2008 where these commitments were secured means there is little pressure on the EU to up the ante for the leading Eastern membership hopeful. Diplomats in Brussels say the next summit, to be hosted by Sweden in the second half of this year, would represent a golden opportunity for Kyiv to press a traditionally enlargement-friendly country to secure more from the EU, perhaps as much as a long-term membership prospect.
But Ukraine's own political and economic implosion has taken the wind from the country's sails and, by extension, dimmed the luster of the EU's potential promise for other capitals in the region trying to gauge how far the EU is willing to go in backing them up against Russia.
This is because the rest of the countries in the region are effectively fence sitting. They took on board the EU's wish -- communicated to all in no uncertain terms after the Georgian war -- not to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has cost them great effort to rebuff Russia's wish to attain the opposite. The steadfastness of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan -- not to mention Belarus -- in resisting Russian pressure is a measure of the hopes they have invested in the EU.
Fundamental EU Decision
The EU's inability to respond to these expectations with anything more than a fairly anemic Eastern Partnership is a reflection of how hamstrung the bloc itself remains.
For it is not only Russia gunning for its demise, but most of its own "southern" member states -- albeit less openly, for different reasons and employing different means. These countries, traditionally led by France, have resented the bloc's eastward expansion as a challenge to their own historical preoccupation with the Mediterranean region.
At one level, the divisions within the EU are about money, which is always tight. But they are also about influence, power, and vision. And at some fairly abstract, but nonetheless keenly contested level the internal struggle within the bloc is a battle for the soul of the EU, pitting against each other two distinct worldviews.
One, championed in the east and north, wants the EU to project outward democracy and reforms, and puts the free market above political integration within the bloc itself. The other, holding sway in the western part of the continent, prefers pragmatism and balance-of-power calculations in foreign policy and an "ever-closer" political union and solidarity inside the EU.
The weeks remaining before May 7 are crucial in deciding the long-term outcome of many of these tensions. There are very few politicians and officials in the EU who care -- or are able -- to look beyond that date.
Ahto Lobjakas is a regular contributor to RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL