Armenia and Georgia last week concluded negotiations on their Association Agreements with the European Union. The deals, together with the accompanying free-trade agreements, are meant to bring the countries closer to the EU. But there are still plenty of obstacles ahead for the six former Soviet republics in the Eastern Partnership.
RFE/RL takes a look at what the future holds for Armenia and Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in the run-up to November's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, where several decisions about the countries' relationship with Brussels will be ironed out.
Moldova emerged as the star student and possibly the one clear-cut success story of the Eastern Partnership despite some bumps in the road due to the country's political crisis earlier in the year. In June, Chisinau concluded negotiations on its Association Agreement with the EU, which will cement political ties with Brussels, as well as on the accompanying Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The deal is expected to be initialed in November at the Vilnius summit. Moldova is now aiming to secure an agreement on visa-free travel.
In October, EU member states will assess Moldova's progress in fulfilling its commitments for a visa-liberalization action plan, which could also be approved in Vilnius. The next logical step for Moldova would be for EU member states to recognize it as a potential candidate, a status similar to that of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania. But due to enlargement fatigue, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Ukraine is the most unpredictable country of the current ex-Soviet aspirants. On one hand, Kyiv has reached further than any of the other five in that its Association Agreement and DCFTA have already been initialed. But questions remain whether they will be signed at the Vilnius summit and even then, whether the text will be ratified by all EU member states. EU leaders say they want to see Ukraine complete a number of electoral and judicial reforms -- especially to address concerns over selective justice. The deadline for these changes has constantly changed but now it appears to be set for October.
The European People's Party (EPP), the main center-right party group in Europe, wants its member, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, released from prison before rewarding Ukraine. And since the EPP is the largest party in the European Parliament and is in power in leading member states like Germany and Poland, Tymoshenko's fate and Kyiv's EU aspirations are closely linked. On the other hand, many European strategists fear Ukraine will fall into Russia's orbit if they push Kyiv too hard.
Georgia concluded its negotiations for the Association Agreement and the DCFTA this week and -- like Moldova's -- they are expected to be initialed by the political leaders in November. An action plan for visa liberalization is also in place. But just as with Ukraine, the EPP is raising the issue of what they call politically motivated criminal cases against opposition figures -- and are being encouraged to do so by members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement.
Another area of disappointment is that the preamble of the Association Agreement refers to Georgia as an "Eastern European country." Even though all European states are eligible for EU membership, the geographical indication might indicate that Tbilisi's road to Brussels may be blocked for the foreseeable future.
Armenia is another country that will have its Association Agreement and DCFTA initialed in Vilnius after the negotiations are concluded this week. As in the case with Georgia, the text of the preamble is disappointing and even weaker than that of its neighbor. It says nothing about Armenia's European identity and mainly alludes to the common history and values Armenia shares with other European countries. The big task ahead for Brussels appears to be convincing Yerevan to shun Moscow's attempt to include it in its customs union.
Azerbaijan is the only country in the group that doesn't harbor any intentions to one day join the EU. Negotiations are ongoing when it comes to an Association Agreement without the trade part but nothing is expected to be concluded this year.
It is, however, likely to initial a deal on visa facilitation and readmission soon and sign it in Vilnius. Visa facilitation and readmission is a step preceding visa liberalization, which eases visa requirements for certain groups, like students and businesspeople, to obtain multiple-entry visas. Both Brussels and Baku are mainly interested in promoting deeper energy cooperation. The EU has identified Azerbaijan as a key player in its quest to reduce its dependency on Russian hydrocarbons.
Belarus, of course, is the black sheep in the group. Here there is no talk about association or free-trade agreements but more about who, if anyone, will represent Minsk at the Vilnius summit. During the previous Eastern Partnership summit, there was an empty chair after some last-minute confusion. EU member states want to avoid a repeat of that scenario.
But they also don't want to see any of the over 200 individuals blacklisted by Brussels after the crackdown following the 2010 elections attend -- especially President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey was allowed to travel to Brussels this week to meet his EU counterparts and the hope is that some sort of agreement can be struck with Belarus to let him go to the summit instead of his boss.