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EU's Eastern Partnership Stuck In Low Gear

BRUSSELS -- The EU's Eastern Partnership was launched with great fanfare in Prague in May. But just past the eight-month mark, it is becoming clear that neither the EU nor the six partnership members have high hopes for the grouping.

EU documents seen by RFE/RL suggest the bloc is purposely setting a limit to its cooperation with the participating countries -- Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

EU foreign ministers today will meet their colleagues from those six countries.

The EU's hesitation comes as it enters what Germany's Angela Merkel has called a "period of reflection" following the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, which will radically reconfigure the bloc's foreign-policy mechanisms.

The partnership countries, whose own democratic development has largely ground to a halt, are in no position to demand more. Their EU membership ambitions are at their lowest ebb since 2004, when the bloc took in eight Eastern European countries and seemed bullish on expanding further.

As EU foreign ministers prepare to host the first partnership meeting since the initiative was launched, the agenda drafted for the talks is thoroughly humdrum. Individual meetings will examine the "state of play" in the EU's relationship with each of the countries, as well as priorities for 2010.

The EU's immediate goal is to usher in a new generation of cooperation agreements -- called Association Agreements -- to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreements.

Although the title of the new accord refers to the prospect of "association," this is a purely symbolic concession on the part of the bloc and does not imply any substantive movement toward EU membership.

Free Trade And Travel

At best, the six partner countries can hope for two long-term goals -- free trade and visa-free travel within the EU.

Free trade is largely dependent on the progress of economic reforms in the partner countries. Visa liberalization, however, is an even more distant undertaking. Before granting any of the partners visa-free travel, EU countries must be satisfied such a move will not lead to an increase of immigration or crime.

One prominent feature of the EU's Eastern Partnership strategy, as it evolves, is a blurring of the differences between the six partners, and between them and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Belarus, despite its backward status, is being offered access to much the same benefits as Ukraine or Georgia. On the other hand, the South Caucasus countries will soon be required to hold a regular "human rights dialogue" with the EU -- much as the autocracies of Central Asia already do.

The EU's focus has firmly moved now to its own desires -- which rank political stability above all other goals. This tendency is likely to continue throughout 2010 at least, as first Spain and then Belgium hold the bloc's rotating six-month presidency. Neither is known for taking a keen interest in the fortunes of Eastern Europe.

Likewise, the EU's newly appointed foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, is likely to be too weak, inexperienced, and taxed by other tasks to provide new impetus to the Eastern Partnership.

A "food for thought" paper prepared for today's meeting by the EU's incumbent Swedish presidency identifies four key areas of involvement for the EU in the Eastern countries.

The first is the stabilization of their crisis-stricken economies, which involves steering them away from protectionism, which is said to be bad for political stability. The remainder involve the easing of the EU visa regime, institution-building, and EU assistance in securing the countries' international loans.

Another document provides details on the situation of each of the six countries.

Formally, Ukraine is the most advanced. It could sign an Association Agreement, including a "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement," with the EU in 2010. Talks on visa-free travel are on track.

But officials say relations between the EU and Ukraine have hit rock bottom. Preoccupied by the January 2010 presidential election, Ukraine's reforms have stalled.

Worst of all, from an EU point of view, is Ukraine's inability or unwillingness to take steps to avoid a repeat of the January 2009 cutoff of Russian gas passing through Ukraine, which affected nearly half of the EU's 27 member states. This despite a 1.7 billion-euro loan offered by the EU in July to help pay Russia for the transit of the gas.

The EU document says these funds cannot be disbursed before a number of gas-sector reforms are implemented to make the sector more transparent. Brussels has offered Ukraine another loan to stabilize its finances, but, again, the EU document notes the loan is "conditional on the respect of the adjustment program agreed between Ukraine and the IMF.”

Moldova is on EU financial life support, and the continued political instability in the country has so far prevented advances in association or free-trade talks. Visa-liberalization has been an important EU carrot in its dealings with Chisinau, but will not materialize in the short term.

The EU has also given 4 million euros for "democracy support" and provided expert support to the country's negotiations with the IMF.

Rights Dialogues

Belarus, despite the questionable record of its strongman leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was in November 2010 offered a back door into the assistance programs of the EU's existing neighborhood policy, in effect putting it on a par with the other Eastern Partnership countries.

In order to encourage democratic reforms, the EU is preparing to launch talks on a visa-facilitation agreement -- intended to lower visa application costs speed up the procedures, as well as a readmission agreement.

The South Caucasus countries lag far behind Ukraine, with the EU only now discussing terms for their prospective Association Agreement talks.

Armenia broke new ground earlier this year with the arrival of a small EU "advisory group" of experts to help modernize some of its ministries. A low-key human rights dialogue with the country started on December 1 this year. The EU and Armenia have set up standing subcommittees for cooperation in three priority areas -- justice, freedom, and security; education, social affairs, telecommunication, and research and development; and energy, environment and transport.

Azerbaijan remains a key target for the EU on account of its strategic role as an energy provider and transit country. An EU-Azerbaijan intergovernmental agreement on the Nabucco pipeline -- seen as a crucial alternative to the vagaries of Russian-supplied gas -- was signed earlier this year.

The list of EU-Azerbaijan cooperation subcommittees is shorter, involving, first, justice, freedom and security, democratization and human rights issues; and, second, education, social affairs, telecommunication, and research and development.

Georgia is the frontrunner in the region in visa-facilitation talks, which have effectively concluded -- while those with Armenia and Azerbaijan are yet to start.

But the political relationship between Brussels and Tbilisi has cooled noticeably as President Mikheil Saakashvili continues his crackdown on the political opposition.

The focus on regular EU-Georgia cooperation is remarkably narrow, with one subcommittee set up for education, social affairs, telecommunication, and research and development; and a second for energy, environment, and transport. EU attempts to assist institution-building and democratic reforms in Georgia have borne little fruit.

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