BRUSSELS -- Much to the EU's surprise, its Eastern Partnership initiative has landed it straight in the middle of great-power politics.
What started in 2003 as an essentially technocratic drive to advance reforms in the post-Soviet space has now become a tug-of-war with Russia over influence in the region -- specifically, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Formally, the EU's response remains one of disavowal. The EU eschews any talk of spheres of influence -- or so goes the refrain in Brussels. Yet the prospects of visa-free travel, free trade, support to institution-building, and financial aid that the EU is holding out to its six eastern partners are openly construed by Russia as a bid to gain the upper hand in a region where Moscow itself claims "privileged interests."
Whether the EU likes it or not, perception is everything in international politics. Russia's perception of the Eastern Partnership unavoidably rearranges the playing field -- and the EU must adapt or risk seeing its outreach project perish.
Moscow itself does nothing to hide its resentment, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov famously denouncing the Eastern Partnership as a "sphere of influence" in Brussels in March. Similarly, the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" quoted in its May 5 issue the prominent Russian analyst Sergei Karaganov -- who, the paper says, "often expresses official positions in undiplomatic terms" -- as telling a conference in Germany that the "core of all differences between the West and Russia is the question of whose sphere of influence the Soviet successor states fall into."
Officials in Brussels are very much alive to the fact that Russia is fighting the expansion of the bloc's influence in the region tooth and nail. Recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and elsewhere suggest Moscow has embarked on a strategy of turning what the EU would like to see as a "ring of friends" into an arc of instability. Instability is certainly a potent weapon for undermining the EU's gospel of reform, which relies on piecemeal, cumulative progress.Brussels Plays Realpolitik
The question the EU now faces is what it is prepared to do to counter the Russian slings and arrows. There are signs that the bloc is already adapting to the new environment it finds itself in, albeit reluctantly. Significantly, it has taken a leaf out of Russia's playbook by suppressing its democratic scruples and seeking a rapprochement with Belarus, turning a blind eye on the recent brutal excesses of the Moldovan Communist regime, and keeping Armenia and Azerbaijan on side despite their more than patchy democratic records.
The fact that neither Belarus's dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka nor Moldova's Vladimir Voronin were expected to show up at the Prague summit, bowing to discreet EU pressure to stay away, also attests to the hopes the partner countries invest in the Eastern Partnership.
The best measure of the bloc's success so far -- and the growing habit of autonomy of the eastern capitals -- is the refusal of all six Eastern Partnership countries so far to yield to Russian pressure and recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.
The shift in EU thinking is evident in the successive drafts of the Prague summit declaration, seen by RFE/RL. Reflecting an acknowledgment of the varied record of the regimes the EU is dealing with, the document elevates interests above values, and consigns all meaningful political and economic conditionality to the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which remains the preeminent vehicle for bilateral relations between the EU and each partner country. The summit declaration makes it quite clear that the Eastern Partnership is an enhancement of the ENP -- reinforcing the impression the EU is putting pragmatism above ideals.
The extent to which the partner countries view ties with the EU as leverage against Russia is reflected in their keen interest in the draft declaration. All were said to have negotiated hard -- if not always successfully -- to promote their views. Georgia and Azerbaijan campaigned for a prominent mention for the principle of territorial integrity, but had to settle for the term "norms of international law." The GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) countries also failed to secure an explicit reference to their organization.
The size of the challenge facing the EU can hardly be overstated, however. It was evident in the predictable squabbles among the member states leading up to the summit. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Portugal all wanted to delete from the initial draft the words "European countries," used in combined reference to all 27 EU member states and the six partners.
The words, which would-be EU members often interpret as a signal of eventual membership, were still there on May 5. But Germany, France, and a number of other countries were successful in inserting the phrase "long-term goal" into the section dealing with visa liberalization, to underscore visa-free travel is far from an imminent prospect.
These and other seemingly minor textual battles represent real major divisions between member states on key foreign-policy issues. They also highlight the degree to which EU foreign policy remains in thrall to member-state national interest.
In another sign of persistent division, neither France nor Spain will be represented by their leaders at the Prague summit, in snubs calculated to underscore the two countries' concern the Eastern Partnership could upstage the EU's stillborn Mediterranean Union for its southern neighbors.