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Interview: How Can The EU's Eastern Partnership Project Succeed?

On May 3, representatives of the parliaments of most of the EU Eastern Partnership countries will gather in Brussels for the project's first meeting and to sign documents creating the Parliamentary Assembly of the Eastern Partnership.

Delegations from Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia will participate. Belarus, however, was not invited, a repercussion of Minsk's brutal crackdown on the political opposition in the wake of the disputed presidential election in December 2010.

On the eve of the gathering, RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Thomas de Waal, a senior associate specializing in the Caucasus with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the obstacles facing the Eastern Partnership project and the prospects for its success.

RFE/RL: You wrote recently about the EU's Eastern Partnership in "The National Interest." In your view, what needs to be done to make the Eastern Partnership a substantial project?

Thomas de Waal:
The issue with the Eastern Partnership is that we're facing now a phase when EU expansion, EU enlargement, has basically stopped. Maybe some countries in the western Balkans -- Croatia, possibly Serbia -- will get in, but then I think the prospects are much dimmer for other European countries, which are European but which face much tougher challenges to get into the EU.

Thomas de Waal (file photo)
Turkey, obviously, has major difficulties in being accepted. Then, if we look eastward, we look at Ukraine, Moldova, the countries of the South Caucasus, it is very unlikely will join the EU -- at least not for the next 10, 15, 20 years.

In that regard, neighborhood policy becomes much more important. How can the EU exert attraction toward these countries without offering them full membership? And I think, obviously, this is a stick with two ends. These countries need to show a genuine interest in the EU and the EU's values, but what Brussels needs to do, I think, boils down to two things.

One is visa facilitation, which I think is actually beginning to work. It has been offered to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia -- the citizens of those countries can now get visas much more easily. That's one thing.

And, I think more important, is this idea of privileged access to the European single market. The idea is that trade policy can be opened up to these countries. And I think that is really a significant carrot for the Eastern Partnership countries. And I think it is a good policy.

The problem is that, one, the EU is distracted by other issues and doesn't have enough resources -- either in time or money -- for the Eastern Partnership. And second, the EU is poor at communicating the policy. I think it is quite a good policy, but they are not very good at communicating it.

RFE/RL: You seem, in general, pessimistic about the Eastern Partnership.

De Waal:
Not necessarily. I think there are some countries.... If we look at them individually, every case is different. I think there is a case for keeping them all in one general basket and then looking at them individually. But some countries clearly have no interest in what the EU can offer: Azerbaijan and Belarus -- in its current state -- being the obvious examples.

I think there is a real question for many of these political elites whether close integration with the EU isn't a Trojan horse which basically takes away a lot of their power.
But I think if we look at Moldova -- in Moldova, I think the stimulus of the EU has been very positive for Moldova. It has the most pro-European government in the region and it is beginning to make pro-European reforms as a result. Next behind it in the queue is Georgia, which is much more divided on this issue. But I think potentially the EU could have a positive effect on Georgia too. Ukraine is more problematic under the recent government [of President Viktor Yanukovych], but negotiations are ongoing. So there are three cases where there is some mixed success, at least.

RFE/RL: Belarus wasn't invited to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Eastern Partnership. Do you think there is really any justification for the EU to treat Azerbaijan and Belarus differently? Aren't they both equally "democracy-challenged?"

De Waal:
I suppose the point with Belarus is that expectations were higher with Belarus and that promises were seen to be broken in Brussels. Clearly, they are both quite repressive regimes but Azerbaijan has always made it clear how it sees its relationship with the EU -- it doesn't see itself as a fully European power, so expectations are lower with Azerbaijan.

But Belarus is clearly a European country, it borders EU states, and therefore there were higher hopes. Therefore I think the punishment was appropriate after Belarus -- rather brutally -- walked back on its commitments last December.

What Can EU Offer?

RFE/RL: In your article, you quote Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski as saying that the process by which the Central European former Soviet satellites entered the EU entailed "a grueling period of reform, which requires a sort of national obsession on the part of the candidate countries." Poland, for instance, had 10 governments between 1989 and the time it entered the EU in 2004, but it never lost sight of its EU ambitions. Why can't the Eastern Partnership countries muster this kind of "national obsession?"

De Waal:
I think obviously there are two main reasons. One is that the carrot isn't as big in the Eastern Partnership. EU membership is a huge carrot, in the name of which a whole country could get together and undergo some quite painful reforms. But when membership isn't on offer, the incentives are less.

And secondly, I think there is a real question for many of these political elites whether close integration with the EU isn't a Trojan horse which basically takes away a lot of their power -- their political and economic power. We are basically talking about making their states more transparent, opening up to outside scrutiny, and surrendering sovereignty, which is undoubtedly good for the countries, but not so good for the political elites.

RFE/RL: Your article doesn't mention Russia. But it could be argued that the geopolitical gravity of Russia on one side and the EU on the other is figuratively and literally pulling the Eastern Partnership countries apart. Is it realistic for the EU to pursue an Eastern Partnership project that doesn't have the active involvement and buy-in of the Kremlin?

De Waal:
Absolutely. I think Russia is a special case. Russia obviously didn't want to be part of this Eastern Partnership project. It sees its relationship with the EU much more as a kind of relationship of two big strategic equals.

But Russia and Brussels are offering these countries different things. Armenia can be offered Russian defense and strategic cooperation and yet also be offered EU visa facilitation and trade privileges. The one doesn't exclude the other. I think NATO and Russia -- despite all that NATO says -- I think can be identified as strategic rivals. But I see no reason why these countries can't have a decent relationship with both Russia and the EU if they want to.