EU tries to save Eastern relations under Russian threat
Brussels (AFP) – EU leaders will attempt to salvage relations with five former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe on Wednesday, all potential partners undermined by Russian interference and regional conflicts.
The “Eastern Partnership” has already lost one member: Belarus, which broke with the group in June after criticism from European capitals against the contested re-election of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
The five remaining partners – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – will send leaders to Brussels to meet the heads of the 27 member states, a day before a full EU summit.
“The timing of this summit was well chosen, because these countries are going through a complicated period,” said a senior European official.
The date may be right, but diplomats in Brussels expect a frustrating meeting.
On the one hand, Western capitals are keen to show a united front in the face of Russian threats.
On the other hand, they know that they honestly cannot offer the Eastern European countries a path to EU membership.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – all of which have Russian troops occupying regions on their soil – would like to join the European Union, seeing it as a guarantor of peace and prosperity.
But a European minister told AFP: “There is nothing we can do.”
Every step of the long membership process requires the unanimous support of existing member states, and long-standing candidates in the Western Balkans already face an uncertain wait.
“Some member states are pushing to accept Georgia and Ukraine into the EU, but others say it is not possible,” the minister told AFP, speaking under the guise of the ‘anonymity.
The Eastern Partnership summit will begin at 4:00 p.m. (3:00 p.m. GMT) on Wednesday, but before that, EU and national leaders will have held side meetings on specific regional crises.
The President of the European Council and host of the summit, Charles Michel, held talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on Tuesday evening to “ease tensions” after a recent outbreak of their conflict.
A short but sharp war between longtime enemies at the end of 2020 has left 6,500 dead and Azerbaijan controls more territory around the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Border clashes erupted again last month. The European Union has tried to play the role of mediator, but Russia and Turkey are also very influential in the region.
In addition, just before the main summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet French President Emmanuel Macron and the new German leader Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
France and Germany are overseeing the so-called Minsk Process with Russia and Ukraine to negotiate an end to the conflict that has seen Moscow seize Crimea and mass troops on the Ukrainian border.
Western capitals have been alarmed by the recent build-up of Russian troops. The EU has warned Russia that it will join Britain and the United States in imposing massive economic sanctions in the event of an invasion.
But this week, Zelensky accused Germany, under Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel, of blocking the shipment of NATO members’ arms to Ukraine in self-defense.
Georgia, meanwhile, is going through a political crisis. And Moldova’s economy is suffering from a rise in gas prices which Brussels considers orchestrated by Moscow to put its muscles to work in the region.
Two Georgian regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are occupied by Russian forces, as is the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria.
“The permanent destabilization of many areas of the (Eastern) Partnership is very worrying because it threatens peace inside and outside the region”, declared the European minister.
In recent times, Brussels has taken a brutal stance with President Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, expanding various sanctions regimes and threatening a strategic-level economic response to aggression.
EU leaders denounced Lukashenko’s channeling of migrants to the EU border and accused the Kremlin of manipulating gas prices for political ends.
But, admitted the minister, Europe “counts little with Putin, who seeks to deal with the Americans only when it comes to the architecture and the stability of Europe”.
Long slow way
Putin wants to maintain Russian influence over the former Soviet republics now bordering Turkey and EU members – and thwart any hope of their EU or NATO membership.
Europeans publicly reject the idea of a Russian veto or sphere of influence, insisting that Eastern partners are free to choose their own future and strategic alignments.
But privately, several senior European diplomats and government officials admit that no one in Brussels can consider Ukraine or Georgia joining the EU.
“The accession process is about the countries of the Western Balkans, not the Partnership,” said Peter Stano, spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
For the EU, relations with Kiev, Tbilisi and Chisinau are governed by partnership agreements signed in 2014, and not by the long and slow path to accession followed by countries like Serbia and Montenegro.
The senior EU official explained: “We offer these countries a tailor-made partnership. We give more to countries that want to do more.
Europe will thus mobilize an investment plan of 2.3 billion euros (2.6 billion dollars), supported by additional billions from private and non-European institutional sources, to rebuild the partnership.
But, without a clear path to true membership, frustration and disappointment mount, marked by warning signs like Zelensky’s outburst against Merkel.
“The EU will have to carefully calibrate its actions and reactions if it does not want to leave room for Russia to act,” warned a member state official.
© 2021 AFP