The European Union’s primary goal for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Riga Summit on 21-22 May is to show that the EaP is not imposing its own rules too heavily on partner countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). The war in Ukraine has highlighted the complex situations faced by all EaP countries, and with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) pushing at the doors of the Eastern Partnership countries, the EU is offering a newly tailored approach which will reduce the emphasis on integration, out of concern for the Kremlin’s reaction.
But such an individualized approach is difficult to reconcile with the EU’s core democratic and human rights values, and there are real concerns about the EaP’s continuing viability. Particularly among the three countries of the South Caucasus, there are different perspectives on integration with the EU.
Tbilisi’s visa-free gambit
Georgia’s expectations for the Riga Summit appear modest - visa-free status for its citizens to visit EU countries. But in practical terms even this has major benefits. It would enable Tbilisi to dismiss allegations that it is backtracking on its European integration plans, which has caused concern among some European allies and the Georgian public, especially following the dismissal last November of Defence Minister Irakli Alasania, a prominent pro-European. Alasania had warned that the country’s pro-Western policy trajectory was under threat.
Visa-free status could also provide Tbilisi with a new ‘soft power tool’, a way to attract citizens of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as this would enable them to travel more easily to the West on their Georgian passports, as opposed to their Russian documents. Public support for the tariff-reducing Association Agreement (AA) remains around 69 per cent. However, support for joining the EEU has significantly increased over the past year from 20 to 31 per cent. Securing visa-free status would send a clear signal of the country’s EU-orientation to Georgian citizens, bolster faith in the government’s negotiating capacity, and improve public perceptions of the EU. Accordingly, the president, prime minister and chairman of Parliament wrote to the EU requesting ‘unambiguous endorsement of a visa-free regime’. However, the latest report on the plan shows that there is significant work still to be done by Tbilisi, and visa liberalization seems unlikely.
Individual approaches to Yerevan and Baku
Armenia and Azerbaijan have, in different ways, already limited their relationships with the EU in advance of the Riga Summit. By unilaterally abandoning its Association Agreement in 2013, and ‘choosing’ EEU membership under pressure from Russia, Armenia has placed significant constraints on its own ability to cooperate with the EU. Although Yerevan has signalled that it is ready to sign the political chapters of the Agreement − i.e. without the economic section − this was not regarded as an option by the EU.
Since the war in Ukraine, however, the EU has been forced to adjust its position. Thus since last October, the EU and Armenia have been discussing how to rework their Association Agreement so that it is in compliance with the country’s EEU membership, thereby hopefully maintaining good relations with Moscow. Consequently, Armenia anticipates either the announcement of a new agreement, or at least roadmap, locking Armenia into the EaP.
Azerbaijan’s future cooperation within the EaP has been limited by Baku’s proclamation that it is not interested in an Association Agreement. Baku’s view is that the AA as it stands is not a partnership of equals, so it has sought a separate modernization and strategic partnership agreement. Given the EU’s new flexibility, there is some scope for this. Azerbaijan’s role as an alternative energy supplier for the EU has gained in importance since the conflict in Ukraine began, and Baku has used the issue of territorial integrity raised by the annexation of Crimea to gain leverage for its own case – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But the EU’s lack of overt support for the Azerbaijani side, increasing criticism of the country’s human rights record, as well as concerns about Russian influence, have all led Baku to adopt a harsher approach towards the West. In this context, it is a bad time for Baku to take such a major strategic decision as signing a new cooperation agreement.
The Riga Summit will not be historic, but it will recalibrate approaches to the partner countries.
More significantly, the summit will provide a stress test for the potential of the entire EaP platform. The ultimate test will come when the war in Ukraine ends, but in the meantime this new, flexible, yet supposedly equal partnership may require too much political commitment from the EaP countries that ultimately have little interest in the EU’s values-based reform agenda, regardless of what is offered in return. So the Riga Summit may weaken the EU by limiting engagement to a few uncontroversial, albeit mutually beneficial, sectors.
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