In the recent years, the issue of engaging the newly independent states into Eurasian spheres of influence has become a major topic for political and expert discussions about the post-Soviet space. In this context, political rhetoric and analysis have been focused on two key players - Russia and the European Union - as well as on potential points of interaction. Is peaceful coexistence of the two sides possible or is an increase in competition between them in the aim of attracting new members inevitable? Is Russia able to offer a viable alternative to multilateral economic and political cooperation to states that claim that the main aim of their foreign policy is to obtain membership in the EU? How does the EU see the limits on its relations with countries to the east of its current borders?
“Common neighborhood”: a Dialectic of Perception
Discussions about potential competition between Russia and the EU regarding influence in the post-Soviet space have been actively occurring since 2003-2004. Since then, the idea of a looming conflict between the two integration projects in the post-Soviet space has become axiomatic in expert and political circles.
The enlargement of the European Union has made regional players face the necessity of adapting to changes in their institutions. Providing for the secure development of its peripheral regions, understood as the spread of liberal and democratic norms within the neighboring states, has become the main aim for EU foreign policy. Practical implementation has occurred through the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which over the course of its development has spread to six Post-Soviet countries and the ten states within the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.
The aim of providing for secure development has been accompanied by the task of overcoming “inertial enlargement,” which was formulated in the ENP as “establishing more than partnership but less than membership”.
The concept of the Neighborhood Policy consists of creating a new institutional framework of cooperation in order to provide stability and security within the new borders of the enlarged EU and to reset the parameters of cooperation within the neighboring states. The initiative infers large-scale cooperation without an institutional superstructure, which is avidly illustrated by the famous quote of R. Prodi about the “commonality of all except for institutions”. The transition to democracy, market economy and the acceptance of European values by partner-states was announced to be the main aim on the road to creating “a Europe without dividing lines”.
At the time of the elaboration of the ENP initiative, Russia was offered participation, together with other neighboring states. Russia refused, making reference to the already existing “strategic” relationship with the EU. The concept of “four common spaces” (2003) was coined simultaneously with the implementation of the ENP on the EU-Russia level, and “roadmaps” were signed (2005).
Perceptions of consolidation in multilateral cooperation were enhanced by active work by Russia in creating a common economic space that would consist of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. The rise and fall of this initiative happened in 2003-2005, and it could in many ways be considered a response to the actions taken by the EU. The position of the Ukrainian leadership, which at that moment preferred the Euro-Atlantic vector of development, was the cornerstone in discussions about the existence of the two alternative centers of integration that were competing for influence in the post-Soviet space.
A Split in Values
The next cycle of growing attention to regional interaction took place during 2008-2009. The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” program became a key element in the system of multilateral relations. Despite being widespread and deeply rooted in both expert and political domains, the “Eastern Partnership” is not a direct reaction to the “Color Revolutions” in the post-Soviet space or to the “Caucasian war” of 2008. It is more of a geographic specificity for a very blurry neighborhood policy. Declared a new initiative, the “Eastern Partnership” has become a superstructure to the ENP while remaining within the framework of the already suggested paradigm of interaction with partner-states. The only novel component is the multilateral interaction within the framework of the program. Whereas the ENP was not designed to be a policy aimed at developing multilateral formats for regional cooperation, the objective of establishing horizontal links between the countries of the region under the framework of developing the “Eastern Partnership” has taken the form of themed programs launched at the end of 2009 - beginning of 2010: “Integrated border management”, “Regional energy markets and energy efficiency”, a Fund for support to small and middle-sized enterprises, a project for combatting natural disasters, and an environment protection program. The defining feature of this new stage in EU policy towards the East is the demand for the harmonization of national legislation with EU legal provisions.
It is this component of the “Eastern Partnership” aimed at influencing the development of the multilateral regional cooperation and the economic convergence of the partner-states with the EU markets that has caused the greatest concern in Russia. Russia sees it as a threat to its own integration initiatives in the post-Soviet space, first and foremost to the project of establishing a Customs Union/Common Economic Space and the attempts to engage Ukraine in this project.
That being said, the prospects for developing Russia-EU relations envisaged in the key documents concerning bilateral cooperation do not contradict the long-term aims of the “Eastern Partnership”. The objective of establishing common economic, humanitarian spaces and the security zones proclaimed in the Russia-EU “strategic partnership” and the EU action plans with the partner-states within the framework of the ENP could reach a continental scope.
In practice, such a consolidation of the existing formats and initiatives faces a number of difficulties.
Firstly, there is no consensus between Russia and the EU concerning the place of liberal and democratic values in their policies in the post-Soviet space. The “values dimension” is essential for the EU, since it represents the only common platform for pursuing a common foreign policy. This explains the increased attention that the EU has paid to the issue of shared values in its relations with partner-states in the post-Soviet space. The exaggerated result of this value-oriented policy is the creation of a choice between the two major integration centers, artificial in many ways, that the post-Soviet countries are faced with. Russian foreign policy is founded on more pragmatic interests, which stress the artificial character of opposing “European” and “Russian” values.
Secondly, none of the existing formats for integrative cooperation in the current forms offered by the EU and Russia satisfy the needs of the post-Soviet states. The developed programs aim at solving, first and foremost, the domestic problems of their initiators. The objective of Russia can be defined as a search for stable political and economic partners in order to establish a powerful center of influence. The objective of the EU, as has been previously stated, is confined to overcoming the consequences of enlargement and putting off the acceptance of new members from the post-Soviet space according to an undefined timeframe.
Shift in Emphasis
The potential for developing a system of regional relations depends on a number of conditions that have already been formed in the positions of the key actors.
The post-Soviet countries stopped being an essential part of the EU foreign policy agenda, and major efforts were turned towards resolving issues of domestic development. As short-term interest in political and economic processes in neighboring states decreased, there appeared a growing understanding of the inherent limits to the Eastern policy.
These limits are associated with the unresolved issue of projected membership and a lack of attention to security questions, both of which fall short within the frameworks of all the existing cooperation programs. The EU is especially concerned with the insufficiently quick democratization of its neighboring countries. The current course of events is considered to be unsatisfactory, not only in the states that are anyway regarded as authoritarian (Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia), but also in the states that used to be listed as democratic (Ukraine and Georgia). In the EU, there is a growing sentiment that the rhetoric of Euro-Atlantic integration and the declared objective of embracing liberal and democratic values are rather being used by the new democracies to reinforce their position in their relations with Russia as an instrument in the traditional balancing between the two major actors.
The decrease in the EU’s attention towards its neighboring countries reduces their possibilities for political maneuvering and using “integration blackmail”. The countries that have made integration in the EU the cornerstone of their foreign policy (first and foremost, Ukraine and Georgia) are disappointed with the results of EU activities in this field. From the point of view of long-term modernization, EU projects are aimed at creating favorable conditions for structural reforms. However, their implementation stumbles upon the desire of the elites of partner-states to obtain immediate results.
The prospect of gaining access to European markets is distant and unstable given the current crisis, whereas the necessity for solving urgent domestic economic and social problems is acute in the neighboring states. For the post-Soviet countries that have not made integration into Euro-Atlantic structures their foreign policy priority, the “Eastern Partnership” is one of the possible ways for economic cooperation with a major actor, a way to overcome geographical isolation (for Armenia), and to gain extra investment and export opportunities (for Azerbaijan).
Under these circumstances, the countries of the “common neighborhood” realize the risk of finding themselves in the “grey zone” of disregard from both integration centers, which in many ways defines the shifts in domestic policies aimed at returning to or strengthening a sensible balance between Moscow and Brussels, whenever possible.
The current pause in the conceptualization and implementation of the new prospective EU activity areas in the post-Soviet space creates additional opportunities for Russian foreign policy. The suggested idea of a broad economic integration union may turn out to be attractive not only for the “common neighbors”, but also for some of the EU member-states: first and foremost, for Central and Eastern European countries.
At the current stage of development, it is difficult to make forecasts about dramatic changes in the competitive nature of relations concerning the area of the “common neighborhood”. However, the general tendency towards making political activities more pragmatic creates opportunities for Russia to implement or adjust the “step-by-step” initiatives aimed at overcoming the logic of competition for the spheres of influence and increasing attractiveness of the integration cooperation. First of all, the mitigation of the most acute issues concerning Ukraine will lead to decreasing its role in Russia-EU relations. It is evident that as of today, Ukraine’s integration into the Customs Union is impossible due to multiple political and economic reasons, and reducing tensions in discussions of this question will have a beneficial effect on all the aspects of relations in the triangle Russia - EU - “common neighbors”.
The absence of a conflict resolution domain in EU programs on the one hand gives Russia the role of the key player in providing security in the post-Soviet space, but on the other hand opens up a “window of opportunity” for Russia-EU cooperation, since the two sides have different types of foreign policy instruments.
However the necessity of reaching a consensus about the “values” component of economic cooperation that would lay the foundation for the integration rapprochement from Vladivostok to Lisbon remains the core issue.