The Vilnius summit’s geopolitical games: Lessons learnt

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The failure of the Vilnius summit at the end of November is forcing the EU to rethink its approach towards its eastern neighbours, writes Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard.

Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard is a member of the European Parliament (ALDE, Lithuania). Vira Ratsiborynska works as political analyst at MEP Vitkauskaite Bernard's office.

These last months the Eastern partnership countries got worldwide attention. The reason for the increase of interest in these countries is due to a set of political events, decisions and actions that recently took place in that region. Before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius started, some Eastern partnership countries were facing a dilemma regarding the choice of their geopolitical future - a choice between the EU's model of integration and the Russian Eurasian course.

The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius became an event that increased the pressure of this dilemma by exposing the decision process more to the public in Ukraine and Armenia, resulting in heated discussions and confrontations. For Moldova and Georgia this Summit was the starting point in determining and finalizing their pro-European choice. It was a time of abstention for Belarus and Azerbaijan. Different geopolitical interests of Russia and the EU became visible in the region. Various integration and disintegration forces, being respectively pro- or anti- with regard to the offered integration models, had become active and had begun confronting each other in these countries at that time.

Starting from summer 2013 the Eastern partnership countries had suffered from considerable Russian pressure. For example, Russia implemented punitive trade measures by banning import of Moldovan and Ukrainian goods. At the same time Ukraine was afflicted by a very tense situation related to the possible risk of a new gas confrontation with Russia. Ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit Lithuania as the country that would be hosting the Summit had been targeted with similar trade pressure as well. Russia suspended the import of dairy products from Lithuania and blocked trucks at the border with Lithuania.

During all this time the European Union did not remain silent and reacted to this tension in the Eastern partnership region. One of the reactions of the EU to the Russian pressure was the adoption of the European Parliament’s resolutions of 12 September and of 24 October 2013 asking Russia to refrain from exerting pressure in the region. The EU high officials repeatedly published statements where they reiterated that the Russian pressure on the region was unacceptable. Meanwhile, the EU was preparing for the Vilnius Summit that was expected to become a milestone of the Eastern Partnership Program launched four years ago in May 2009.

Before the Vilnius Summit the EU had entertained the hope that it would be able to launch the Association agreements with Georgia and Moldova and to sign the same agreement with Ukraine. The initiation of the agreement with Moldova and Georgia and the signature thereof with Ukraine were very important for the EU. This is not surprising, considering that for the EU this Association agreement is a necessary legal instrument that can bind these countries to the EU’s model of integration and can align them much closer to the European Union than it was the case before. A signature and initiation of this agreement with these countries could become a sign for the successful accomplishment of the EU’s integration model for a neighbourhood and a big achievement of the EU as a whole. It could become a big political success for the Member States-supporters of the further integration processes with the neighbourhood as well. Moreover, through the gradual implementation of the Europeanization process in these countries, the EU could satisfy its security, energy and economic interests in the neighbourhood and could build the necessary bridge with Russia to manage the spheres of its “common interests”.

The first shock that the EU suffered before the Vilnius Summit was the Armenian decision to align with Russia and to join the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus instead of siding with the EU. Armenian vulnerability in the frozen conflict with Azerbaijan combined with the presence of pro-Russian business interests in Armenian economy convinced Armenia to join the pro-Russian vector of development.

After the Armenian decision the Ukrainian decision to postpone the signature of the Association agreement came completely unexpected for the EU. Thus during the Vilnius Summit and the immediate aftermath Ukraine quickly developed into a test of relations between the EU and Russia. Before the Vilnius Summit, when Russian pressure was exerted in the region, the EU underestimated the Russian influence in Ukraine. This could possibly be considered as a big geopolitical mistake by the EU. In Ukraine the Russian factor always played an important role in its relations with the EU. Since its independence in 1991, being in the geopolitical limbo between them, Ukraine always tried to keep a geopolitical balance between the EU and Russia. This was the reason that Ukrainian officials had to take into special account the Russian factor amongst the other economic and geopolitical factors for the decision to postpone the Association agreement. From their geopolitical evaluation the Ukrainians understood that choosing one geopolitical strategic model of relations with only one partner could potentially damage relations with the other, spurned one. Thus Ukraine is only able to make this kind of choice if the country can be sure that the chosen side can guarantee that Ukraine will be able to continue in good relations with the other one. It is quite clear that the triangle EU-Ukraine-Russia was never really evitable in the key decisions of their common interests. Furthermore, when pondering to align with the EU, Ukrainian officials had to take into consideration the possible risks that Ukrainian economy could face during the transition period of the implementation of the Association agreement. Especially the risks of trade wars with and potential sanctions from Russia were ever present in their evaluations. This pragmatic assessment and the strong Russian influence in Ukraine came as somewhat of a surprise to the EU and, as a consequence, resulted in what you could call a shock as the EU was quite unprepared for this Ukrainian decision.

Taking stock of all that has transpired, the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place on 28-29 November in Vilnius has become a historic event for rethinking the Eastern partnership model of relations with the EU and its relevance to the rest of the world. A succession of decisions and events in the Eastern Partnership region gave a needed impulse to analyse what has happened and to doubtlessly learn many lessons from the Vilnius Summit for both the EU and Russia. In order to make these lessons work, the two main players in the region - the EU and Russia - need to learn to act not with different “soft” and “hard” tactics in the region but together with a shared agenda. The period of the Cold War is over but the geopolitical games over influence and control in the Eastern Partnership region still go on. But nevertheless the goals of the EU and Russia have to be and to remain the same: a stable, politically secure and economically strong development of the Eastern neighbourhood. This task is difficult but it can be manageable. It should consist of upgrading the relations between the EU and Russia in the Eastern Partnership. The EU shouldn’t forget that there are leverages with which the EU can counter Russian pressure in the Eastern partnership region: the Russian economy is largely dependent on the EU – in the same way as Ukrainian trade relations are dependent on the Russian market. This geopolitical factor of the EU-Russian-Ukrainian trade relations has to be acknowledged by all three players and can serve as a basis for their trade relations in those moments where one of the sides tries to apply pressure on another side.

Furthermore, a lot needs to be done within the Eastern Partnership policy itself. One of the possible tasks and improvements from the European side can be the granting of the membership perspective to the Eastern partnership countries. The EU may not only acknowledge the European aspirations of these countries but could also grant them a final perspective for their relations with the EU. But obviously for that the EU also needs to reach a common position on its neighbourhood within all its Member States. Another improvement can be the substance of the Eastern partnership policy itself that should be adjusted to the short-term costs of the transition period of the implementation of the Association agreement with the EU.

All these tasks seem challenging for the EU now, especially during this period of economic recession and a looming political crisis inside of the EU. But all these steps are essential if the EU wants to reach a successful momentum in its external policy and in its relations with the neighbourhood. The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius was a necessary lesson for everybody and a historic moment of geopolitical rethinking. The post-Vilnius time will show how these lessons will be used in practice.