Eastern Partnership 2.0 – Upgrading the ambitions and impact on the neighborhood

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Where are we?

As a part of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was founded 10 years ago to focus on and upgrade the relations with the EU’s Eastern neighbors located geographically between Russia and the European Union – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. For EU member states, it was possible to agree on this new policy focus without Russia against the background of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War. Ironically, while this agreement was also a reaction to Russian aggression against Georgia, the EU has generally ignored the Russia factor in its relations with the target countries over the years. This was due to the disagreement among the member states on how to deal with Russia. However, the EuroMaidan event in Ukraine in 2013/14, and later Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, acted as a reality check for the EU. These events helped make contrasts between the interests of Russia and the EU all the more clear. While Russia is fueling and using these conflicts in its neighborhood as a means to control these states through (controlled) instability and has an interest in informal rules and corruption as a means of influence, the EU would like to see a stable and prosperous neighborhood with open markets, strong institutions and the rule of law. Even if the EU is currently lacking an effective Russia policy, the five guiding principles in its relations with Russia are a recognition of this reality.[1]

10 years after the establishment of the EaP, the partnership has enjoyed many successes, this despite its many critics. This includes the Association Agreements (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as visa liberalization and the facilitation agreement combined with a Common Aviation Area Agreement with these three countries. The agreements have given the three states a guide for their reform processes and rapprochement with the EU. They have also increased the social exchange with EU member states – particularly in areas like tourism and student exchange programs. Armenia signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation (CEPA) agreement in November 2017, which creates a framework for its relations with the EU. The CEPA also establishes a framework for cooperation and modernization in areas like democratization, human rights, economic development, norms, and standards. Trade with the EU in half of the countries has grown since 2009 – especially with Ukraine and Moldova but also between the EU and Azerbaijan.

However, despite some successes in the reform process, all of the states have a long way to go in adapting of EU norms and standards. The dominance of vested interests, corruption, lack of rule of law and weak institutions are all issues that impede progress. The pathway towards democratization is not irreversible, as informal ties still trump formal rules. Despite the noted successes, obstacles to sustainable reform and systemic changes remain a problem. Unfortunately, ideas are lacking on how to break these countries’ Soviet and post-Soviet legacies. New ideas are needed on how to reach the next stage of transformation without having an EU membership on the table as a carrot.

Growing Realism and Frustration

What we observe in both the EU and the EaP countries, is a growing realism about the relations on both sides, but also frustration about their limits. For the EU, the reform process in the EaP countries is moving much slower than hoped-for. The expectation of a linear process of transformation into democracy and rule of law has been proven to be unrealistic. There are alternatives to democratization and Europeanization that are not based on sustainable modernization but rather on vested interests, informal rules, and weak institutions. The EU has become very cautious about designating countries as “frontrunners” in the reform process because the political situation can change very quickly in both directions (e.g. Moldova and Armenia). For the EaP countries, EU membership is not on the table and EU support and vision for the region has its limits. While in most of the EaP countries, support for EU integration and rapprochement is still very high, a majority of EU citizens are not however supportive of any further rapprochement nor providing membership prospects to the EaP countries. Domestic politics and the external environment on both sides are changing. This is turn impacts the relationship. The internal crisis of the EU combined with growing populism impacts the attractiveness of the EU and its ability to act in its neighborhood.

What is striking for the relations between EU and EaP countries is a lack of a common vision. The rapprochement and reform implementation process are still very technical but the ultimate political goal of this policy remains unclear. Countries like Georgia and Ukraine, who aspire for more than “neighbor” status, lobby the EU into a discussion on what comes next after the AA/DCFTA. Not only do the leaders of the EU-member states lack a vision for the future of the EU, they also lack the political will and ideas to go beyond the current technical rapprochement with the EaP countries. The status quo is the position of most of the EU member states. However, the success of the reforms in the EaP countries requires long-term engagement and the adaptation of EU standards for internal and external changes. Furthermore, EU leaders have finally recognized that Russia is not a partner but a competitor in this reform process with mostly contradictory political goals.

The Changing International Environment

The fast-changing political environment in which EaP policy takes place is a key trend right now. Since 2008 and particularly since Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term in 2012, Russia has become even more aggressive and willing to use force against its neighbors. This is due to its ongoing economic weakness and limited soft power but also due to the opportunities for power projection when the West is weak and divided. The EU is no longer a model for modernization for Russian elites and the Kremlin cares less and less about what the EU thinks. Other players like Turkey, China, and Arab Countries are more active in the EaP region and offer their political role models. The EU’s neighborhood policy is increasingly in competition with other external players, while the EU itself remains in an ongoing internal crisis. Furthermore, trans-Atlantic relations are in a decline. NATO is still the main security guarantor for Western countries and a key link between the USA and European states. But in NATO we can also observe the growing transatlantic rift looking into the discussion over who pays for what and how to rethink burden-sharing. All this leads to more uncertainty in times when liberal democracy is under pressure and authoritarian states are increasingly active, including in the EaP countries. For countries like Georgia and Ukraine, NATO could be the only security guarantor, but there is no consensus among member states on membership prospects taking into consideration the Russian sphere of influence.

Changing Role of Civil Society

The role of civil society in politics and the reform process is changing. Societies are less and less willing to accept corruption, the lack of a development prospects and the stagnation of reforms. Because citizens cannot change politics through elections, they are willing to go into the street to express their dissatisfaction. We have observed protest movements in all of EaP states over the last ten years – most prominently the Dignity Revolution in Ukraine (2013-2014) and the Velvet Revolution in Armenia (2018).[2] A new generation of politicians and protesters is growing in the countries born after the fall of the Soviet Union. These protesters organize demonstrations through social networks and other digital communication platforms. Repression can hamper this development but not stop it. For the EU, it means that there are allies in countries that support the reform process and can play a more important role in demanding and monitoring reforms. Brussels needs to involve these civil actors more comprehensively in its strategic policy and learn from them the methods to propel elites in the reform process.

Security as Key for Success

A key challenge to all six states is their security situation which is not part of the EaP policy. Russia has occupied territories in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine or is involved in regional conflicts (in Armenia and Azerbaijan) in 5 of 6 EaP countries. Challenging the security situation of post-Soviet states and exploiting regional conflicts is part of Russia’s policy to keep these countries under control. Cyber-attacks play an increasing role in the security situation in all the states. The manipulation of public opinion (mostly by Russia) has been explored in the post-Soviet countries before it was used in Western Europe and the US. Ignoring these kinds of links means they are not taking Russia’s destabilization policy in the common neighborhood and the EU serious enough. While Russia’s economic attractiveness and soft power are declining, it is increasingly using military force and hybrid measures to impact these countries. This requires a different approach by the EU and a different risk analysis regarding its EaP policy.

Growing Differentiation among the Post-Soviet States

While we still use the term post-Soviet for these states, the differentiation among them is constantly growing. Although they have a common Soviet heritage, and informal rules, vested interests, corruption and oligarchic structures still play a prominent role in their politics and society, the development path of the six countries increasingly varies. The shared history that once united the countries is being interpreted and re-interpreted from different national perspectives.[3] This has an impact on the generation born after 1991. Russian is still a common language, but among the young generations it is often no longer the most common language. The nationalization of various political and social sectors is taking place, whereby the relationship with other countries outside the EU member states, like Turkey, China and Iran play an increasing role.[4] Social networks and the internet have an impact on how people communicate and how societies are organized. The digital community represents a new actor in influencing changes in economies and challenging politics as we have seen recently with the Velvet Revolution in Armenia where they had a key role.

Instead of speaking about post-Soviet countries, they are becoming increasingly post-post-Soviet states.[5] Even if differentiation is one element of the EaP policy reforms, the EU needs to differentiate more in certain sectors (i.e. rule of law, energy). While there are common issues that unite the states within the EaP, a regional approach is not always useful. A South Caucasian country like Georgia can have more in common with Ukraine or Moldova then with Armenia and Azerbaijan.[6] For some EU member states, Russia is still the key reference point to understand trends in the region. But this is misguiding and does not reflect the growing differentiation and the interests of EaP states to leave the post-Soviet region as a sphere of Russian influence. What is argued here for the EaP countries is also true for Russia: Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, as its society and elites are changing and becoming more pluralistic.

The South Caucasus and EaP

If we view the South Caucasus, we can view three different countries in terms of their reform path and relations with the EU. While Georgia aims to integrate with the EU and the transatlantic institutions as much as possible, Armenia depends very much on Russia (economy, security, energy), is a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and, at the same time, has signed a partnership and cooperation agreement with the EU. Azerbaijan has neither an interest to integrate with the EU nor with Russia and follows a balancing policy between the different players. Baku has an interest in the development of energy and economic relations with the EU but does not accept the EU acquis or show interest in a membership perspective. These three countries have three different approaches in dealing with the EU (and Russia) and are in three different stages in their integration with the EU. All three have fundamental security challenges, Georgia with two territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) occupied by Russia, and Armenia and Azerbaijan in their conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. Russia also plays a crucial role in this conflict as the security guarantor for Armenia and arms provider for both countries.

The EU has not fulfilled the expectations of any of these countries and the fact that the EU has failed to provide integration prospects for Georgia has led to frustration. Additionally, its limited investment in Armenia, its contradictory value policy in Azerbaijan and limited support in the conflicts has caused frustration among all countries. Expectation management from both sides is necessary not to create more frustration, but understanding that the South Caucasus is not a top priority for Brussels is also important. At the same time, the EU needs to understand that this is a region of competing for geopolitical and geo-economic interests between Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Russia, and if it wants to play a decisive role here, it needs to invest more.

Where to go?

First, if the EU wants to stay relevant in the South Caucasus region, it needs to recognize Russia as the main competitor to its EaP policy and with whom it will not agree with on issues like democratization, rule of law, conflict mediation and resolution. It is crucial for the EU’s EaP policy to establish a clearer and more coordinated Russia policy. To accept Russia’s dominance in the South Caucasus will not stabilize and modernize the region or prevent further military conflicts. Consequently, the EaP needs more engagement from the EU in the conflicts and a more comprehensive security strategy. Furthermore, in the years to come, China is likely to become a larger competitor in the region for both the EU and Russia.

Second, the EU needs to understand that without security, transformation and democratization will not be successful. It has its advantages, that EaP has no security component and is focusing on soft areas of reforms and transformation. This is because it limits the conflict with Russia and does not involve the EU into hard power conflict resolution in the region which can demand a lot of resources. The EU could also find itself in a situation where it might have to choose one side over the other. At the same time, because of the fragility of the security situation and the role Russia plays in the region, every reform and transformation will be challenged. Therefore, a substantial discussion is needed to determine whether EaP policy requires a security component or if it should focus on soft areas like the modernization of security institutions and its response to the common cyber threat rather than on hard security. Is a division of labor with NATO possible? If so, how can it be improved?

Cooperation and integration in key areas is possible even without membership prospects. This includes digitalization, the energy market, financial services, environmental issues, and labor standards. Cooperation centering on the norms and standards in strategic areas will likely amid Russian and increasingly, Chinese competition. This cooperation might be more relevant to countries with a AA/DCFTA because it would deepen the integration with other areas like common markets, the agricultural sector, and social standards, but it can also impact relations with Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan, because it would create integration in areas which are less politicized and beneficial for their economies and societies.

To involve civil society in the reform process in terms of monitoring, public communication, and conceptual inputs, is crucial to the process of sustainable reform, which is not top-down (like in Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili) but embedded in the society and guided by their social needs. Here the involvement of the business community can be useful: There should not only be a focus on traditional civil society (human rights) but on all actors, which have an interest in change and modernization of their country.

The improvement of infrastructure and links with the EU is crucial for development, as well as economic and social exchange. This policy needs to be upgraded further and backed by an increased budget and a strategic vision. The South Caucasus is a key region between the Caspian and Black Seas, it links Europe with Asia and Russia and the Middle East. All this is of economic and strategic importance in terms of access to energy resources, transit, migration and security. It can be linked with China’s Belt and Road Initiative but can also stand in competition with Beijing.

All this leads to the final argument – that there is a need for a next step after the Association Agreement including upgrading the ambitions and the operational impact of the Association Agreement and a more flexible adaptation to the changing situation in the target countries.[7] A feedback process from EaP countries is important, especially the involvement of civil society to better understand what works and what doesn’t. More youth and cultural exchanges are welcome, but it is not enough to solve the challenges the EaP countries and the EU face. The EU needs more ambition in its neighborhood policy to prevent authoritarian players from shaping the trends in these countries.[8]

About this Publication

The South Caucasus office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation has been working on EU-South Caucasus dialogue and the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy for years. A regional perspective can be beneficial for adapting and upgrading EaP policy, especially in times where new concepts are in demand and expectation management is needed. The EU is finalizing its review of the EaP policy and the German EU presidency in the second half of 2020 can be an important tool for developing a more ambitious EU neighborhood policy. We have asked three regional experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to review EaP policy of the last 10 years and provide their recommendations on how to step forward. One key argument is that civil society can play a more decisive role in the reform process of the three states and should play a more prominent role in EU policy. Despite all the challenges, EaP policy is a success story but it now needs to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment and take more seriously the lessons learned from the reality check of the policy in the target countries.


[1] European Parliament Think Tank (2018), The EU’s Russia policy: Five guiding principles, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2018)614698.

[2] Cf. table in Stanislav Secrieru/Sinikukka Saari (eds.) (2019), The Eastern Partnership a decade on. Looking back, thinking ahead, European Union Institute for Security Studies, Chailliot paper 153, July, p. 17, https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/eastern-partnership-decade-looking-back-thinking-ahead.

[3] Secrieru/Saari (2019), p.2.

[4] Bertelsmann Stiftung (2018), Antagonism in the EU’s neighborhood #1. The EU, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia struggle for influence in their common neighborhood, Bertelsmann Stiftung, https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/en/publications/publication/did/antagonisms-in-the-eus-neighbourhood/.

[5] Cf. Secrieru/Saari (2019), p. 13-16.

[6] Kornely Kakachia, Stefan Meister, Benjamin Fricke (2018), Conclusions, in: Kakachia, Meister, Fricke, Geopolitics and security. A new strategy for the South Caucasus, p. 283-293.

[7] Cf. Stephen Blockmans (2019), The Eastern Partnership at 10. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, CEPS, May, 6, https://www.ceps.eu/the-eastern-partnership-at-10/.

[8] Cf. FN4.