What explains Russia's hostility towards the EU's Eastern Partnership?

Monday, 1. March 2010     0 comment(s)
Sinikukka Saari
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) launched in May 2009 intensifies the EU’s policies towards its Eastern neighbours, namely Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition to the traditional bilateral elements, the Eastern Partnership includes elements that are meant to enhance general regionalism in the eastern neighbourhood. These multilateral thematic platforms enable non-EaP and non-EU states and non-state actors to take part in the cooperation on case-by-case basis.

Despite this inclusive regional element, Russia has expressed suspicions and mistrust of the EaP from the outset. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the EaP is the EU's attempt to establish a ‘sphere of interest’ in the East and that it forces the states in the EU's eastern neighbourhood to choose between the EU and Russia. The EaP has been portrayed in the Russian press generally as an anti-Russian enterprise. Several Russian commentators have insisted that Russia should have been consulted before formulating a document that concerns a region where Russia has ‘priviledged interests’.

The EU should certainly take the mistrust that these comments reflect seriously. However, it is hard to see that the EU could have included Russia in the negotiations on the Eastern Partnership. The main body of the document deals with bilateral relations and it would have been simply unthinkable to include a third party in the negotiations. Russia was invited to take part in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) on which the EaP builds on but Russia itself rejected the invitation.

Because of the timing of the launch of EaP, it has been linked with the Georgian war and portrayed as a ‘sanction’ against Russia. The Georgian war probably accelerated the process but the plan was there even before the war. There was an institutional need within the EU for the EaP. The ENP was too wide and too general a framework to meet the needs of the Eastern partner countries struggling with transition and domestic reforms. Since the southern ENP states were already included in the Barcelona Process, it was only natural to launch a corresponding regional framework in the east.

Russian commentators argue that Russia is losing out because of the EaP. In reality, however, the intensity of Russia-EU cooperation is in many areas well ahead of the EaP states. For instance, there has been visa facilitation between the EU and Russia since 2007 while many EaP states are still in line for the visa facilitation agreements with the EU.

The argument that also Russia can be included in the multilateral thematic platforms on ad hoc basis made by the EU falls on deaf ears. Indeed, the fact that Russian NGOs could be invited to take part in the Civil Society Forum of the EaP in future is a cold comfort for the representatives of the Russian state who generally view this kind of activity as contrary to Russian interests.

Instead of ad hoc arrangements, Russia craves formal recognition and inclusion in permanent institutions as an equal decision-maker. The desire is related more to the issue of status than to the issue of functionality. Russia does not want to be invited to take part in cooperation when the decisions on topics and format have already been made by others. Due to this, it is unlikely that Russia will be constructive stakeholder in the EaP multilateral platforms even if and when invited to take part.

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