The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.
Hostile or not, neighbour relations are not the easiest. Especially if the neighbour knows it better: knows the what, when and where for you.
So does Russia now. Big Brother is watching you! In this case: the Eastern European space. The space which is not as hopeless as this desperate East-Central Europe that after (as Mr. Putin says) the biggest geopolitical tragedy (!) of the XX century, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union, rushed to join the dark side – the EU/NATO. Apparently, that side had more and better cookies to offer. But the Kremlin will never admit that.
Nonetheless, having lost these former allies, there are still a few other fellows that can be persuaded not to make this «fatal and suicidal» mistake. There is still hope to guide EU’s Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus) to the promising future, or shall we say back into the future? USSR.2.0 aka Customs Union is calling, baby!
It is calling persistently, constantly and quite painfully in the last couple of weeks. With the Eastern Partnership Summit imminently approaching, Russia prefers sticks rather than carrots in its policy towards its Western neighbours.
The summit, taking place in November in Vilnius, is of crucial geopolitical significance not only for these six partner countries, but also for Europe in general and, obviously, for Russia. There, the future of the whole Eastern European dimension will be decided, with its prospects and developments. The story around the Association Agreement and FTA that might (or not) be signed with Ukraine, and initialled with Moldova and Georgia will demonstrate EU’s vision of the future of the Union: level of cooperation with the East, determination of geographical boarders of Europe and general enlargement policy. For the six countries concerned this will serve as a clear indicator of whether they are welcome in the EU or not. In a negative scenario they are likely to turn to Russia – a decision for many decades ahead. At stake in Russia is the dominance over the last bits of its former might, restoration of its ever fading imperial paranoia and the successfulness of the Customs Union, which unites Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan now.
Henceforth, this upcoming event is a major milestone, forcing all parties to prepare in their own way. Playing cool, the EU tries not to show the fact that a successful Vilnius summit is as important for the Union as it is for the Eastern partners. Thus, at times criticizing, at times encouraging the “Eastern six”, the EU has kept a straight face until recently. The partner-countries are hectically implementing all the required reforms to correspond with EU standards, like students feverishly completing the homework in the break before the lesson. And Russia is doing what the logic of its political machinery tells it to do: breaching the Helsinki Accords, WTO regulations and the Budapest Memorandum all at once. Because Russia likes it big: if violate– then in large amounts only. It is now pressuring the three “lucky ones” being Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia, to dissuade them from “going West”.
Russia’s wakeup call
Russia’s art of persuasion takes the shape of economical, energy and security threats. Let us start with the first. Creating artificial trade obstacles, new cumbersome border checks, severe customs restrictions, clearing detentions and unreasonable sample checks. These actions, which Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called “economic warfare”, caused an almost complete (!) standstill of Ukrainian exports to Russia – Ukraine’s major trade partner country, by the way. Additionally, a ban on products from Ukraine’s major confectionary producer as well as on Moldova’s wines and spirits is still in force. As Putin’s advisor Sergei Glazyev kindly indicated, this blockade is designed to demonstrate what will happen in the event of signing the EU agreement.
The second threat is connected to Russia’s trump card – gas. “Energy supplies are important in the run-up to winter, I hope you won’t freeze” was a quite unambiguous remark to Moldova by senior envoy Rogozin. A similar message was sent to Kyiv, consequently reminding of the 2006 and 2009 gas supply cuts, severely hitting some of the East-Central European countries dependant on Ukrainian transit.
The third threat deals with conflict resolutions. Both Moldova and Armenia are facing frozen internal conflicts. Transnistria and Nagorno-Kharabakh are their Achille’s heels, which Russia, being a major security grantor in both cases, just could not resist. As a result – we heard the official statement on behalf of Armenian authorities that the country is joining the Customs Union instead of pursuing the EU FTA pact. Thus, in geopolitical maths it is now 6-1.
Having gathered a critical mass of Russia’s violations (Syrian sentiments undoubtedly contribute to Europe’s malice), the EU finally decided to break the silence. Addressing Russia’s strong-arm tactics, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso affirmed during the annual state of the Union speech to the European Parliament: “We cannot accept any attempt to limit these countries’ own sovereign choices…We cannot turn our back on them”.
The European Parliament also decided to take action and adopted the resolution “On the pressure exerted by Russia on the Easter Partnership countries (in the context of the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius)” on the 12th September. Firmly rejecting these unacceptable actions, the MEPs call on Russia to respect the sovereign right of the nation states to pursue their own political aspirations. Supported by all main parties, the text of the resolution appeals to the Commission, Council and European External Action Service to take “concrete and effective” measures in defence of the Union’s partners, as well as view the developments as beyond a purely economic dimension, being merely a cover for retaliation and political pressure. Moreover, strong support for initialling and signing the agreement in November with those willing and ready, has been reaffirmed.
As Commissioner Füle indicated, “if they [the Eastern Partnership countries] become the subject of undue pressure because of exercising their free choice, they can count on the solidarity [of the EU]”. Together with EP’s resolution this is already a major political signal. However, as we all know, actions speak louder than words. This would be a perfect opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its capability for crisis management and sticking to previously given political commitments towards Eastern Europe.
Hence, having already “lost” the Armenian battle, what else is the EU ready to sacrifice? What is the measure of “undue pressure” for the EU to step in? And what exactly does “solidarity” imply in this sense: another sharply-worded resolution or real sanctions? All these questions should not be rhetorical if the EU wants the Eastern Partnership to be its success story.