Letter from Germany: EU's good neighbors are Russia's bad dream

Posted in Europe , Russia | 08-Mar-07 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Prime Minister of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych review the honor guard during the welcoming ceremony at the chancellery in Berlin on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007.

BERLIN: Over the last few weeks, leaders from Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia have been making the rounds in Berlin, visiting the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry. Nothing unusual about that. With Germany at the helm of the European Union until June 30, Berlin has become the first stop for many government leaders.

These particular visits from Ukraine and the southern Caucasus, however, have a much wider significance. They are part of the EU's new European Neighborhood Policy. With the bloc's borders stretching east, Brussels wants to reach out to its new neighbors. The problem is that Russia believes this region belongs in its sphere of influence and not Europe's.

"There is a kind of competition taking place between the EU and Russia in this region," said Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the independent Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, Moldova.

"The EU wants to establish a ring of stable democracies which is important for our country and our eventual membership in the EU. Russia has other ideas."

At the same time that these pro- Western leaders were visiting Berlin, Moscow acted as host to a special gathering of its proxy supporters from the same region. The leaders of the internationally unrecognized breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan met in Russia.

At the end of their stay, they issued a joint communiqué calling Russia "our common strategic partner and guarantor of the rights of the Abkhaz, Transnistria and Ossetian peoples."

The Russian Foreign Ministry pointedly referred to these leaders as "presidents" — titles that provoked a strong reaction from Georgia. Its foreign minister, Gela Bezhuashvili, said Russia was "encouraging separatists."

Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, said Russia was using these breakaway regions to divide and rule in its neighborhood.

"Russia wants its friends in place at a time when Europe's borders are changing," Krastev said.

What bothers Russia is how the EU's expanding borders touch more and more of Russia's western and southern regions.

"As it enlarges, the EU comes with a values-based policy based on human rights, the rule of law and a market economy," Krastev said. No wonder the EU is seen as a competitor if not a threat to Russia's interests in the region.

The EU jolted Russia for the first time in December 2004 when Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief — joined by the Polish and Lithuanian presidents — mediated in Ukraine's pro-democratic Orange Revolution. "That was a turning point," said Sabine Fischer, Russian analyst at the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris. "Russia saw how the EU was entering into its sphere of influence."

Ever since, Russia has changed tactics. Instead of trying to integrate some of its neighbors politically and economically, the Kremlin has used energy as a political instrument. It is no coincidence that Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy giant, introduced world market prices for precisely the same countries that are included in the EU's Neighborhood Policy. Gazprom also has been busy buying the energy distribution networks in Armenia and Moldova so that it can maintain influence.

Russia's efforts certainly have hurt the region. Although countries in the longer term can cope with higher energy prices, the threat of destabilization through the use of breakaway movements remains. That Russia adopts such means is certainly questionable from an ethical point of view.

It is also puzzling in practical terms. At a closer look, the EU's strategy toward the fragile democracies in its neighborhood is far less coherent and effective than Russia might fear.

This was already clear with Ukraine. Despite the popular enthusiasm among Ukrainians for closer integration with the EU, Brussels fumbled after the Orange Revolution by failing to develop a strategy that would encourage reforms. This led to frustration among the pro-Western, albeit chaotic, elites in Kiev.

Analysts complain that Brussels is not providing sufficient incentives to these countries to introduce bold reforms. After all, it was the perspective of EU membership that during the 1990s propelled the East European countries toward reform.

"The EU does not provide sufficient attraction to the Neighborhood Policy countries," Fischer said. "The strategy is not clear. It tries to become engaged in resolving the territorial conflicts such as Transnistria but it cannot offer any security guarantees."

The European Commission, the EU's executive, which is steering the Neighborhood Policy, admitted as much in an assessment paper published in December. It stated that "the European Neighborhood Policy has achieved little in supporting the resolution of frozen or open conflicts in the region."

The commission also admitted that it was in no position to offer economic and trade concessions or easier visa arrangements even if these countries do introduce reforms and harmonize their legislation with EU rules, as they are being asked to do.

"In terms of market access and integration and other economic benefits, they will only bear fruit later. This creates a real difficulty for partner countries in building the necessary domestic support for reform," the report added.

Gernot Erler, state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry and an expert on the region, agreed that the weakness of the EU's strategy toward Ukraine and the Caucasus was its failure to offer a clear perspective of EU membership. "It creates a certain frustration among the elites," he said. "The Neighborhood Policy is a substitute for EU membership."

The EU has shied away from adopting a more coherent policy toward the region because "it is scared," according to Krastev. He said the EU was stung by the 2004 enlargement that admitted eight East European countries because the effect in transforming their institutions was short term. They are still very weak.

There is also enlargement fatigue among some member states. The French and Dutch rejection of an EU constitution showed how the Union has little idea which direction it is heading.

Still, the potential is there to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in the region. "If these countries use the Neighborhood strategy properly, it could be a vehicle for change," Erler said. That is what worries Russia, despite EU assurances that the policy is not directed against it — fear of contagion of democratic values.