1. The Eastern Partnership alternative to the EU
Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia
For the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, or EaP, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union meant that independence was as much an urgent crisis as it was an overnight opportunity.
Burdened by the seven decades of Soviet rule, the challenges of independence proved daunting as each of these states was unprepared for statehood and under-equipped for democratic governance. Although the starting point of independent statehood was roughly equivalent, their shared Soviet legacy was quickly replaced by a diverging trajectory with a pronounced variance in their political, economic and security reforms.
Of these six states, four were constrained by a conflict from the very start, as Armenia and Azerbaijan were consumed by Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia was collapsing under the weight of a civil war and separatism, while Moldova was confronting the Transnistrian conflict. For the other two states, despite the absence of outright conflict in the early period of statehood, both Belarus and Ukraine were constrained by corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
- For many in the West, the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an unexpected and sudden scenario. After decades of rivalry and tension throughout the Cold War, despite some obvious structural failings and internal faults, the implosion of the Soviet system was neither predictable nor necessarily pre-determined.
- Yet, beyond the surprise in the West, the impact on the republics of the Soviet Union was far more significant and immediate.
- Unlike the Central and Eastern and European states within the Soviet orbit, where the Soviet collapse offered more of an opportunity than a risk, for the former Soviet republics this was an equally unprecedented and unexpected crisis.
The urgency of the challenge for these states was driven by three main factors. First, the legacy of seven decades under Soviet rule left no preparation or even experience with pluralistic political governance or market-based economic management. This also meant that there was an absence of traditions and institutions essential for state-building. This was especially challenging for the states of Central Asia, given their absence of any native institutional foundation for state-building.
Within this context there were exceptions, however. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, were endowed with a more recent record of independent statehood which was proudly maintained despite their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. And in the South Caucasus as well, both Armenia and Georgia preserved their own national identity beyond, and even at times in conflict with, their Sovietisation.
A second driver of urgency stemmed from the acceleration of the conflicts that erupted in the waning period of the central Soviet system weakening. With the abrupt fragmentation of the Soviet military and security apparatus into the new national and state-centric units, there was no effective response to the threats to stability posed by these escalating conflicts.
This new threat environment was complex, as in the South Caucasus it ranged from outright warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh, pitting Armenia against Azerbaijan, to the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia amid a quickly unfolding internal civil war in Georgia. This was also matched by the deepening of an insurgency and a low-intensity conflict against Russia in the volatile North Caucasus republics, while in Moldova the eruption of the Transnistrian conflict added to the wider scale of instability.
A third factor exacerbating the inherent vulnerability and daunting challenge to the independence was rooted in the rapid emergence of corruption and authoritarian regimes as real barriers to further development. These related obstacles, which quickly consolidated to resist real reforms, were especially significant in the cases of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, as evident to this day.
Against that backdrop, each of these countries adopted different policy responses and sought to adapt to the onset of challenges. Despite their shared Soviet legacy, however, each state quickly pursued diverging trajectories in terms of both economic and political reforms and strategic orientation.
For the Eastern Partnership, as the one entity that binds these six states, the outlook has improved. Since the signing of the Association Agreements with the EU, Georgia and Moldova moved on to the implementation stage, while Ukraine sought to bolster its own implementation course through a more concerted effort to tackle corruption despite demands of an ongoing assault in the east from the Russian-backed forces.
With the promise of visa liberalisation extended to each of these countries, the EU delivered an important reward for reform. Although this tended to widen the divide between the “top tier” members, comprising Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and the “second class” group, composed of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, it did demonstrate a new sense of optimism and interest towards the EU in general and regarding the Eastern Partnership more specifically.
Moreover, the real progress for the Eastern Partnership program was driven less by that top tier of three countries, but rather stemmed from a new context of an opportunity for deeper engagement from the second class members. The clearest affirmation of this improved outlook, surprisingly, came from Armenia, which despite sacrificing its earlier Association Agreement with the EU back in 2013, was able to negotiate and “initiate” a new strategic partnership agreement with Brussels. And in part because of a reflection of the “peer pressure” and rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this move only encouraged the Azerbaijani government to abruptly return to talks with the EU, displaying a renewed interest in reaching its own “strategic partnership” with Brussels.
That new Armenia–EU agreement, formally known as the “EU–Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement” was initialled in March 2017, and was hailed by both sides as an “important step to broaden the scope of the bilateral relations».
More specifically, this “second chance” for both sides to repair and restore their relations also includes a framework to “strengthen the political dialogue and set a solid basis for the continuation of the economic and social reforms” with the “strong commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”, as well as forging a “stronger cooperation in sectors, such as energy, transport and the environment, for the new opportunities in trade and investments, and for the increased mobility for the benefit of the citizens”.