European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries. Is there Hope for Belarus?

Prepared by Alyona Lis

At the presentation of European Inegration Index fro EaP countries. 5 October 2012, Brussels (Belgium) Photo by ODB

On 5 October, the Open Society Institute Brussels organised a debate, entitled "Road to Reform: Assessing Progress in the Eastern Neighbourhood".

Experts from international think-tanks, and partner countries, as well as EU representatives provided an overview of the situation in all six EaP countries and touched upon challenges and successes of the Eastern Partnership Initiative. During the event the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries prepared under leadership of the International Renaissance Foundation and the Open Society Foundations (Ukraine) was presented.

The authors of the Index divided the EaP countries into two groups : countries with clear EU ambitions, such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine partners with less obvious aspirations, being Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.

The EU made 'deep and sustainable democracy' a core value against which to assess the progress with the main benchmarks including: free and fair elections, respect for human rights - particularly freedom of association,
expression and assembly, - press freedom, the abolition of torture, non-discrimination and religious freedom, the independence of the judiciary, combating corruption, and security and law enforcement reforms.

In 2012, the EU continued to put into practice a 'more for more' approach that was announced in May 2011, meaning a greater rapprochement with the countries that demonstrate an enhanced commitment, using funding for social and economic development, capacity building for government, greater market access, increased funds from European financial institutions, and greater mobility through visa facilitation and visa free travel as the incentives.

The authors of the Index suggested three dimensions to assess progress of the EaP partners, such as linkage, approximation and management.

Moldova remains the most willing country in terms of reform, the second best performer was Georgia while Ukraine was the third. Armenia and Azerbaijan rank fourth and fifth accordingly, while Belarus was placed at the bottom of the list in all three dimensions. The situation in Ukraine has deteriorated if compared to 2011. Only time will tell which direction developments will take in Georgia after the recent transition of power. Armenia has demonstrated better results in approximation with the EU standards in different sectors.

With regard to Armenia, international observers stated that May 2012 parliamentary election marked a step forward if compared to the 2008 election. Moreover, the Armenian government has started negotiations on Visa Facilitation (VF) and Readmission Agreements (RA) and unilaterally abolished entrance visas for EU citizens. It also managed to improve the situation in terms of freedom of associations. Many analysts believe that this trend will be preserved at least until the next presidential election.

Belarus remains a bright example of the ‘ less for less' approach. Since the country has not signed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU and the official bilateral dimension has been limited following the 2010 presidential election resulting in the introduction of sanctions, Belarus has no ongoing political dialogue with the EU and participates only in the multilateral track of the EaP.

However the EaP outsider managed to benefit most of all from a more advanced level of dialogue proposed in the frames of the Eastern Partnership. Belarusian officials and civil servants regularly participate in the meetings of EaP institutions with the exception of Euronest. Belarusian civil society played a very active role in the development of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. Compared to other EaP countries, Belarus’ economic integration with the EU is limited however it surprisingly enjoys the most intensive trade in services with the EU. The European Union remains
Belarus’ second largest trading partner after the Russian Federation.

Belarus actively participates in the trade and economic commissions, consultations between Foreign Ministries, visits by entrepreneurs, and investment talks with the representatives of EU countries.

Despite Belarus possessing a weak regulatory environment by EU standards and an insufficient environmental policy, it still has the best environmental situation among all six EaP countries when it comes to the general state of environment, the impact on the environmental situation and resource efficiency.

Unlike its EaP partners, no negotiations for the conclusion of the Visa- Facilitation Agreement are being conducted with Belarus, though a mandate to start VFA and readmission talks was given to the European Commission by the Council of Foreign Ministers back in 2011. Until now, Minsk has not reacted to this initiative. At the same time Belarus appears to be the frontrunner among EaP countries with the highest number of Schengen visas per capita issued to its citizens per year.

Belarus is not an easy country to deal with. It has not announced any European aspirations, the country is a member of the Customs and the Eurasian Unions with Russia and Kazakhstan. However, as the opinion polls show there are strong European aspirations among Belarusian society. The country borders with three EU members and has a centuries long European history. Belarus can be seen as a country with great European potential, provided the political climate is changed.

The question remains what can be done to encourage this change? Senior analyst with the Belarusian Institute for strategic Studies, Dzianis Melyantsou, one of the contributors to the European Integration Index, suggests applying a better communication strategy (raising awareness), cheaper visas, economic cooperation, more exchange programmes,
support for independent media including the regional ones along with continuous and consistent work with civil society.
In the situation when the progress of any partner country depends on the political will of its leadership - often defending its own business and political interests - choosing the right communication strategy is crucial for the EU.
To achieve the desired impact it should reach out to broader groups in societies of the EaP countries. While no membership perspective can be promised it is important to show all benefits of the two main incentives under
the Eastern Partnership: the Association Agreement (including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) and the visa-free travel.

The EaP has more challenges to face, such as a different understanding of the core values and the growing counteracting by another strategic player in the region - Moscow which definitely beating the EU in the information field
so far. To ensure the success reached within the years since its launch, more ambitious policy by the EU towards six EaP countries should be considered.
1. European Inegration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries, p. 6
2. Linkage: growing political, economic and social ties between each of the
six EaP countries and the EU
Approximation: structures and institutions in the EaP countries
converging towards EU standards and in line with the EU requrements
Management: evolving managing structures and policies for Euroepan
Inegration in EaP countries