EU's 'Eastern Partnership' and Russia-Belarus Relations

Svyatoslav Polkhov, Expert of the Eurasia Heritage Foundation, Moscow

The European Union assumes the offensive 

Minsk has recently supported the EU’s new foreign-policy program “Eastern Partnership” and has already confirmed its readiness to formalize the program jointly with the European Commission, said Andrey Popov, spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

The EU leaders offered Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to sign the so-called associate membership agreements within the “Eastern Partnership” program. The documents are expected to provide for the creation of the free trade areas between the EU and each of its six partners (after they join the WTO). The project developers expect that it will stimulate the future six EU partners to remove the trade barriers among them.

Brussels promised Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine that if they joined the program, the EU would make it easier for the countries’ citizens to cross the European borders. The EU says that over the long term, the talks may be launched about canceling the visa regime for these countries. 

The “Eastern Partnership” also includes the close cooperation and the coordination of the energy policy of the EU and the six former Soviet republics. In particular, the EU is going to sign the memoranda of understanding in the energy security sphere with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. In addition, Brussels plans to discuss the European Commission-Belarus energy declaration concerning the hydrocarbons transit and the energy reform in Belarus

The programs of integration of the regional power markets, and of making the energy sector more efficient will be, among other things, offered to the “Eastern Partnership” participants within the framework of the program. The EU and the six countries will work on the project creating the south energy corridor as part of the diversification of the transit flows and the energy suppliers to the EU and the partner countries.  

However, the “Eastern Partnership” is not only the economic cooperation. The EU promised that it would help the project participants to implement the political reforms and eliminate social inequality. 

The national laws must be brought to conformity with those of the EU states while the “Eastern partners” will have to recognize the European court verdicts.   

The “Eastern Partnership” summit is expected to be held at the level of the Presidents or Prime Ministers of the EU member states and partners as early as spring 2009. Later on, the partnership summits will take place once in two years. The Foreign Ministers meetings will be conducted annually to discuss the program functioning. So, a qualitatively new format of the EU interaction with a number of post-Soviet states is actually being created while Russia considers some of those states to be its most important allies [1].

In defiance of Moscow’s integration projects 

It became known long ago that the EU was going to implement that ambitious program. Evidently, its main goal is the formation of the stable political regimes that would be loyal to the EU, depend on that community and share the European values.

The Russia-Georgia conflict made the European leaders implement the project as soon as possible. The EU regarded Russia’s drastic measures to protect South Ossetia as an evidence of Moscow’s claims on leadership in the former Soviet Union.

The European diplomats say that Russia has no right to ‘sphere of influence’ and they seem to think that this term is obsolete. Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission said that “there is no Cold war and there should be no spheres of influence. I believe that all countries are entitled to decide what policy they should follow on the international arena”. 

But as a matter of fact, the EU seeks to deprive Russia of the status of the priority partner of some of the above-mentioned six countries through its large-scale program. Brussels tries to replace Russia’s sphere of influence with that of its own. The countries are not going to join the European Union since the newly joined countries have yet to be integrated into the EU. Apparently, the EU, which was worried by Russia’s tough policy in the Caucasus, decided to secure its eastern borders. 

The “Eastern Partnership” program says nothing about the military and political cooperation. However the EU’s intention to make its neighbors come to an agreement about their energy policy may restrict the possibilities of Moscow’s ‘gas’ diplomacy considerably. For example, the EU and six countries’ ‘united front’ can adversely affect the implementation of such Russian projects as “South Stream” and “Nord Stream”. On the contrary, the plans to create the energy supply routes bypassing Russia will be encouraged again.

To all appearances, the “Eastern Partnership” is a purely European initiative that may be more successful than the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) project in preparation of which the USA took active part. It is significant that all the GUAM member states are going to join in with the new program. Thereby, one can say that Brussels tacitly recognizes absolute inefficiency of GUAM that was expected to be the CIS alternative.

It would be difficult for Russia to oppose the new initiative because it proclaims no military or political goals, which would be an open challenge to Russia in the security sphere [2]. But the “Eastern Partnership” can be regarded as an alternative to Russia’s integration projects in the former Soviet Union. In fact, the EU tries to build partner relations with such traditional Russia's allies as Belarus and Armenia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently signed “Concept of Long-Term Development of Russia up to 2020”. The document reads that Russia’s economic cooperation with the CIS member states (at the bilateral level and in the multilateral format) is one of the priority aspects of Russia’s external economic policy. 

The concept also provides for the creation of economic conditions for the efficient formation of Belarus-Russia Union. According to the document, Russia reckons on further strengthening of the European Economic Community (EAEC) as the economic integration basis, creation of the customs union and the Single Economic Space (SES) in the format of the three countries (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) with other countries getting involved in those activities as they are becoming ready.

The concept also stresses that there is a need to form the CIS transportation area, the EAEC common energy market and to create the joint financial institutions for development. It is planned that the conditions for free travel of citizens within the SES will be created. One of the tasks is to turn the ruble into the CIS regional reserve currency. 

It seems that the provisions of “Concept of Long-Term Development of Russia up to 2020” are contrary to the main goals of the “Eastern Partnership”. Of course, the new European program developers do not say frankly about their intention to destroy Moscow’s integration projects in the former Soviet Union. In point of fact, the “Eastern Partnership” may become their alternative for the six post-Soviet states.

Belarus between EU and Russia

When intending to secure the successes achieved in the relations with Belarus, the European Commission said that the offer to take part in the “Eastern Partnership” program has been made to Belarus too. However Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's commissioner for external relations said that Minsk’s participation in the project would depend on Belarus’ democratic reforms that would make the country closer to Europe.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner also stated that the visa sanctions against the Belarusian officials could be suspended again or lifted in April 2009. The EU made it clear that President Aliaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus could be invited to take part in the summit that was supposed to launch the program. In spring 2009 it will be known whether Belarus will become the “Eastern partner”. 

While offering Minsk the cooperation within the “Eastern Partnership”, Brussels hopes that Belarus’ gradual democratization and further increasing economic dependence on Europe will weaken its military and political alliance with Moscow.  

Belarus, on the other hand, expects that the “Eastern Partnership” will allow it to receive the necessary assistance from the EU during the world financial crisis. The Belarusian authorities are most likely going to cooperate with the EU on their terms. I doubt that Aliaksandr Lukashenka will agree to fundamental change of Belarus’ political regime, which can deprive him of his power. 

It seems that Aliaksandr Lukashenka will make only some insignificant concessions instead of taking serious steps. This is indicated, for example, by the recent non-democratic parliamentary elections in Belarus (no opposition members were elected to the Parliament). 

By the way, there is serious friction between Russia and Belarus. The Supreme State Council meeting, which was to be held on December 1, 2008, has been adjourned for an indefinite period. This is the second recent breakdown of such measures.

Deterioration of Russia-Belarus relations contrasts with the West-Belarus 'détente'. Belarus has not recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia yet (Alexander Surikov, Russian ambassador to Belarus recently reminded us of Mr. Lukashenka’s promise to examine that issue after the parliamentary elections).

Apparently, Minsk may continue to postpone the recognition of those republics. At present, the Belarusian authorities expect the International Monetary Fund to give then $2 billion credit and that the issue of Belarus’ participation in the “Eastern partnership” will be solved. That’s why Minsk would not like to annoy Brussels and Washington. 

There is no progress in the military and political cooperation between the two countries either. The signing of the Russia-Belarus agreement on the common missile defense system was postponed. So, Minsk is unlikely to agree with Alexander Babakov who said that the Belarus-Russia Union authorities were going to create a military organization on the basis of the Russian and Belarusian agencies. He believes that it is time to create joint military units and “bodies that would be a real constituent of a state”.

Finally, the breakdown of the Supreme State Council meeting may evidence that Moscow and Minsk failed to come to terms about the major provisions of the Constitutional Act of Belarus-Russia Union. 

Probably, Russia is unhappy about the fact that Belarus, which faces the economic problems, is unwilling to integrate with it politically and economically. The Belarusian government is afraid to depend on Russia and, therefore, they prefer to attract Russian as well as Western resources to overcome the world crisis. 

The Russian authorities are angry with their Belarusian colleagues for their ‘maneuvering’. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the second part of the Baltic pipeline system (BTS-2) to be constructed as if he wanted to punish Minsk. The new pipeline will be built sidestepping Belarus. It is said that Rosselkhoznadzor would forbid Belarus from exporting its agricultural products to Russia. 

Russia and Belarus have yet to come to an agreement about the Russian gas price. It is possible that the breakdown of the Supreme State Council meeting and Belarus’ intractability in other issues are explained by the fact that the Belarusian authorities are going to exchange their consent for the gas prices that would be acceptable to the Belarusian economy. 

Minsk hopes that the gas price will be lowered. According to Andrey Kabiakow, Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, the Belarusian government initiates the new talks with Russia about the 2009 gas price. He said that Belarus’ initiative was engendered by the tendency to lower the world oil and oil products prices determining the gas price (Ukraine expressed similar grievances against Russia). 

For the time being the Belarusian authorities have managed to withstand Moscow’s pressure. Evidently, Belarus’ joining in with the “Eastern partnership” project may theoretically give the county a freer hand on the world arena. At the same time, Belarus’ full-fledged participation in this program may change the republic’s political system depriving the current political elite including Aliaksandr Lukashenka of their power. I doubt that the Belarusian authorities would lose their standing of their own free will. 

It will be seen whether the EU will manage, by means of the “Eastern partnership”, to endear its political ideals to Belarus and the other states that are to participate in the project.

December 18, 2008 


[1] According to Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the “Eastern Partnership” program “provides for more intense political interaction, broad integration into the EU economy, strengthening of energy security and increasing of financial aid”. 

[2] Russian diplomats have no clear-cut position towards the “Eastern Partnership”. “What is the program aimed at? It is aimed at strengthening the EU’s role in the region. Does it severe Russia’s interests? We will judge this by the EU’s deeds”, said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s permanent representative to the EU.

Eurasia Heritage Foundation