Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius: Russia Puts a Spoke in the EU's Wheel

A few weeks ago, EU officials envisioned that the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius would turn out differently. By signing an Association Agreement with Ukraine and initialing similar agreements with Armenia, Georgia and Moldova, the EU was expecting to demonstrate the first tangible results of its policy toward its eastern neighbors. Much to the EU's disappointment, events unfolded contrary to expectations. Rather than signing and initialing, Ukraine and Armenia rejected an Association Agreement with the EU. The turn of events brings to light two features of existing EU policy: the relative weakness of EU incentives and the continuing problems for countries in the post-Soviet space to evade Russia's influence.

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 Georgian-Russian War to accelerate political association and to deepen economic integration between the EU and its eastern neighbors. In exchange for their compliance with EU norms and standards, the EU offers partner countries a "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" that involves the gradual elimination of tariffs and trade quotas, visa liberalization, and support in various policy fields such as improving energy efficiency. Though the prospect of membership would potentially serve as a strong incentive for EaP countries to decisively adopt and implement EU-requested reforms, most member states have so far rejected a membership perspective for EaP countries.

The Kremlin, which had initially regarded the Eastern Partnership as 'just another EU initiative,' has grown more suspicious about the EU's increasing influence in the region and now outright opposes the EaP. Annoyed by the EU's interference in a region which it has regarded as a privileged sphere of influence, the Kremlin played hardball to discourage Ukraine and Armenia from signing Association Agreements.

In addition, the Kremlin also launched its own integration project, the Eurasian Customs Union, which consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and should be established in 2015. However, from the perspective of eastern countries, the basic problem with this "Eurasian Union" is that Russia is simply too big -- in terms of population and economic strength -- to cooperate as an equal in such a union and would inevitably dominate it. To be sure, the Kremlin does not flinch from applying punitive measures against states that are reluctant to join its union. For example, it frequently imposes bans on wines, fruits, and vegetables from Moldova and Georgia or freight trains from Ukraine. The Kremlin also regularly threatens to cut gas exports to neighboring countries that are often completely dependent on Russian energy sources.

Despite the EU's recent setbacks with respect to Ukraine and Armenia, it can claim several successes from its EaP initiatives. For example, Moldova's pro-European governing coalition has adopted a number of reforms in compliance with EU demands since 2009. Georgia similarly remains committed to Euro-Atlantic integration even as its new government attempts to gradually relax relations with Russia. Armenia, traditionally one of Russia's closest allies and heavily dependent on Russian for economic and military security, demonstrated a sincere interest in an Association Agreement with the EU and negotiated its terms for three years. However, due primarily to Russian pressure, Armenian President Sarkisjan declared in September that his country would not sign the agreement and would join the Eurasian Union instead.

A similar chain of events led the Ukrainian president to reject the Association Agreement. Here, EU member states demanded that Ukraine address the issue of "selective justice" -- a reference to the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime minister and political foe of President Victor Yanukovych -- and commit to preventing the recurrence of such infarctions prior to signing the agreement. But the Kremlin also put Kyiv under significant pressure to remain in its orbit by offering loans to support the Ukrainian economy and cut the price of Russian gas. Of course, on the other hand, the Kremlin also threatened Kyiv with gas cuts if it signed the Association Agreement.

Despite its rejection of the agreement, Ukraine is unlikely to join the Eurasian Union since, for one, it has no guarantees for receiving special gas prices from Russia for doing so. In addition, many Ukrainian companies are in direct competition with Russian enterprises and fear they will be disadvantaged in the Eurasian Union. For these reasons, the EU still has reason to hope that Ukraine -- considered the make-or-break case of the Eastern Partnership - may still sign an agreement with the EU at a later date. Recent mass protests against the government's decision, the greatest demonstrations since the Orange Revolution in 2004, illustrate that Ukrainians are indeed interested in strengthening relations with the EU.

The next summit of the Eastern Partnership Summit will be held in Riga in 2015. If the EU remains committed to the Eastern Partnership, it should assume that EU-Russia relations will grow more confrontational in the years to come. Besides the Eastern Partnership, there are further controversial issues between the EU and Russia, including the investigations by the European Commission into anti-trust activities by Gazprom in some EU member states and the launch of proceedings against Russia at the World Trade Organization because of Russian import bans on Lithuanian products.

The German government, which has grown more critical about Russia's approach to political opposition and minority groups, is likely to step up as a key player in this policy space. Just recently, German chancellor Angela Merkel admonished the Kremlin for interfering in the choices of countries that want to enter into closer association with the EU. Such actions may indicate the start of a more pro-active and intensified engagement with EaP countries beyond Moldova and Georgia on the part of the EU in the years to come.