Monday, 11 May 2009

Inglorious motivation for Eastern Partnership

An editorial in the Guardian on Saturday questioned the value of the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ summit, held in Prague. Although an invitation to attend was initially extended to Russia, the Czech hosts have more or less acknowledged that the venture’s purpose is to prise six former Soviet republics away from Russian influence. The paper records the opinion that it will fail in this purpose, possibly whilst threatening to further polarise political divisions within the countries and sending out an ambivalent message about human rights and political freedoms.

Moscow Tory has written a thorough and detailed examination of the issues surrounding the summit. He is broadly in agreement with the Guardian’s analysis and he also challenges the initiative on the grounds that it wastes European tax payers’ money and seeks to establish an EU ‘sphere of influence’ whilst at the same time working on the assumption that Russia’s interests in its own locality are illegitimate and invidious.

There is a logical contradiction behind the Eastern Partnership meetings, which render it a rather crude attempt at power politics. EU leaders would argue that the six countries must be brought into the Union’s orbit precisely because of certain ‘unwestern’ characteristics of the Russian regime. These include a lack of various democratic norms: electoral, media and judicial freedoms, basic standards of human rights and so forth. Yet ironically a number of the so-called Eastern Partners have considerably worse records on these issues than has Russia itself.

Speculation is rife that Vladimir Putin might seek to become Russian president for a third term, in 2012. Though, at least the current prime minister felt compelled to step down from the presidency last year, because he was bound by the constraints of the constitution. No such qualms have afflicted Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president for life.

Alexander Lukashenko is commonly known as Europe’s ‘last dictator’ and, as Moscow Tory points out, no opposition candidate was elected in Belarus’ recent parliamentary election. EU enthusiasm for Lukashenko seems to be solely inspired by recent friction between his government and Moscow. The Belarusian president is a clever and cynical operator with a long history of exploiting his country’s geo-political position. Whether he is suggesting that Belarus might become integrated into a wider Russian federation, or conversely easing restrictions on markets and arbitrarily releasing prisoners, Lukashenko is motivated purely by self-interest.

Much of the first Partnership summit revolved round rather lofty rhetoric about promoting values and standards. Carl Thomson notes, however, that the ultimate ideal of integration with the rest of the continent was tacitly accepted at an early stage. Additionally an infrastructure fund is one of the key aspects of the Agreement. Belarus has already been in receipt of EU funds for the Baltic to Black Sea transportation corridor.

Which brings us back to key motivations for the European Union in pursuing partnership with these countries: trade, gas, leverage and rivalry with Russia. The summit is animated by little more elevated than a sense of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, as indicated by the rogues’ gallery of chosen partners. Of course Russia’s attitude to its ‘near abroad’ is often inspired by similar incentives. But with the EU in pursuit of an inglorious agenda, Moscow Tory offers a fitting summation.

“We should be cautious of how our approaches to the former Soviet states impact on our relationship with Russia, but no one would seriously try to suggest that Moscow should have a veto over her neighbours’ foreign policy. But there is little point in spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on lavish banquets, receptions, glossy brochures, European Parliament cooperation committees and more and more staff to manage another layer of steering and liaison groups, if the only return is to be impressive but hollow declarations and the needless antagonism of Europe’s biggest neighbour, a rapprochement with which should be the top priority of any new EU foreign policy, leaving aside the very important debate about whether such a policy at the European level is achievable or even desirable in the first place.”

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