Distrust between Russia and EU builds over Eastern Partnership initiative

The meeting of the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council on April 28 in Luxembourg presented another vivid example of growing differences over the recently launched EU outreach initiative to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova called the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Conceived by Poland and supported by Sweden, the EaP was formally introduced to the EU in May 2008. It is primarily aimed at forging closer ties between the EU and the six ex-Soviet republics by encouraging democratic changes and free market reforms with targeted assistance programs. The EaP was officially endorsed by the EU on March 20, 2009 and it will be launched at the EU summit in Prague on May 7.

From the outset the EaP caused considerable anxiety in Moscow. At the Brussels Forum in March, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov famously lashed out at the EU for using the EaP as a vehicle for carving out a “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space. Lavrov’s comments set the stage for his meeting with the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (Czech Republic currently holds the EU rotating presidency) in Luxembourg. Before the meeting Schwarzenberg dismissed Lavrov’s misgivings regarding the EaP when he told the press, “He knows himself it’s nonsense.” The Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated that Lavrov’s comment in March “speaks for itself that he thinks in terms of influence immediately.”

At the meeting in Luxembourg the Russian side apparently sought and, at least according to Lavrov, received assurances from the EU that the EaP will not be directed against Russian interests in the post-Soviet space. At the press conference following the EU-Russia meeting, Lavrov guardedly noted, “We heard an announcement from Brussels that this is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence and that it is not a process which is directed against Russia. We want to believe in this guarantee but I won’t deny that some comments on the initiative made by the EU have concerned us.” Schwarzenberg attempted to further reassure the Russians when he told the media, “I am sure Russia will see this time that it’s not against them. It [EaP] is purely a development project.”

Despite the fact that there is much uncertainty about the EaP to begin with, as demonstrated in this thoughtful analysis by RFE/RL’s Ahto Lobjakas, the Kremlin’s increasing paranoia of encirclement turns all Western initiatives in the post-Soviet space, however benign they may be, into a zero-sum competition for influence in the best traditions of XIX and XX centuries geopolitics. Furthermore, the EaP implementation in states like Belarus, as David Marples discusses in Eurasia Daily Monitor, will be highly questionable in the long term considering the essential incompatibility between the EU standards and the authoritarian nature of the political system in that country. In sum, the EaP emerges as a major irritant in EU-Russia relations and over time it may turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle.