“These aspirant countries are obviously in a certain limbo now, staying between the EU and Russia, not being clearly affiliated to either of them. Such a situation cannot last for a very long time, if the EU does not effectively balance the pressure exercised by Russia on these countries,” says Kalev Stoicescu, a researcher at Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security. Previously he worked at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence.
He believes that the evolution of the situation in Ukraine will determine to a large extent the future of the Eastern Partnership.
“As long as Ukraine survives as a country - not Moscow’s vassal - at least in the present condition, there is also hope for Moldova and Georgia,” Stoicescu told the Lithuania Tribune.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Pogrebinsky, a Ukrainian political scientist and director of Kiev’s Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology (KCPSC), believes that the current project of the EU Eastern Partnership “has not worked out”.
“The Riga Summit outcome has not certainly caught Ukraine leaders off guard. There will likely be a lingering uncertainty for a while between the EU old-timers and the EU aspirants. In this situation, I reckon the Baltic states, Sweden and Poland will step forward with new European initiatives for the EU membership-seeking countries,” Pogrebinsky pointed out to the Lithuania Tribune.
But as the current programme of Eastern Partnership has been literally “frozen”, it will take some time to see some new formulas for the partnership emerging, he believes.
Speaking of Ukraine, Pogrebinsky says it will have to move in “a very narrow tunnel now” after the Riga meeting.
“Its biggest challenge now, I reckon, will be trying to offset the domestic fallout from the Riga meeting- attempt to stabilize the economy and assuage the situation in the eastern parts.
“Now there is understanding that normalization of the situation does not depend on the Ukrainian authorities and on the will of Western partners only, but also on the participation of Russia in the process. Therefore we saw the recent visits of Germany’s Angela Merkel and US’s John Kerry to Russia,” the KCPSC director noted.
Lauras Bielinis, a Lithuanian political analyst, believes that now the path for the EU aspirants to the Union will be “a lot more complicated”.
Asked when the aspirants’ EU hopes can be rekindled, the analyst told the conditions for that won’t come unless the European Union and Russia solve the crisis.
“I want to emphasize this: it needs to be done between the two, not between Russia and Ukraine,” Bielinis underlined. “All the Eastern Partnership countries are intricately intertwined politically, economically and culturally with Russia, so unless they become less dependent – directly or indirectly - on the neighbour, inviting the countries to the European Union would be a faulty move and distort the meaning of the European Union. So we won’t see it happening any time soon again,” Bielinis is convinced.
He called the EU Eastern Partnership meeting “a difficult task” for Latvia because of its importance and the EU Presidency’s tense geopolitical time.
But in his words, Russia has not crippled the Eastern Partnership Programme as much as the Western Europe’s angst with the Union’s southern neighbors, especially Cyprus, Greece and Spain.
“The countries’ economies are a ball of intricate problems and weighing heavily on the entire Union, so adding the frail economies of the EU membership-seeking countries would be unbearable to the European Union. The understanding is overwhelming,” Bielinis said.
Stoicescu notes that there has “always been a split” in opinions and interests on the EU enlargement, even among the so-called “old-timers”, when it comes to the issue of Turkey, for example.
“What concerns Eastern Partnership and the perspectives of the new states’ membership, the text of the Riga Summit Declaration, as well as comments by high officials from the EU and member states, reflects adequately the actual state of affairs. There is no wish on the EU side to either abandon these states, especially Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, or to provoke further aggressive actions from the Russian side,” he said.
The analysts agree that Russia has already declared its victory in the sense that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have been offered practically nothing tangible at the Riga Summit.
“Russian propaganda has obviously attempted to overshadow any positive development in Eastern Partnership Programme, not even mentioning, for example, visa-freedom accorded to Moldova in 2014 for owners of biometric passports, but rather stating that citizens of all the EU aspirants have been denied, once again, visa-free travelling to the EU,” Stoicescu underlined.
Since Russia views the EU programme, coupled with NATO’s partnership and open door policies, as an instrument of expanding the Western sphere of influence that is against Russia’s stark plans to re-establish its influence over these countries, Russia will surely undertake new actions against Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia to destabilize and discredit these countries, so that the EU is less eager to cooperate with them and to offer them new opportunities, the Estonian analyst believes.
Agreeing, Bielinis says Russia has managed to hammer a wedge between the Eastern Partnership countries and the European Union.
“It will not stop there, but rather will keep punching it in,” he insists.
Russia will be doing it just because this gets its own population high on patriotism, provides opportunities for crackdown on those dissatisfied with the Kremlin policies and still rallies high public support, the Lithuanian professor of political sciences is convinced.
“Simply speaking, it secures the grip to power and this is what the Russian establishment is mostly preoccupied now,” Bielinis pointed out.
Asked whether the limbo, if extended, has the potential of triggering a shake-up of Ukraine’s highest echelons of power, he says he believes there might turn up certain political forces in Ukraine that will try to inflict social unrest and destabilize the government and entire country.
“Most likely, they (the forces) will spring up to action through public unrest amid the dismal economic performance and, sure, most likely with an impetus from the neighbour (Russia). Such a situation will be a test of sobriety for the European Union, but as much as it is important not to keep the eyes closed or semi-closed, like in the case of Greece, it is necessary to keep cool and let the EU candidates pass such a test (of sobriety) as far as their European aspirations are concerned, too” the analyst underlined.
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