New frontiers for the Eastern Partnership

Opinion by Stanislav Mulyukin

The Eastern Partnership (EaP), which for over a decade has been a powerful irritant to the Kremlin, can now become an instrument of expanded dialogue between the EU and Russia in many areas of mutual beneficial cooperation.

The contradictions of the EaP were predestined from the beginning. The enlargement of the EU in 2003 raised the question of relations with the former Soviet republics that became independent states. This issue became even more relevant after the integration of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, which made the EU a full-fledged Black Sea actor and posed new questions in relation to Ukraine, Moldova and the republics of the South Caucasus. At the same time, since the beginning of the 2000s, Russia has been developing the Eurasian Integration Project, which by the middle of the decade proved its viability as well as a systemic weakness. This project acquired a modern institutional design in May 2014, when an agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was signed in Astana and joint plans for further integration were outlined.

This happened after Crimea was torn away by Russia, a conflict in Ukraine unfolded with Russian participation, and the first sanctions against Russian officials were introduced. For Russia, the success of Eurasian integration was very important – the Kremlin tried to prove that it was not an international outcast, able to unite allies and that it would remain a key player in the post-Soviet space. Although, in fact, Russia had to limit its aspirations and agree on a much less ambitious plan than originally intended. However, Europe also had to temper its ambitions for maintaining a good relationship with the EaP countries and as a result turned a blind eye to the growing corruption and authoritarian tendencies in the EaP. Even in the three countries that aspire to advanced cooperation within the EaP, the problems are quite big. Moldova ranked 120th and Ukraine 126th, out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) reported by Transparency International. The problems of corruption and large-scale embezzlement forced Europe in the past to refuse financial assistance to Moldova. Georgia is in the best position, but further positive momentum especially in democracy is in doubt – Georgia holds 89th place in 2019, which compared to the previous year is a loss of 10 steps by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

Two post-Soviet countries, Armenia and Belarus simultaneously became participants in the EAEU and the EaP. This determines the uniqueness of their position, along with the special conditions of their relations with Russia, which are their energy dependence and especially advanced cooperation in the defense sector. Recently, however, there has been less and less common ground between Belarus and Armenia. 

In the spring of 2018, a democratic revolution took place in Armenia, initiated by Nikol Pashinyan. In the subsequent parliamentary elections, he came to power with his reform program. It cannot be denied that his predecessors built a corrupt model of the state, usurping power and economic benefits in it. The new authorities of Armenia managed to maintain a balance in relations with Russia and the EU and continue to develop cooperation simultaneously within the framework of the EaP and the EAEU. Up to now, the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between Armenia and the EU has been ratified by most European countries and negotiations are underway to liberalize the visa regime.

Multi-vector foreign policy has also become the principle of Belarus. However, there is a nuance that distinguishes the policies of Armenia and Belarus. The normalization of relations with the EU is not based on positive changes, but on the mediation role that the Belarusian leader played in the Ukrainian conflict. The role of Belarus is greatly overestimated as a security donor in the region. The Belarusian regime has perhaps become the only beneficiary of the conflict in the Ukrainian Donbass and is interested in using this political lever further.

However, the government in Minsk has already used up almost all of the benefits as a mediator, and further development of its success is almost impossible. The EU cannot continue to sacrifice its values, having already softened its policy as far as possible with regard to Belarus. However, there have been growing tensions between the Lukashenko regime and Russia which have already led to a significant reduction in the hidden subsidies to the Belarusian economy by the Kremlin. In other words, unlike Armenia, Belarus is now very limited in the possibilities of developing relations on both flanks.

The Lukashenko regime is experiencing problems not only in relations with Russia and the EU. An ineffective management has led to a deeper crisis of the Belarusian economy, which even worsened during the Corona crisis but has not been recognized as such- This crisis means that the consensus within the Belarusian society revolving around the figure of the national leader may also eventually come to an end, and this can happen unexpectedly quickly. In August this year, Belarus should hold the next presidential election in which Lukashenko is an undoubted favorite. But nothing indicates that the Belarusian authorities are preparing to conduct these elections in accordance with democratic principles so that Europe will be able to recognize them.

The longer president Lukashenko is in power, deprived of external support and losing support within the country, the more difficult it will be for him to pass down his legacy to his successors, whoever they may be. A key prerequisite for breaking the political and economic impasse should be multi-vector domestic and foreign policies, the possibilities of which are limited for the current regime.

At the same time, the example of Armenia is excellent as this partner country already demonstrates the readiness and mechanisms of multi-vector cooperation, when Belarus is only hoping to do so. This is important not only for these countries, but also for the relations between Russia and the EU. Brussel’s new program for the EaP offers great opportunities in this regard in at least three areas.

First, the transport sector will become one of the most important areas of cooperation – the EU will focus on long-term investments specified in the indicative investment action plan of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). It involves the modernization of key infrastructure in roads, railways, ports, inland waterways and airports, as well as logistics centers, with the goal of further strengthening connectivity between the EU and partner countries, as well as between partner countries themselves.

Meanwhile, there is another developed infrastructure, which is the Soviet legacy, uniting Russia and other post-Soviet republics. Given the weight of the Russian economy and the volumes of trade between Russia and the EU, the most rational solution is to coordinate investments and plans with a view to their maximum efficiency.

Second, the EU4digital program for the EaP countries is aimed at enhancing the cooperation with post-Soviet countries in the field of the digitalization of public administration, services and processes. The EU will continue to invest in the digital transformation of partner countries in accordance with EU law and best practices. After 2020 the EU will aim at spreading a single digital market to partner countries. In this case, Brussels will inevitably have to consider that two countries – Armenia and Belarus are members of the EAEU and some aspects of cooperation in the digital sphere may not be relevant for them.

However, particular attention should be paid to these countries precisely because of their special situation, which allows developing cooperation without competition between all participants in the regional political process, including the EU and Russia. A similar logic of digital solutions, especially in the field of trade, transport and finance, is necessary for more effective cooperation in the future. This could be the goal of consultations between Russia, the EU and some countries of the EaP and the EAEU.

In addition to the indicated areas, great potential for cooperation can be found in medicine and solving environmental problems. They were not indicated in the recent letter on EaP from the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy but belong to areas where effective solutions are possible only as a result of the widest feasible international efforts [1]. Expanding the range of cooperation will let the EU create a more flexible system that allows finding many options for the development of relations with the EaP countries.

The potential of the EaP has not yet been revealed. Instead of cooperation, the EU so far has put the criteria for compliance of partners with European standards first and, for political reasons, agreed to turn a blind eye to growing problems in a number of the EaP countries. The new principles of the Geopolitical Commission of von der Leyen are more focused on the real actions aimed at strengthening the EU’s ties with the EaP countries. Perhaps values alone will no longer be a European goal in the EaP, but they should remain a criterion of effectiveness. Taking a practical approach, the EU should not go to the other extreme, refusing to pay attention to the values that underlie European life.


Joint communication to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020. Reinforcing Resilience - an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all. European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Brussels, 18.3.2020. 
URL: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/1_en_act_part1_v6.pdf

About the author

Stanislav Mulyukin is a Foreign Affairs Analyst