EU Proposes 'Eastern Partnership' to Six Former Soviet Republics
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan

Window on Eurasia: Original Blog Article

Tallinn, December 8 - Even as NATO has decided to proceed more slowly in extending membership in the alliance to Ukraine and Georgia, the European Union has offered an "eastern partnership" not only to those two post-Soviet states but also to Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and Belarus and Moldova in the former Soviet West.

Under the terms of the new program which is intended to support democracy and market reforms, the EU will offer the six some 350 million euros (450 million US dollars). The money is to be used in the first instance to strengthen borders, promote trade, and distribute energy supplies

The European Union has been discussing this kind of a program for some time, but the August conflict between Russia and Georgia led its members to decide to move more quickly toward talks with these six on these programs and also on the simplification and ultimate elimination of the visa regimes among them.

The new initiative, if realized, could promote the further demontage of the former Soviet space that Moscow has sought to maintain a monopoly position on. According to one Azerbaijani commentator, the new initiative will "reduce Russia's chances" of keeping this region as "a common economic space or of making the CIS something more than it now is.

Given that and given that integration into the EU requires even greater societal and political transformations than membership in the Western military alliance, one might expect that Moscow's reaction to this program would have been both immediate and strongly negative. But so far, Russian officials have been restrained in their comments.

Vladimir Chizhov, who serves as Russia's permanent representative to the EU, said that the new program obviously strengthens the position of the European Union on the post-Soviet space but as to whether this program is "against Russian interests or not" is something only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Lidiya Kosikova, a researcher at the Moscow Institute of International Economics and Politics, suggested that the EU move was primarily about lessening European dependence on Russian oil and gas but also about "interfering" with the integration of Russia and "the former Soviet republics."

Moscow is thus likely to react but perhaps not in the ways that some of the countries involved might expect. Instead of simply getting angry, Moscow has typically demanded and received from the EU as from NATO agreements and understandings in exchange for moving the borders of these Western institutions eastward.

One of those in this case might be a fast track to visa-free travel for Russian Federation citizens to EU countries, something Moscow very much wants but that had been on hold since the Russian invasion of Georgia last summer. And another might be the declaration of Russian as an "official" language of the EU.

Russian is the largest language community in the EU that does not have that status, and Moscow would like to see it acknowledged in this way not only for status purposes but also to put pressure on Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine to give Russian official status and a greater role, however much those countries two of which are EU members already might oppose it.

But this latest EU action could entail another consequence, one that few appear to be thinking about now. In the early 1990s, the United States took the lead in pushing the idea that EU membership for East European countries could serve as either a surrogate or a stepping stone to NATO membership.

If that idea should resurface, and some of its authors will be returning to office with the incoming Obama Administration in Washington, it would change both the EU and NATO and equally would change how Moscow would deal with Brussels, thus introducing yet another complication in East-West relations.

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