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Eastern Partnership Dilemma: the EU or Russia – Democracy or Autocracy?

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 15:46

By Gediminas Kirkilas, the Vice-Speaker of the Lithuanian’s Seimas and the Chairman of the European Affairs Committee, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, 2006-2008


The European Union’s (EU) Eastern Partnership countries face the dilemma of choosing between getting closer to the EU or joining Russia’s initiative of customs union and ultimately the Eurasian Union in future. However, it is not only their choice between the two economic integration projects, but also between democracy and the authoritarian path of political development.

Armenia, which very recently has demonstrated a decent democratic promise, in the early September, announced that it was joining Russia’s customs union, being created together with Belarus and Kazakhstan. For Europe, this is not happy news.

Lithuania has been providing democratic assistance to the post-soviet countries and making efforts of bringing them closer to the EU. Naturally, the first post-soviet Baltic country holding the EU Presidency has hoped that the EU and Armenia’s Association and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement would be initialled during the EU Eastern Partnership Summit on 28-29 November in Vilnius.

Sitting on the two chairs, i.e., trying to integrate into the EU and into the Eurasian Union is impossible, not for political, but for primarily economic reasons. If Armenia eventually joins the Russian project, the country cannot sign the free trade agreement with the EU, because of different tariff requirements. This also means the closure of the biggest market in the world and that Armenia’s further co-operation with and integration into the EU might lose its momentum.

Moreover, Armenia’s latter decision, if it stays so, might have a negative impact on the country’s democracy, which is the 114th in the Economist’s democracy ranking for 2012, scoring 4.09 points out of 10. With the leadership of Russia, ranking 122nd, Armenia inevitably faces risks regarding its democratic future.

Finally, Armenia’s choice has inevitable implications for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as well as for the EU immediate policy towards these three countries.

For Lithuania, given the country’s European integration experience, the Eastern Partnership has naturally become the No 1 priority of its EU Presidency. Lithuania strongly maintains the position that these countries should be helped to make a ‘right’ decision towards Europe and given a credit of trust in advance, especially now, when Armenia might be lost to Russia’s geopolitical project. Demand or “waiting and seeing” strategy is no longer feasible, if Europe doesn’t want to lose the other three.

The major battle is now for Ukraine (democracy ranking 80th). Georgia and Moldova will likely follow the pattern afterwards. Therefore, Lithuania hopes that during the Vilnius Summit of Eastern Partnership, the EU Association Agreement will be signed with Ukraine and the Free Trade Agreements will be initialled with Georgia and Moldova.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his famous book “The Grand Chessboard”, which is very popular in Eastern Europe, states, that “with Ukraine, Russia is an Empire, without Ukraine – it’s not. The politicians in Russia took it very literally and are doing everything in their power to keep Ukraine in their sphere of influence”.

I strongly believe that signing the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine will actually provide the EU with more and the more effective instruments of influence towards this country, especially regarding democratic reforms and human rights. Within such a framework, Ukraine will be politically assigned to the democratic path and a united Europe, and therefore become less susceptible to the non-democratic stimulus from outside.

Otherwise, as happened in the case of NATO enlargement, postponing the Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU might be understood by the Ukrainian people and its democratic forces as a rejection, or as the country’s ban from Europe. The non-democratic powers, on the other hand, might accept such a gesture as an easy licence to move towards the consolidation of the non-democratic regime.

This year is a turning point for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, meaning, that making a delay now might turn into a continuing delay.

If the Eurasian Union project expands, it can create new and long-term divisions in international politics, as well as renewed rivalry between democracy and dictatorship in the world more than 20 years after the proclaimed victory of democracy in Eastern Europe.

The ball to throw is today being held not only by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, but also by the EU.

Moldova (ranking 67th) has more recently made so far the biggest progress towards integration into the EU. Let’s just hope it will stay on the right track.

Georgia (ranking 93rd) together with Ukraine, mostly thanks to the foreign policy of the Lithuanian President Mr Adamkus, from 1998-2003 and 2004-2009, has been Lithuania’s favourite in the Eastern Partnership. Despite some recent doubts regarding Georgia’s commitment to the rule of law, I am confident that the entire democratic input delivered by the EU and also the Lithuanian diplomatic forces cannot easily drain away. I see the current Georgian government as rational and thus understanding the prestige and benefits of belonging to democratic Europe.

Azerbaijan (ranking 139th) is more concerned with getting closer to the EU merely economically, rather than democratically or in terms of membership. Europe needs to find a way to work closely with a country such as Azerbaijan to keep it on Europe’s horizon. However, Azerbaijan would need more than successful Eurovision performances to win Europe.

Belarus (ranking 141st) remains the most complicated case due to president Lukashenka’s openly authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, time is on our side, and Europe hopes that ultimately Belarusian society will be democratised and Europeanised through the democratic assistance, the NGO development, democratic intellectuals or such projects as the European Humanitarian University, which found its exiled home in Vilnius and where the future Belarusian political elite is studying.