Too Quiet On The Eastern Front

WASHINGTON, DC -- During the brief Russia-Georgian war in August 2008, many Europeans rejoiced that the EU had at last woken up to reality in Eastern Europe. Were it not for French President Nicolas Sarkozy's febrile shuttling in Tbilisi and Moscow, the war could have dragged on longer. The 27-nation bloc acted as the "honest broker" in the event.

Regrettably, the real troubles have returned--and new ones have emerged--ever since that conflict. The EU has not noticeably stepped up its diplomatic and military role in the conflict-ridden areas of the region.

The umpteenth "gas war" between Russia and Ukraine in January exposed once again Europe's impotence before its energy dependence on Moscow and on unstable transit countries. To the peoples in the region, Europe continues to give the impression of being the bystander to Russia's newfound belligerence.

With the credit crunch now hitting violently some Eastern European economies, the EU risks to give the impression of being the bystander--full stop.

Come Spring, Europe will give yet another try at its Ostpolitik. At the initiative of Sweden and Poland, the EU is now set to launch an "Eastern Partnership", a framework embracing all the westernmost former-Soviet republics--Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and prospectively Belarus. The policy will be endowed with funds somewhere in the region of Euro 350m ($450m).

Content-wise, the "Eastern Partnership" makes all the right noises. It promises gradual and yet comprehensive integration of the partner countries into the EU's huge market; it will encourage transparency in the energy sector, and will favor movement of people through visa facilitation agreements.

Like previous European endeavors in this region, however, the taboo relating to the possible membership of these nations into the EU will not be lifted.

On the bright side, it is becoming increasingly difficult to put these countries in the same basket. Belarus persists on its autocratic path, although Russia's aggressiveness is forcing President Lukashenka to consider a number of overtures from the West (not least a surprise emergency loan package by the International Monetary Fund).

Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to oscillate perilously in the undefined zone between democracy and autocracy. Despite their serious domestic shortcomings, Ukraine and Moldova uphold their objective of Euro-Atlantic integration.

The "Atlantic" part of this goal is bound to be tricky. In 2008, the Alliance confirmed to Ukraine and Georgia that they can become members, but key NATO members France and Germany have dug in their heels for the time being.

Popular support for NATO in the region itself remains mixed at best. While NATO has enjoyed peaks of over 75 percent approval in Georgia, support in Ukraine is only around 20 percent. The conflict in the Caucasus, together with a less confrontational US posture on Russia under President Obama, have made the NATO prospect even fainter in the foreseeable future.

When it comes to the EU, there was a time, not too long ago, in which senior European politicians could be heard saying that an EU enlargement to Ukraine was tantamount for the United States to take in Mexico.

If the fading "Color Revolutions" have left any legacy, it is that fewer Europeans today care to object to the European identity of Ukraine or Moldova. For now, however, Europe continues to wrap its broad array of measures into formats that are silent about the membership aspirations of these countries.

As the financial crisis takes its toll within Europe and without, the EU can only be expected to be more introverted on this matter. Yet if this crisis is indeed to provide an opportunity, it will be also to the extent that the EU will be willing to take a leap of faith in this region.

This is ultimately a matter of being clear about the eventual prospects for EU enlargement for some of the Eastern European countries, while being just as unequivocal that membership is not in the cards any time soon.

For a nation such as Ukraine, prospective EU membership would mean a tortuous journey that may first end in fifteen years. But it would also mean that there is at last a destination and, one can hope, a least common denominator around which its querulous politicians can build a semblance of consensus.

For Europe, resolving the enlargement dilemma would not instantly restore its credibility, nor would it suddenly reverse the fortunes of its underperforming policy in Eastern Europe. It would, however, constitute a most explicit way to reawaken from its strategic trance.

Source: The Washington Post