Will the Eastern Partnership make a breakthrough in 2013?

Racing back and forth
 
Weeks before the Eastern Partnership Sum­mit in Vilnius and five years since the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched, the European integration trajectories of the six EaP countries are rather uneven. Countries have responded dif­ferently to the same initial offer by the European Union (EU), demonstrating different levels of commitment and performance. Nevertheless, the Index 2013 shows that all six countries, with some exceptions, are on a positive track towards European integration. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified their links with the EU, while Moldova and Belarus registered no change and only Ukraine had less intensive relations with the EU than last year. All six countries show progress in the reform process with the exception of Azerbaijan, which remains at the same level as in the previous year. However, all countries reg­ister both ups and downs in different areas. Four countries — Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Belarus — improved the way they manage their relations with the EU; Ukraine has not changed its approach, while Azerbaijan slightly weakened its management mechanism.
 
The progress is no doubt below the high expecta­tions raised at the launch of the Eastern Partner­ship. Insufficient political will of governing elites still hinders important reforms. Nevertheless, the registered progress might well mean that the Eastern Partnership does work and the goals set for the Vilnius Summit have brought these coun­tries a few steps closer towards the EU.

Testing democracy through elections
 
In 2012 most of the EaP countries went through elections that tested the very foundations of the young democracies. Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine held parliamentary elections, while Moldova finally elected a President. The cycle con­tinues in 2013 with presidential elections held in Armenia and set for October in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The elections revealed cracks in the foundations of some of the countries, while oth­ers managed to reinforce the roots of democracy.
 
Moldova ended its political instability by electing a president in March 2012. The removal of imminent prospect of new general elections allowed the coalition government to adopt a series of progressive reforms demanded by the EU. Moldova was the first country in the region to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law setting the standard for other EaP countries. The government reinforced the independence of the Anti-corruption Center and set-up an indepen­dent National Commission for Integrity tasked with verifying and investigating the conflict of interests and assets of officials and magistrates. However, the competing economic and power interests of governing elites generated another political crisis in early 2013, which led to the dismissal of the government. The new political crisis revealed that previous reforms could easily be undone. Immediately after the dismissal of the government major laws have been adopted overnight without any public consultation or parliamentary debate.
 
The parliamentary elections in Georgia led for the first time to a peaceful change of government through the ballot box without people taking to the streets. The election results were a surprise, following a tense and contested pre-electoral period marked by allegations that the ruling party had intimidated opposition supporters, as well as controversies about the electoral law, in particular rules on party financing. The Saakash­vili government made a number of concessions in the run-up to the elections, including in response to the successful civil society campaign ‘This Affects You Too’ that argued for equal access for all partisan media to cable TV. Images of abuse in a Tbilisi jail that surfaced during the electoral period likely boosted the vote for the opposi­tion party Georgian Dream, as citizens saw this as proof of the continued abuse of power by the executive and the failure of judicial reform. Since the election, President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili have entered into an uncom­fortable ‘cohabitation’. However, in late March the Georgian parliament unanimously passed a key constitutional vote to limit presidential pow­ers to dismiss the parliament, paving the way for a smoother transition. The new government has also proceeded with reforms to the labour code, demanded by the EU, as well as tackling reforms to the justice sector. Not all new measures have been without controversy such as reconstituting the High Council of Justice and a parliamentary decision in December 2012 to release designated ‘political prisoners’ detained under the former administration.
 
Democracy in Ukraine has continued to deterio­rate during the past year. Ukraine did not pass the test posed by the general elections that were largely manipulated not only during the cam­paign, but also on the election day and during tabulation. Two major political opposition lead­ers, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, widely seen as victims of selective justice, remained in prison. While Yuri Lutsenko was pardoned by President Yanukovych in April 2013, new cases against Tymoshenko continue to be opened. Media freedom experienced further limitations as the UNIAN news agency and the major TV channel Inter had to opt for a more loyal coverage due to pressure from the authorities, while an independent TV channel TVi was consistently de­nied air space. Peaceful protests were increasingly banned by local courts, while the number of cases of harassment of demonstrators by police became more frequent. Growing corruption and public procurement lacking transparency is part of the Ukrainian reality. At the same time a progressive NGO law was adopted, a new Criminal Proce­dural Code was passed, and the national preven­tive mechanism against torture was established. In December 2012 the EU outlined a number of conditions for Ukraine to fulfil in order to sign the Association Agreement at the Vilnius Summit. Yet, Ukrainian authorities have demonstrated little political will to implement the required reforms.
 
Parliamentary elections in 2012 and presidential elections in 2013 in Armenia were — with the exception of the shooting of a minor presidential candidate – largely well-administered without the violence and fatalities that set Armenia back in March 2008. However, the presidential elections were hardly contested as major contenders did not run and allegations of fraud were made. The OSCE/ODIHR assessed that although candidates were able to campaign freely and had equal access to the media, there was ‘undue interference in the process, mainly by proxies representing the incumbent’ and observed that although attempts had been made to technically improve the voters’ list, public trust in the list and the process in general remained low. With the Republic Party incumbent Serge Sargsyan declared the victor of the presidential elections, leading opposition contender Raffi Hovannisyan addressed protest rallies attended by thousands of supporters at Liberty Square in March and April 2013. How­ever, the absence of an opposition programme led to a lack of steam and the electoral result was largely seen as an expression of dissatisfaction with the incumbent. In the meantime, the coun­try continues to struggle with emigration and major concerns remain regarding human rights in closed institutions, the situation of alterna­tive civilian service for Jehovah’s Witnesses and concerns about media ownership amid pervasive and systemic corruption.
 
For Azerbaijan 2012 was marked by heightened international attention that came with hosting the Eurovision song contest. The authorities responded to criticisms of human rights abuses, including detentions, torture and property rights violations (the latter directly related to construc­tion for the Eurovision song contest) by cracking down on dissent. Although the remaining indi­viduals detained during the April 2011 protests inspired by the Arab Spring were freed in June 2012, there followed further intimidation and the arrests of journalists, bloggers and political opposition figures. The Council of Europe rappor­teur on political prisoners continued to be denied access to the country. With presidential elections looming in October 2013 — during which the incumbent Ilham Aliyev will run for a third con­secutive term — the authorities continue to use a de facto ban on freedom of assembly to disperse rallies in Baku and arbitrarily detain demonstra­tors. In a further attempt to restrict freedom of expression, the parliament extended the offence of criminal defamation and insult in the media to cover online content and lengthened the term of administrative detention. Azerbaijan continues to be selective in its relations with the EU and has made little progress on commitments undertaken in its 2006 Action Plan.
 
The elections in Belarus did not permit any op­portunity for alternative candidates to enter the parliament, despite some minor improvement in the electoral process. Three political prisoners were released last year, while nine still remain in detention. Freedom of association, assembly and media are still highly restricted. In 2012 the country avoided a deep economic crisis only due to Russia’s subsidising policy: its inflation was brought down from more than 100% to 22% by the end of the year.

Testing the EU’s transformative power
 
The developments in the EaP countries confirm that the EU’s ability to trigger reforms crucially depends on domestic factors. With the same offer on the part of the EU some countries have dem­onstrated progress, while others have remained mostly immune to the EU’s leverage. Despite some progress noted above, the high expecta­tions about a positive response in the partner countries to the EU’s ambitious offer of Associa­tion and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), as well as future visa-free travel, did not materialise.
 
Firstly, in the countries where survival of the regime is at stake, the EU’s offer did not become an attractive incentive. Reforms that would undermine the foundations of the regime — such as the release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Belarus or Ukraine, a level playing field during elections, media freedom and fighting corruption — have little chance to be implemented. Only in countries where political will for reforms is in place — Moldova and to some extent Georgia and Armenia — was progress achieved.
 
Secondly, in several countries political opposition is either weak or lacks a clear alternative agenda. Therefore, even if protest potential is high, there are no political forces to channel dissatisfaction into a constructive campaign.
 
Finally, the EU’s ability to be a role model de­pends on its image and the level of trust it enjoys in the partner countries. According to the EU Neighbourhood Barometer only in Moldova and Georgia has the majority of the population a positive image of the EU. Belarusians and Azer­baijanis trust the EU the least, 36% and 39% ac­cordingly, compared to an overwhelming majority who trust the EU in the other four countries. The majority of Armenians, Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians also believe that the EU is an important partner for their country, while only 37% of Azerbaijanis and 39% of Belarusians share this view. EU development support in the EaP countries is highly acknowledged by Arme­nians, Georgians and Moldovans. In contrast only a minority of Belarusians, Azeris and Ukrainians appreciate the EU’s efforts.
 
Nevertheless, there is space for optimism. The expectation that the EU will play a greater role in the region is high across the EaP countries. EU support for economic development, trade, but also human rights and democracy is very much welcomed. Civil society in all six countries sees the EU as its partner and uses the EU as a refer­ence in promoting the very same reforms that the EU put on the agenda.
 
The EU’s ‘more for more’ approach is increasingly being applied to the EaP countries. Negotiations on Association Agreements (AA) including DCFTA with the three best performing countries — Moldova, Georgia and Armenia — were intensi­fied and concluded in summer 2013. At the same time the signature of the Association Agreement with Ukraine was further delayed as a result of poor conduct during the elections and failures of the justice system. The EU is not able to start negotiation of DCFTA with Azerbaijan until the country’s accession to WTO. Cooperation with Belarusian authorities was primarily limited to the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership. The EU kept in place restrictive measures against 243 Belarusian officials and 32 companies.
 
One of the strongest incentives for EaP countries to reform is the perspective of visa-free travel for citizens to the EU. Moldova was the first country to complete the requirements prescribed by the EU and was moved to the second phase of the visa liberalisation process. Ukraine, who started negotiating visa liberalisation with the EU earlier than Moldova, has not yet been able to meet the EU’s requirements. Georgia, on the other hand, received a Visa Liberalisation Action Plan only in 2013, but is catching up quickly.
 
In 2012 the countries that had made the most progress in the area of deep and sustainable democracy received additional funding from the EU. Allocations to Moldova and Georgia were increased by one third, 28 million euro and 22 million euro respectively, while Armenia’s al­location was increased by 25% (15 million euro). The EU assistance to the Ukrainian government remained relatively low for the size of the country. Moreover, a substantial amount of funding was frozen and partially withdrawn due to Ukraine’s inability to meet sector-specific conditions and improve public funding management. While EU funding to the Belarusian and Azeri governments was insignificant, funding to civil society in those countries increased. Starting from 2014 the EU intends to make its funding to partner countries even more contingent on progress in the area of democracy and human rights.

Beyond the point of no-return
 
The conclusion of Association Agreements with DCFTA provisions with the four leading countries – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia - will mark the point of no-return on their European integration trajectory. The countries will be engaged in substantial regulatory alignment with the EU for many years after the Vilnius Summit. Governments who continue to flirt with the idea of joining the Russia-led Customs Union and the future Eurasian Union will have to reject Rus­sia’s offer. The EU made it clear that DCFTA with the EU is not compatible with participation in custom arrangements with third parties.
 
Concluding the AAs will not automatically lead to speedy Europeanisation of the EaP countries. The AA will not produce political will where it is not already in place. Indeed, the implementation of AAs might produce active opposition to the EU as short-term costs will have to be paid before the long-term benefits kick in. At the same time, the  AA will create serious constraints for unwilling reformers. It will become more difficult to reject reforms that are both very specific and legally binding. Moreover, the AA will become a tool and provide leverage to those actors in the EaP countries who are interested in reform. It has the potential to increase their power in the long run. As the struggle between unwilling reformers and reform-minded actors will only intensify a strong external incentive beyond the AA will be needed to tip the balance in favour of the latter and give divided societies a sense of direction.
 
When the time comes the EU member states will have to reflect and agree on whether to offer “the most powerful foreign policy instrument of the European Union and the expression of its ultimate transformative power - the perspective for a country to accede, as provided by Article 49 of the Treaty on EU if it shares the principles of freedom, democracy and respect for the rule of law”. In line with its approach of greater differentiation the EU should be able to look at each individual country and offer a ‘merit-based membership perspective’ rather than ‘geography based perspective’ for the entire region, taking into consideration the ambitions of each country, their capacity to adjust to the EU and proven track record of reforms. It should be possible to reach a positive decision on this EU’s offer before the next EaP Summit in 2015.
 
In the meantime the EaP reforming governments must do a better job at helping their advocates inside the EU to argue for possible membership perspective by providing frequent, consistent examples of being ready for accession discussions. The Index will continue tracking the record and the trajectory of each country in the following years.

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