EUROPE'S CAPTIVE PEOPLES

European Voice
November 28, 2013

Ukrainians and others among Europe's eastern neighbours are captives
of their own rulers, writes Edward Lucas

I was always sceptical about the European Union's Eastern Partnership.

It reeked of lazy Western pigeonholing. The six countries it covered
are hugely different. Ukraine is more important than the others
combined. Azerbaijan's owner-rulers are so rich they can do what
they like. Belarus is an autocracy - and like Armenia so dependent on
Russia for security that room for manoeuvre is limited. (It might make
sense to have a joint policy for small, cash-strapped and vulnerable
Moldova and Georgia, based on promoting territorial integrity,
energy independence and the rule-of-law. But it would hardly be a
grand design.)

An even bigger flaw was that the Eastern Partnership assumed rulers
and ruled had the same interests. This is clearly not the case. The
elites in most of these countries are corrupt and self-interested.

They rig elections, muzzle the media, intimidate their opponents and
regard their time in office as licence to loot. We used to call these
countries 'captive nations' because they were in thrall to the Soviet
empire. Now they are captives of their own rulers.

Whatever lip-service these elites pay to European integration, they
detest the political and economic competition it would mean. The
people, however, would like it a lot. The enthusiasm for modernisation
and openness is not universal or complete. Their views on gay marriage,
or the rights and wrongs of Soviet history, may be sharply different
from their counterparts in, say, Poland or the Baltic states. They
see Europe's flaws - austerity, corruption, prejudice, hypocrisy,
weakness and potential instability - all too clearly.

But all that is relative. The Kremlin has failed colossally to win
hearts and minds in its former empire. Instead people are pretty
fed up with crime, corruption, censorship, economic sanctions,
information-warfare and other examples of Russia's applied soft power.

For all the reservations about Europe, few see Putinism as an
attractive model for their own future. Unfortunately, the rulers of
countries like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine are far more scared
of the Kremlin than of their voters.

This sad impasse is a bad basis for negotiating something like the
Eastern Partnership, which requires elites to take difficult decisions
for the long-term good of their countries. This model worked well in
negotiating the accession agreements for the Baltic states and the
Visegrad countries, where the rulers were hugely pro-European and
just needed to know what template to follow.

It does not work well with an ex-Soviet jailbird like the Ukrainian
leader Viktor Yanukovych. He is by all accounts dim as well as dodgy.

But even he could see that the EU was in effect asking him to dismantle
the system that kept him in power, and to accept a lot of short-term
pain from Russian trade sanctions (he also, I hear, feared for his
physical safety: his pro-European predecessor Viktor Yushchenko,
after all, was poisoned).

As the Eastern Partnership dies in the flames of Vilnius, it may
look hard to summon political enthusiasm inside the EU for future
eastern-neighbourhood policies. Many senior people will feel they
have wasted their time once and have no wish to repeat the mistake.

But they have no choice. These countries are not going away - and
neither is Russia. The real value of the Eastern Partnership saga
has been in educating European officials to the reality of Kremlin
power on its doorstep. In all the captive nations, the main effort now
should be on European integration for people (students, entrepreneurs,
do-gooders, cultural folk). It should not centre on doing deals with
their captors.

As for policy towards the Kremlin, Europe should lick its wounds and
counter-attack hard. Start with Gazprom.

Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist.