By Thomas de Waal

September 28, 2011 11:47 pm

With their southern neighbourhood still in ferment and the eurozone
in ever deeper crisis, few European leaders have much time to think
about their eastern borderlands. They should. This is one region
where the collective European Union can make a difference. Indeed,
the much heralded return of Vladimir Putin as Russian president should
focus minds on how to present an alternative to Russia~Rs increasingly
authoritarian model.

Troubling smoke-signals are quickly rising from the six European
post-Soviet countries outside Russia: Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine,
Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Twenty years after they became
independent, with the end of the Soviet Union, they form an arc of

Tiny Moldova is probably the brightest spot and has the most
progressive government, but is also the poorest and its reformist
agenda is mostly on paper. Belarus suffers under Europe~Rs most
repressive leader, Alexander Lukashenka, and is close to bankruptcy.

Ukraine has squandered the chance of transformation promised by the
2004 Orange Revolution and is wracked by permanent political strife.

Elsewhere, the current Georgian elite has made some impressive
modernising reforms, but its democratic record is more patchy. Georgia
is also currently a one-party state with few checks and balances.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are still crippled by their perpetual and
intractable conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh.

Today in Warsaw, the EU re-launches its worthy but faltering eastern
partnership programme for these six countries. If ever there was a
project to energise it, this should be it. In eastern Europe, far
more than in the Arab world, the EU is a guiding star for millions of
people, who feel European but are frustrated by inadequate governments
and persistent poverty.

The issue is not a Russian imperial threat. With the exception of a few
sensitive spots, such as Abkhazia and Crimea, Moscow is in long-term
retreat from its former colonial space, and is mostly pre-occupied
with domestic problems, such as the volatile north caucasus. Russia
had concerns about Nato expansion into Georgia and Ukraine, but that
ill-conceived project has now run out of steam. The EU, by contrast,
is just a fact of life to the west. Russia~Rs challenge is more of an
economic one: a re-elected Mr Putin is likely to be more aggressive
in pushing an agenda of cross-border crony capitalism via for example
a customs union with Ukraine.

The EU can offer a brighter vision than that ~V if it tries. Currently
the default policy is to withhold the big carrot, a membership
perspective for these countries, while being softer on day-to-day
issues, such as conditionality on reform and conduct of elections,
in order to keep up a dialogue with governing elites.

In fact, it should be the other way round. The leaders of the EU
should make a general commitment that in theory and in the future
these six countries could eventually join the union, if ~V and it is a
big if ~Vthey raise their standards to meet it. Offering the hope of
eventual EU membership should not be a taboo. Turkey has been in the
EU waiting-room since the 1960s, but, more by good luck than planning,
the long wait has helped reform the Turkish state and now, arguably,
outgrow its EU ambitions.

However, it would be a big mistake for the EU to cut corners on
issues such as elections or trade agreements. Calling a bad election
a bad election sends a clear signal that some governments are more
legitimate than others. Negotiations on a deep and comprehensive
free trade area with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine promise eventual
privileged access to the EU single market and Brussels should use
all the leverage that it has on this issue. All of these countries
have opaque and monopolistic corners in their economies that need
more light shone into them. If they want better access to the EU,
they should get it without bending the rules.

One principle should guide all others, in a new Ostpolitik: ordinary
citizens are often more pro-European than their leaders. That means
anything that can be done to lift visa restrictions and make travel
easier for students or professionals could pay big dividends in the
future. Leave aside the debt crisis for a moment. Presenting a vision
of a bigger freer Europe is a project that even Germany and Greece
should be able to get behind.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace in Washington DC

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress