Viktor Uspaskich, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, writing in the Moscow Times:
The Eastern Partnership, the European Union’s program to improve economic and political integration between Europe and the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, was launched in Prague a little more than a year ago to a drumroll of high expectations and fanfare. Although the partnership has delivered very little in its first year, we have seen promising developments in recent months among some of the European Union’s eastern neighbors. It is vital that the EU seizes the opportunity to improve relations and strengthen cooperation with these countries. This can be done without any revolutionary policy diversions and, more importantly, without sacrificing fundamental political freedoms.
Moscow’s Victory Day parade on May 9 may have been a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. Polish and U.S. troops marched alongside Russian troops on Red Square. This new face appeared after the tragic plane crash in Smolensk that killed President Lech Kaczynski and many senior Polish officials. Although we are not suddenly dealing with a radically new, “softer” Russia, I believe that some of the developments on the Russian side go beyond rhetoric, and it would be a mistake for the EU not to take advantage of Russia’s new pragmatism. We don’t necessarily need a “reset button” to achieve this, just above all a constructive attitude and the willingness to compromise when necessary. This applies to Russia as it does to Belarus and Ukraine.
Belarus has long been neglected by the European Union. Until recently, the EU had employed a slightly simplistic “sticks versus carrots” approach — only that the carrots were not juicy enough and the sticks were not big enough. Punitive measures such as the suspension of EU-Belarus trade and visa restrictions for high-ranking Belarussian officials produced limited results.
Belarus’ accession to the Eastern Partnership in February 2009 briefly raised expectations but did not translate into a political breakthrough. It is largely economic considerations and Belarus’ changing relationship with Russia that have gotten the ball rolling. Either way, Belarus is gradually reaching out. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is now making efforts to improve the country’s business climate by opening its doors to large-scale international investment and approving numerous privatization deals.
As with Russia and Belarus, close cooperation with Ukraine is essential if there is to be any hope of stability in the region. Recent years have seen Ukraine turned into a political football. If the events of the past few years are anything to go by, then Ukraine should not be forced to choose between Russia and the West. Whether Ukraine leans East or West, the EU now has an opportunity to fashion a new approach to the country that factors in Russia.
It won’t be easy, but there have been promising signs. In Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s inauguration speech, he stressed that Ukraine should serve as a bridge between East and West. Security and energy are two areas where cooperation would go a long way to remedy some of Kiev’s woes. The EU should broker an energy deal between itself, Russia and Ukraine, providing a steady gas supply to Europe while simultaneously securing Russian income.
With its population of 46 million, Ukraine remains the linchpin of the EU’s eastern neighborhood while relying heavily on the EU for trade and financial stability. Hampered by economic malaise, the Eastern Partnership has not managed to have a definitive impact on Ukraine. It is time for the Eastern Partnership to be revived and focused toward manageable, yet significant, goals. These could include free trade and visa liberalization, both of which would be seen very favorably by the Ukrainian public.
There is no contradiction between deeper EU integration for Lithuania and other new EU members and better relations with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Cooperation is important, but not at any price. Political freedom and human rights considerations must not be pushed aside. It is important for the EU in general, and Lithuania in particular, to seek closer cooperation with our eastern neighbors even if some differences are bound to remain. This process can be kick-started by reviving the Eastern Partnership and giving it a more focused agenda.