EU tries to boost ex-Soviet states

PRAGUE — Frustrated with the slow pace of political and economic reforms in several former Soviet republics, the European Union has launched a program intended to help these struggling countries develop democratic principles and market economies.

The so-called Eastern Partnership will give Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan an opportunity to gain free-trade benefits typical of EU member-states if they work toward harmonizing their laws with EU standards and developing civil society and rule-of-law infrastructure.

These are the basic prerequisites for EU membership, but the partnership stops short of offering its eastern neighbors tickets to the club. Instead it promises aid as well as the possible easing of visa restrictions.

This is, in part, to avoid provoking Russian concerns of Western expansionism, but also because the EU is suffering enlargement fatigue — having taken in 12 new members, in two rounds of enlargement, since 2004.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday he's hopeful the EU is not trying to usurp Russian influence among its neighbors, according to Reuters.

“We shared our concerns that there are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or you are with the European Union," he said.

Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform in London, said the new initiative was long overdue.

“It's an admission of failure inside the EU,” he said. “For the past 10 years, the EU assumed that the appeal of the EU would motivate countries to adapt to EU standards. But that hasn't worked. If anything they've been backsliding.”

Valasek was one of dozens of representatives from NGOs, as well as policy analysts, gathered here last week for a two-day summit on how to best proceed with the partnership.

So far only 600 million Euros ($800 million) have been allocated for the project through the next four years. The partnership originated as a joint Swedish-Polish initiative, but the Czechs accelerated the plan by making it a priority during their six-month EU presidency, which they will hand over to Sweden on July 1.

Ukraine and Georgia are eager to join Western clubs such as the EU and NATO, but for now they'll make do with what is being offered, said Olga Shumylo, director of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. Russia opposes such Western influence in what it considers its backyard and its foreign policy in recent years has sought to keep the two countries out of the military alliance.

“We're not happy membership is not part of the partnership but we'll take what we can get, to get as close to the EU as we can,” Shumylo said.

For some of the countries, EU membership wouldn't be an option, even if Brussels were open to the idea, given the internal opposition to democratization. Of the six partnership countries, Belarus is arguably the most politically regressive — President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled virtually unchallenged since 1994. (Ironically, however, of the six countries, Belarus has by far the highest per capita income at more than $12,000 per year.)

Dissidents like Vitali Silitski, who have been forced into exile for criticizing the regime in Minsk, warned that Lukashenko will want to reap the economic rewards of the partnership without investing in democratic reforms.

“We are interested in the human contact,” Silitski said. “The government is interested in [developing] infrastructure.”

The need for more contact across borders was a recurring theme among the delegates, with many agitating for relaxed visa regimes. While many advocated eliminating visa requirements altogether for entering the EU, Milos Lexa, the Czech's representative for the partnership program, said that was unrealistic.

“Visa liberalization is a better term,” he said. “There should be visas from one year, up to five years. Currently some visas are only two weeks, which is ridiculous.”

He added that the global economic downturn had taken its toll on the number of visas being issued. He said Poland granted 585,000 work visas to Ukrainians in 2007, but that the number had plunged 40 percent last year, to 350,000. In Hungary, the decline was nearly 50 percent, to 90,000 from 173,000 last year.

Yet even in countries where the governments are inclined toward Western integration, chronic economic poverty, rampant corruption and political dysfunction present significant hurdles.

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many say they're hopeful the partnership will succeed in developing their respective economies and civil society. But as one conference participant quipped, “The best solution would be to hand over the government to Brussels.”

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