Twenty-eight’s a crowd


Russia is pushing former Soviet republics toward Europe, although EU membership remains off the table.


Sean Gallup

This is the first of a five-part series looking at the issues facing Ukraine and Moldova as they prepare to sign major agreements with the EU next month.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Union has reaffirmed its commitment to pulling Ukraine and Moldova further into its orbit, offering a string of landmark cooperation agreements to be signed next month — and standing behind them in the face of mounting Russian pressure.

But don’t get the wrong impression: Brussels isn’t looking for new members anytime soon.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership program, which includes both Ukraine and Moldova, is aimed at building strategic bridges with former Soviet republics, but stops short of offering any promises of future membership in a 28-member bloc already suffering from “enlargement fatigue.”

Some believe the EU’s offer of political and economic partnership — in the form of Association (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) — represents the furthest the EU is willing to go amid a lack of strategy in a geopolitically sensitive region.

“As long as the EU does not have a clearly defined strategy for this part of the world, this is going to be a problem,” says Amanda Paul of the Brussels-based European Policy Center think-tank. “They are offering these countries a ticket without a destination.”

Launched in 2009, the Eastern Partnership is focused on institution building, economic support and democracy promotion in the former Soviet Union’s western flank — and was long criticized for inaction.

Ukraine has emerged as the program’s most visible candidate, and is hoping to sign the two landmark agreements at a November summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Moldova, meanwhile, has become the region's most impressive performer, enacting an array of reforms that leaves observers confident the country of 3.5 million will initial the accords in November.

But the ambitious program hasn’t come without a cost.

As both countries have moved closer to concluding the agreements, they have earned scorn from Russia, which has sought to counter those developments by seeking to reintegrate its former subjects in a Moscow-dominated customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Arguing that a free trade regime between the EU and Ukraine and Moldova would endanger Russia’s market, the Kremlin has banned imports of Ukrainian chocolate and Moldovan wine, and dispatched high-ranking officials to warn against the countries’ European aspirations.

In August, Moscow went as far as sealing its border for a week to all Ukrainian imports in a move that Ukrainian officials said would have cost the country’s exporters around $2.5 billion by the end of the year if maintained.

That showdown has threatened an already uneasy relationship between the EU and Russia, which critics accuse of seeing foreign policy as a zero-sum game: What’s good for one side is bad for the other.

Kyle Kim/GlobalPost

European officials have decried what they say is Russian “pressure” against Ukraine and Moldova. Enlargement chief Stefan Fule condemned the Kremlin’s moves last month as “unacceptable.”

However, Russia’s heavy-handed tactics appear to be playing to the EU’s favor.

“Paradoxically, this Russian pressure brought the whole Eastern Partnership project to higher levels of political visibility and political determination,” said Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish member of the European Parliament from the center-right Civic Platform party. “Unintentionally, the Kremlin gave new impetus to the whole project.”

Still, “things are still open and question marks are there,” he added.

The EU has run into domestic dilemmas in the two former Soviet republics, with Ukraine posing a particular problem for Brussels.

Once the EU’s poster child for post-Soviet democratization, Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych has rolled back many of the democratic gains it made after the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The 2011 jailing of Yanukovych's bitter rival, former Prime Minister and Orange heroine Yulia Tymoshenko, for alleged abuse of office has threatened to derail Ukraine’s deal with the EU more than any other issue. Brussels has been highly critical of her sentence for what her supporters say are political motives.

However, European officials appear to have paved the way out by negotiating her release. Although he has yet to publicly agree, reports say Yanukovych is set to pardon her in exchange for her leaving the country, an agreement she's already accepted in an open letter.

The EU is also seeking the reform of crooked electoral legislation and the Prosecutor General’s office, among other requirements.

But Yanukovych’s bold move to embrace integration has forced the EU into a tough spot, obliging it to choose between reaching out to Ukraine despite its imperfect democracy or risk seeing the country slide back into Russia’s orbit.

“There is no plan B,” said Peter Stano, European Commission spokesman for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy.

“[The EU] is really doing all it can in order to be able to sign the Association Agreement, and Ukraine as well has said several times that this is their goal, and that this is something they are working for.”

Even if Ukraine and Moldova do conclude the agreements, however, no one is discussing future membership for the post-Soviet states in the 28-country bloc. Almost a decade after its big eastward expansion, the EU is still divided on the benefits of further enlargement.

Many see the 2007 entry of Romania and Bulgaria as premature, given their lingering political instability and high corruption.

Although Croatia joined in July and talks are progressing with other small Balkan countries, the EU's older Western members have little appetite for further enlargement.

However, EU trade agreements remain attractive incentives that would help open a market that’s far larger than any Eurasia union could offer.

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EU exporters would also receive better access to nearly 50 million new consumers in Moldova and Ukraine.

“Even the countries that are the least happy about potential enlargement want to export to new markets, so in this sense the DCFTA is good for all [EU] exporters,” said Nicu Popescu, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

Other analysts believe Brussels should be more concerned about building influence in its own backyard and serving as a bulwark against Russia’s outsize geopolitical ambitions.

“I don't think there's a massive amount of enthusiasm,” said Paul, the European Policy Center analyst, “but at the end of the day, the EU needs to show that it has some responsibility and it's able to meet challenges in its near abroad.”

“So far it hasn't been able to meet any of those challenges.”