Archive for category South Caucasus

After Vilnius: tough year ahead

The run-up to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Vilnius has been one of the most dramatic episodes in the recent diplomatic history of the EU. The events that followed have been even more extraordinary, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians taking to the streets in protest against the non-signature of the Association Agreement with the EU.

The three key EaP countries – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – are all suffering to differing degrees from a form of pre-electoral fever. The EU is faced with the challenge of how to proceed with Ukraine whilst keeping Moldova and Georgia on the EaP track.

Ukraine: choosing not to choose

The halting of the Association process just a week before the Vilnius Summit has largely been presented as something of a geopolitical catastrophe, with Ukraine choosing Russia over the EU. This is, however, not the case. In fact, Kiev chose not to choose at all between Russia and the EU and tried hard to maintain the status quo in Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies. Yet in his bid to buy time, President Viktor Yanukovich inadvertently precipitated the biggest crisis of his presidency to date. Read the rest of this entry »

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Armenia’s choice and the Eastern Partnership

A few weeks ago, Armenia stunned EU foreign policy watchers when it gave up on its association and free trade deal with the EU just a few weeks after negotiations had been finalised. The move followed Russian demands on Armenia to join the Russia-led Customs Union, thereby preventing the state from entering into a free trade with the EU. But even if Armenia’s U-turn was the direct consequence of Russian pressure, it nevertheless touched a raw nerve in the EU. It is therefore relevant  to ask what Yerevan’s U-turn means for EU foreign policy in general, and for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in particular.

The shape of things to come?

That a country of 3 million people and a nominal GDP of $10 billion would turn its back on the world’s biggest market (over half a billion people and a $16 trillion GDP) would have previously been virtually unthinkable. The EU, which has spent the last two decades managing a queue of almost two dozen countries vying to enter the club, is simply not used to being rejected by countries such as Armenia.

Armenia’s sudden change of direction seems to suggest that one of the most prized things the EU can offer (access to its market) can be countered by other powers – and offers. It was not Armenia’s decision per se that shook the EU foreign policy community, but a fear of the possible shape of things to come – and a feeling that a multipolar world is emerging not only at the expense of US power, but also of EU influence. Read the rest of this entry »

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A solidarity package for the eastern partners

The year ahead will be a crucial one for the success of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). While Ukraine and the EU work towards the eventual signature of an Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, Moldova and Georgia will only initial the Agreement, and are not due to sign it until autumn 2014.

Since the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) will only become a legal reality for them towards the end of 2014, between now and then they will be vulnerable to external pressures – diplomatic, commercial or energy-related – aimed at disrupting the signing of the agreement.

The recent U-turn by Armenia (which chose to join a Russia-led Customs Union rather than sign up to the DCFTA), as well as rising trade pressures on Ukraine and a new wine embargo on Moldova, probably mark just the beginning of a longer escalation of trade-related hostilities. The aim of these pressures is to either divert some of the  Eastern partners from their EU association agenda, or drastically increase the costs of  pursuing this option and weaken the political forces behind pro-EU moves. As a consequence, they will start paying the economic and geopolitical price for association with the EU well before they start reaping the benefits of it.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Keeping the Eastern Partnership on track

Sir Humphrey Appleby, the suave civil servant in the British sitcom ‘Yes Minister’ known for his wise but cynical pessimism, once remarked that diplomacy is about surviving until the next century – while politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.

Such differences in time horizons apply also to the pace of European foreign policy when dealing with post-Soviet realities, as the EU and most of its Eastern partners enter the finishing line on Association and Deep and Comprehensive FreeTrade Area agreements. For in the case of EU-Armenia relations, things have not survived intact until Friday afternoon. After having been engaged for years in the preparation and negotiation of an Association and Free-Trade agreement with the EU, Armenia has aborted the process just before its conclusion and announced its intention to join the Russian-led Customs Union. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Saakashvili Lost?

Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s president conceded the defeat of his party at the parliamentary elections. His rival Bidzina Ivanishvili, a money-splashing oligarch who made his billions in Russia and and set up the Georgian Dream party – a motley crew of oppositionists ranging from very respectable centrist politicians or former diplomats to some loony nationalists and populists – got over 50% of the votes on party lists. Saakashvili might still get a majority in the Parliament because whereas he seems to have lost the contest for the Parliament’s half seats that are elected on party lists under proportional voting system, the other half is elected as single-seat constituencies where Saakashvili’s part might have the lead.

Anyway, the election results are a big surprise. Just a couple of months ago very senior Georgian politicians were expecting something like a 50% to 30% victory for Saakahsvili, and were saying that the main danger from Ivanishvili was not for this round of elections, but for the next electoral cycle where he could build on his 30% to make the leap towards a proper majority.

Of liberalism and social democracy

The reasons for the elections results are manifold. The most important is basically too right wing a government. In his near-decade in power Saakashvili achieved huge successes in state building. The list of achievements is very long and has been so often quoted by Georgia apologists and friendly lobbyists that many people are tired of it. However, what Saakashvili achieved is no mean feat. He drastically reduced low-level corruption when it comes to the interaction between the citizen and the state – from traffic police to construction-permit issuers. He attracted significant investments, and most importantly (re)built the skeleton of a more or less functioning state, starting with the police and tax-inspectorate, then moving on to courts, universities, and municipal services (Here is a good book from the World Bank chronicling Georgia’s reforms). All was supplemented with a huge deregulation drive – that ranged from cutting red-tape and giving as free a hand to investors to drastic liberalisation of visa procedures for as many countries as possible. Georgia was open to anyone who would come to spend money or invest – from Iranian or Turks going to casinos in Batumi, to Russian, Kazakh or Gulf investors. Read the rest of this entry »

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Time for Azerbaijan to open up

Foreigners normally tiptoe around Azerbaijan. They all want something from the country, be it in the field of energy or security. The EU wants Azerbaijani oil, gas and cooperation over building gas pipelines to Central Asia. The US and Israel value cooperation over Iran. Turkey has a strategic partnership with the country. Russia wants Azerbaijan not too align too closely with the US and to prolong the lease for the Russian radar station in Gabala. In its turn Azerbaijan is rarely a foreign policy demandeur. It has lots of oil money and a consolidated authoritarian regime which does not want to take lessons over foreign policy or lack of democracy at home.

Appearances can be deceptive

Money and a careful foreign policy between various great power interests made Azerbaijan the ultimate balancer and a fairly arrogant regional player. But the Azerbaijani system is more fragile than the country’s foreign partners think. The foundations of that system are increasingly shaky for several reasons.

One key factor is decreasing oil production. Oil production peaked in 2010; it will go down by half by 2017 and two-thirds by 2019. The hope is that new gas reserves will make up for the difference in incomes. This might compensate the fall in revenues, but only partly and insufficiently. Read the rest of this entry »

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Revolutions and youth movements

One of the main stories of the 2000-2005 wave of revolutions – successful in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and failed in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Egypt – were the existence of organised youth movements with names which were variations on the idea ‘enough is enough’. Otpor in Serbia, Pora in Ukraine, Kmara in Georgia, Kefaya in Egypt, Zubr in Belarus), and Mjaft in Albania became almost household names. However, I have not heard of anything ressembling Kefaya in the recent Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. These recent revolutions were conspicuous by the absence of well-organised and well-branded youth movements. The revolutions seem to have done well enough without them.

Certainly, it is not youth movements, but authoritarian regimes and ‘ripe contexts’ that are the causes of revolutions. This sounds self-evident, but both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries seem to often miss it (though it is impossible to know whether a revolutionary situation is ‘ripe’ before it actually happens). I still remember the avalanches of venom deployed against youth movements as ‘fifth columns of foreign powers’, not just in Russian, Azeri or Serbian media, but also in plenty of (leftish) European newspapers (the Guardian seemed to excell at that). Many of them implied that youth movements, not authoritarian mismanagement were the causes of revolutions. But it is also indicative how Kefaya failed to lead to anything meaningful in Egypt in 2005, whereas the 2011 protests toppled Mubarak without any Kefaya-like organisation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Of Eastern & Southern neighbours

Just when the southern neighbourhood of the EU is shaken by a wave of revolutionary situations that toppled consolidated dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, the eastern neighbourhood seems to be in the middle of a trend towards authoritarian consolidation. So the paradox is that whereas the Southern neighbours look like those in the East in the revolutionary years of 2003-2005, but in fast forward mode, the Eastern neighbourhood seems to look increasingly like the south a few years ago – a collection of states with increasingly close economic relations with Europe, but with centralised, non-competitive politics, which routinely afford to ignore the EU on many political and security questions. Today, every country in the Eastern neighbourhood except Moldova is less pluralistic than it was 5 years ago (though Belarus arguably could not become worse).

Seen from Ukraine, Moldova or most of the new EU member states one of the most irritating aspects of the European neighbourhood policy is that it dumps together the Southern and the Eastern neighbours of the EU. The Eastern neighbours tend to be rather arrogant about the Mediterannean neighbours of the EU. The argument goes that you cannot approach ‘European’ neighbours of the EU and ‘neighbours of Europe’ like Morocco or Syria through the same policy lenses; Read the rest of this entry »

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On Revolutions

In 2003 -2005 revolutions in the neighbourhood were all the rage. Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon have all inspired high-hopes among their own populations, as well as the EU and US. Then, many of those hopes collapsed, the revolutions lost their glitz, and the EU and US settled for a revolution-sceptic mood. Having gone through enthusiasm and then fatigue for revolutions, the EU now has to have views on revolutions again. It would rather not. But in less than two months the EU neighbourhood has been agitated by revolutionary situations in Belarus, Albania, Tunisia and now Egypt.

Coming up with coherent EU responses to today’s ‘revolutions’ is more difficult. The problem for the EU is not so much the lack of visibility, but the lack of a clear-cut position with which to be visible. Back in 2003-2005, EU’s sympathies were clear (though not always as explicitly articulated at revolutionaries wanted it), but now the EU is struck by the scale of events and is mainly stuck on the fence. As Daniel Korski asks: “Should the EU back the protests, support what has been a friendly regime or sit uncomfortably on the fence?”

The fence-sitting moment (for many it is a ‘fence-sitting eternity’) is something which comes up at every single revolutionary situation the EU is supposed to have a view on. It is always uncomfortable, but sometimes it is easier to choose sides than other. Responding to Belarus’ suppression of post-election protests last December was relatively ‘easy’. It might not be effective, but there was no room for fence-sitting, and the EU was practically pre-determined to reimpose sanctions on Lukashenko and his cronies. Of course this was tried before and hasn’t worked. But what else can the EU do? After years of sanctions since the late 90s, the EU tried to engage with Lukashenko for the last few years, but engagement was pushed aside by the repression of post-electoral protests. To a certain extent, the new set of sanctions are not introduced to change Lukashenko, but for EU’s peace of mind and modicum of self-respect. So the EU policy on Belarus came full circle – sanctions, then engagement and now sanctions again. Nothing worked in the end. (Though engagement seemed to bring some moderate progress, which proved unsustainable however.)

But Albania, Tunisia and Egypt are much more complicated when it comes to having coherent reactions and choosing on which side of the fence to put the EU. The reasons are many-fold. To begin with, the EU is relatively disappointed  with the value and sustainability of coloured revolutions. Read the rest of this entry »

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Democracy and reformism in EU’s neighbourhood

Throughout the 90s in Central and Eastern Europe, and later in the Balkans reformism and democracy tended to go hand in hand. Governments which were more respectful of democratic norms, also tended to be more reformist. (By ‘democracy’ I mean respect for human rights, media freedoms and opposition parties. And by ‘reformism’ I mean the implementation of reforms such as fighting corruption, cutting red tape, improving the business climate, modernising state institutions like police, customs, tax inspectorates  or the border guards.)

In a sense, the 90s was a simpler world in which Meciar, Tudjman or Milosevic were undemocratic and non-reformist; whereas Dzurinda, Mesic, and Djindjic were both reformist and democratic. The good and the bad guys were obvious; the black was clearly distinguishable from the white. And the EU’s approach to these governments was shaped by this unbreakable link between reformism and democracy.

But it seems that the Eastern neighbourhood is different. There is much more grey than black and white. Categorising the likes of Yuschenko, Timoshenko, Saakashvili, Putin and Medvedev is more difficult. The link between being reformist and being democratic is much more blurred. Some are reformist, but less democratic; some are more democratic, but less reformist; and some are neither reformist, nor democratic.

Think of the following examples. ‘Orange Ukraine’ in 2005-2010 was the most democratic post-Soviet state with a vibrant media, lively parliament and vociferous opposition. But it was hardly reformist. Few deep reforms were even tried, let alone successfully implemented. Read the rest of this entry »

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