Staying the Course in Europe’s East

STOCKHOLM – As the European Union’s leaders gather in Riga for a summit with the six members of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership,” many recall the dramatic meeting in Vilnius of November 2013. It was there that Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, under heavy Russian pressure, refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement that had been negotiated from 2007 to 2012.

Of course, when Yanukovych returned home, he had to face thousands of protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square). Determined to hold him to his promise to sign the EU agreement and not take Ukraine into a customs union with Russia, the protesters mobilized the country. Yanukovych, failing to crush them with his security forces, simply fled. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine since then has made the Eastern Partnership more important than ever.

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 on the initiative of Poland and Sweden, where I was the foreign minister at the time. The aim was to respond to the desire of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine for some of the instruments of integration that had helped transform the Central European and Baltic countries into the democracies – and now EU members – that they are today.

The Eastern Partnership was also seen as a way to balance the EU’s “Russia first” approach. Enormous resources had been invested in the relationship with Russia, but very little had gone into helping the countries in the neighborhood that the EU and Russia share – including the most important of these neighbors, Ukraine.