Partnership? What Partnership?

London – European Union policy toward its neighbors to the east is in trouble, despite the launch of its new Eastern Partnership. European public opinion is increasingly introspective and sporadically protectionist. So what is to be done about the “grey zone” to Europe’s east – the six countries that now lie between the EU and Russia? Inaction is unacceptable. The region has been badly hit by the economic crisis, made all the worse by internal political turmoil and serious security dangers.

The idea for the “Eastern Partnership” (EaP) came from a Polish-Swedish initiative early last summer. So, by EU standards, it has been rushed through on a very fast track. The new initiative is exclusively for the region to the Union’s east – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – and is designed to complement the European Neighborhood Policy. It has few new resources and a limited budget for technical projects (€600 million over four years for the six countries). The idea is that the EaP will provide a positive signal to these countries, change the climate in which the region is discussed in the EU, and slowly help pull it into the EU’s orbit.

The offer has annoyed Russia. But the EU has its own problems with the initiative. For example, it had a lot of trouble persuading leaders to turn up in Prague on Thursday. And those who agreed to come are not a good advertisement for the region.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko’s popularity ratings are below 5% after steering his country from crisis to crisis since the “Orange Revolution” in 2004. Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili is dealing with domestic protests after his disastrous military misadventure in August 2008. Armenia also faces protests, following the controversial election of Serzh Sarksyan in February 2008, which led to the killing of ten people. In March 2009 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev staged a constitutional referendum that opened the way for his lifetime presidency. Most controversial of all has been “Europe’s last dictator,” Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Previously, Belarus was not even in the European Neighborhood Policy.