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Riga Eastern Partnership Summit: neither beginning nor end but just continuation

Picture by baltic-review.com

The last Eastern Partnership summit held in Riga on May 21-22 has split the partner-states and has once again revealed the contradictions they have on unsettled conflicts like those in Nagorno-Karabakh or Crimea.

Both political analysts and politicians believe that this time there were two reasons why the EU was careful in addressing sensitive subjects: not to wreck the summit and not to worsen relations with Russia. It seems that they were keeping in mind the lessons of the summit that took place in Vilnius in 2013. The parties reached a compromise on Crimea (the wording about the “annexation of Crimea” was left in the text of the summit’s final declaration but was signed by EU members only). The summit did not give Georgia and Ukraine a clear answer when their visa regimes with the EU would be liberalized. The dispute over the point concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh was settled, with no diplomatic breakthroughs registered.

According to experts, Eastern Partnership continues to be a one-legged project. Armenian political analyst Richard Giragosian believes that it is neither fully eastern nor fully partnership as it lacks the key element – Russia.

They in Russia were not very much worried about the summit. “The EU leaders have failed to convince their ‘eastern partners’ to support the thesis about ‘illegal annexation of Crimea.’ That was the very plot of the summit, but, in the end, the above-mentioned term was approved not as the general opinion of the summit but as the opinion of the EU members only. This is a very important nuance: it means that not all ‘eastern partners’ are ready to sacrifice their real relations with Russia for the sake of some mythical EU membership,” Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry was rather critical of the summit: “Once again the EU grunted something inadequate about Crimea. Some EU leaders still have to learn to respect a nation’s free choice and will – something they so much love to talk about. We also noticed attempts to blame Russia for all troubles and contradictions the Eastern Partnership project is facing now. The summit was new but the song was old.”

The summit’s final declaration reflects the vulnerability of Eastern Partnership, a project that, according to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, is facing hard times. In the meantime, mass media and experts worldwide noticed that more and more people in Georgia and Moldova are getting disappointed with the European integration project and are turning their eyes towards Russia.

Judging from what most European politicians say, Armenia looked quite good at the summit. Now that Russia and the West have clinched, for the Armenians, who have just joined the Eurasian Economic Union, the “European cards” fell quite well. Just like the Ukrainians and the Georgians, they were promised liberal visa regime. Very soon, Armenia and the EU will start talks to develop a new legislative framework for their relations.

According to EADaily ’s correspondent in Riga, in fact the sides will work on the association agreement they failed to sign in Vilnius. EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics have indirectly confirmed this. “We are ready to negotiate with Armenia on a new agreement based on what we had in 2013, that is, the draft association agreement. But the difference will be that Armenia is now a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and we will look for ways to avoid contradictions between that country’s obligations to that Union and its relations with the EU,” Rinkevics said.

In fact, Armenia and the EU are planning to sign an “association agreement lights.” It will include political and economic aspects, except for customs regulations – as this would be contrary to Armenia’s membership to the Eurasian Economic Union.

According to some politicians, Armenia has achieved quite good results in its relations with the EU and, at the same time, it has managed to “retain its Crimea,” to avoid problems and to deepen economic ties with Russia by having joined the Eurasian Economic Union. On the other hand, what Armenia can do in its relations with Russia, Georgia and Ukraine cannot as they are of much higher significance for the United States. Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was satisfied with the results of the summit: “We have come to general understanding that we will shortly have to start negotiations, which is reflected in the joint declaration. We have agreed that shortly the EU Council will give start to this process and we will be able to negotiate a new legal document and enlarge, deepen and develop our relations. That is, today we have exactly what we expected to have,” Nalbandian said.

The Riga summit is neither the beginning nor the end of something but just a continuation. The EU has not given up on its “eastern partners”, but will keep in mind their peculiarities. According to Director of the Caucasus Institute, political scientist Alexander Iskandaryan, the key result of the summit is that the EU has realized that each of its eastern partners has its peculiarities and is willing to show a differentiated approach to them. “They in Brussels also realize that each of the partners have specific relations with Russia. And one more result of the summit is that they in Moscow no longer regard Eastern Partnership as something dangerous as they see that this project will not be able to take the partners away from Russia – especially now that Russia and the West are looking for common grounds,” Iskandaryan said.

According to Russian expert Alexander Skakov, the Riga summit has shown that the European Union has a differentiated approach towards its eastern partners. “This is logical - as some of them (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) have signed the association agreement, while the others (Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan) have not. Consequently, the EU’s approach to them will be different - starting from visa regime to trade and economic ties. Even for Georgia and Ukraine approaches will be different: Georgia, for example, may get visa-free regime earlier than Ukraine will,” Skakov says.

He notes that Russia has paid little attention to the Riga summit and its final declaration. “In fact, they have failed to approve the wording about Crimea’s annexation in the way they planned. The only thing they did was make a row about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but they still failed to draw great attention to their summit,” the expert says.

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