The Eastern Partnership at ten: a major flop?

ZOiS Spotlight 34/2017 by Nikoloz Tokhvadze (18 September 2019)

Anniversary of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels in May 2019. © Alexandros Michailidis/ Alamy Stock Foto

In May, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hosted a celebration marking the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, the major political and economic framework for the EU’s interactions with its European neighbours to the east. Representatives of all six partner countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—were present in Brussels to celebrate the achievements of the partnership and exchange views on its future.

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009, in arguably even more festive circumstances, when this Swedish-Polish initiative came to fruition. The attendance of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, posing shoulder to shoulder on the stage, and the inclusion of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko on the guest list marked the optimism of an event that pledged to ‘advance the cause of democracy’.

But a look at the past ten years reveals that prophesising halcyon days for the region’s fragile states was premature. The democratic transition envisaged by the partnership has been either negligibly modest or reversed into fully fledged autocracy.

Objectives and design of the partnership

From the outset, the Eastern Partnership was based on common values including ‘democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. To incentivise adherence to these values in a volatile neighbourhood, the EU used a well-tested tool: conditionality. Meticulously designed rewards, ranging from financial assistance programmes to visa liberalisation and free trade, were thought to provide enough incentive to produce the desired outcome and emulate the earlier democratic successes of Central and Eastern European countries.

But this approach came with a big caveat: unlike in previous schemes, the golden carrot of conditionality—full EU membership—was off the table for the six Eastern partners. The EU was so cautious not to instigate unsolicited membership ambitions that the European character of the partner countries was dropped from official texts, until some delegations insisted on putting it back.

To ease the implementation of key objectives, the EU designed bilateral and multilateral tracks and provided financial help to advance the reforms needed to unlock the pinnacle of the partnership: Association Agreements. These accords represented an entirely new framework encompassing close political cooperation and access to the EU’s single market.

Limited successes

Ten years and billions of euros later, the achievements of the Eastern Partnership are hard to call successful. Negotiations on the Association Agreements showed the first cracks: Armenia completed the negotiations but then made a surprising U-turn; Azerbaijan initiated but never closed the talks; while Belarus never opened negotiations in the first place. Only three countries—Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine—made it through the negotiations to the primary milestone of the partnership, the signing of the Association Agreements.

Another major reward of the partnership—visa liberalisation—also showed a fragmented commitment from the partners. Nevertheless, it proved more widely coveted, as even those countries that opted out of the Association Agreements are currently conducting or contemplating visa dialogues with the EU.

Propagating EU values and democratising the region were also ineffective. Georgia, a poster child for democracy in the region, was inching towards democratisation only to start slowly backsliding in 2018, according to Freedom House.

Moldova has also made rather insignificant democratic gains in the last ten years as the independence of the media and the judiciary have taken a hit. The country was shaken by an infamous bank fraud scandal in 2014 that led to the decreasing popularity of pro-European forces.

For Ukraine, staying the European course came with an exceptionally high price tag as it kick-started the 2013–14 Euromaidan revolution and spilt over into the annexation of Crimea by Russia and proxy wars in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The country’s democratic scores have worsened over the decade as former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was unable to deliver hoped-for substantial reforms. The disappointment contributed to his opponent’s landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election.

Unsurprisingly, the three countries most disenchanted with the partnership are not performing any better. Armenia, despite a peaceful revolution and an alternative agreement with the EU, has become marginally less democratic over the last decade. Azerbaijan, a strategic EU partner, has degenerated into a full autocracy, restricting the freedom of speech even on the territory of its neighbours. Lastly, Belarus, which has a long history of EU sanctions for offences that prompt only a slap on the wrist for Azerbaijan, has entirely quashed judicial independence and moved further towards absolute autocracy.

Challenges for the future

Despite reverberating optimism among the European architects of the Eastern Partnership, the outcomes of the last ten years are hard to brand a success. Notwithstanding minor technical achievements, even the EU tacitly recognises that major challenges remain for the future of the partnership: restoring the rule of law, enacting judicial reforms, and tackling corruption are high on the priority list.

While it might seem like a tall order, reinvigorating the principle of democratisation, which was scrapped in favour of stabilisation in the 2015 neighbourhood reform, could be the first step in the right direction. Tailoring individual policies and incentives for the more successful partners should follow. Together, these moves could create a solid normative basis and strong pragmatic incentives to turn the next ten years of the Eastern Partnership into a success story.


Nikoloz Tokhvadze is a Doctoral candidate at the Institute for East European Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. His research project examines the political and economic ties between the European Union and her eastern neighbours.