“Indeed, the Vilnius summit participants were pretty hopeful that Ukraine, upon will to join the EU, would make more or less smooth transition to it with the rest of the world earnestly supporting Ukraine’s EU bid throughout the process. But after the Crimea secession and separatism in Ukraine, now there is understanding that the whole transition is going to be a lot harder than previously thought,” Kęstutis Girnius, political analyst and associate professor at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science, told the Lithuania Tribune.
The Riga summit was expected to lay out detailed steps towards EU integration for three aspirant countries, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as to show some indication, timeframe-wise, when the states could potentially join the 28-member club.
However, to the disappointment of the candidates, Riga summit will just re-affirm the nations’ sovereign right to “freely” opt for the “level of ambitions and objectives they aspire in the relations with the European Union”.
“We certainly have to admit that Russia has partly succeeded in scaring some countries away from pursuing the EU goal and others from extending full support to them in the bid,” the political analyst said.
Armenia had abandoned a planned EU Association Agreement in favour of free trade with Russia right before the Vilnius summit in late 2013.
“The Armenian pull-out and Russia’s belligerent actions in Crimea and Ukraine’s east have been a very dissuasive force,” says Girnius.
The ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, he insists, opted out of the EU-Ukraine deal not because of military threats from Russia, but first of all because of the fears of Moscow’s retaliatory economic measures.
“While all tend to be focusing on Russian warfare in separatist Ukrainian regions, few take notice of the economic measures Russia applies to the EU candidates. But they are there and are deterring,” emphasized the US-born political analyst.
One of the expectations had been that the European Union would grant the three candidates a visa-free regime in Riga, but now no one has any hope this will happen in the Latvian capital.
Visibly disappointed, Khatuna Salukvadze, the Georgian Ambassador to Lithuania, told DELFI that if the Riga meeting produced “uncomfortable silence”, it would be a sign for Russia that its aggressive politicies pay out.
“Georgia has been eagerly waiting for a visa-free regime with the European Union. It would be an important message not only for the people of Georgia, who would feel the tangible, practical use of the collaboration, but also for all Eastern Partners facing the Russian propaganda. The summit ought to send out a strong and non-ambiguous signal of Europe’s commitment to the Eastern Partnership,” the ambassador says.
Girnius believes Western Europe is right now more concerned about illegal immigration and, to a lesser extent, terrorism than EU expansion.
And when it comes to the United States, ISIS, Middle East and China’s rise sit on top of the US agenda, he says.
“That is why US State Secretary John Kerry recently visited the Russian president in Sochi. Had Ukraine been for the US on the top, the visit would have not happened. Ukraine’s issue comes fourth for the United States,” Girnius asserts.
US wants the European Union to be more engaged in seeking solutions in Ukraine and also does not want to entirely alienate Russia, which is necessary in dealing with Syria and Iran, the analyst points out.
The United States, according to him, is also very wary of close Russian and Chinese cooperation, especially when it comes to arms imports.
“The US does not like the military cooperation between the two at all. Particularly since Russia sells its most modern weaponry to China now, which can backfire against the American marine presence in the North China Sea,” Girnius said.
So at the end of the day, he says, there is an increasing understanding in the US that the fences with Russia have to be mended rather than shaken.
“I do not believe though the US will decide to call off the economic sanctions, but might curtail them. It seems to me the initiative to end with the embargo will come from separate EU member states and we are already hearing these kinds of calls,” Girnius said.
Against the global backdrop, he says, the support for Ukraine is weakening and the big powers’ interests are not solely behind it.
“We may not hear it yet very often, but some of the countries out there are getting increasingly impatient with Ukraine and want more tangible reforms,” the associate professor says.
Among the West’s disappointments are Ukraine’s dismal economic performance – GDP has shrunken 17.6 percent during the year’s first quarter, corruption thrives and the country has been embroiled in a series of political assassinations within the ranks of the former Ukrainian president’s party.
Besides, the West, Girnius says, keeps raising questions about the assets of the incumbent Ukrainian prime minister and president.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the PM, faces accusations of appropriating over 284 million euros-worth state assets.
“The president, for example, has promised to sell his confectionary factory Rochen, but has not done that, presumably because of the low prices in the market. The economic reforms have been very slow in the country and the procrastination cannot always be chalked up only to the ongoing war in the east and the inactions of the government,” the analyst says.
Bruce Jackson, president of “Project on Transitional Democracies”, an NGO, puts it in other words: the entire case is not only about Russia, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the victim.
“We have a predictably belligerent Russia against an unpredictable and unreliable Ukraine. The EU starts mistrusting the country and rightfully asks: ‘Where is the de-centralization? Where are the commitments? Where are the reforms?’” the NGO head points out.
Agreeing, Girnius says Russia cannot be held accountable for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
“The West obviously wants some answers from Ukraine now and it does not always have them ready,” he says.
Speaking of the future in the war ravaged eastern Ukraine, he says he remains more “optimistic than pessimistic”.
“Any exacerbation of the situation would play against Russia’s interests. The separatists, perhaps, would like to trigger new flare-ups, but they won’t likely go for that without approval from Russia. I believe they just won’t get it,” Girnius suggests.
He believes it is quite “groundless” to expect any tangible changes in Russia’s highest echelons of power for now.
“The patriotic wave is rolling high. The rouble has bottomed out; oil and gas prices are also rebounding. All in all, the Russian economy has taken the hits quite well. But the quality of life of ordinary Russians has deteriorated and will likely be edging down for quite some time to come. Still, no reason to believe the political regime might be shaken-up,” the scholar predicts.
Girnius says Lithuania’s rhetoric over the standoff with Russia is “too excessive and bellicose”.
“Lithuania tends to emphasize on all occasions that the European Union has to be taking a single stance against Russia, but, as a matter of fact, Lithuania is the first to break the single pose assumed by all, calling Russia ‘a terrorist state’ and selling arms to Ukraine, though the EU stands against that kind of aid,” Girnius said. “I hope Lithuanian top officials will eventually get rid of the way of talking as it conjures up an image of Lithuania as a radical country.”
Wrapping it up, the political analyst maintains he would be “extremely surprised” if the Eastern Partnership Riga meeting will offer the EU candidates anything cheerful except re-affirming its general values.
“I believe Europe today is exhausted over the EU expansion process and the aftermaths it entails. For now, it seems Europe will be more focused on its own economies, immigration and security. Western Europe just cannot see 40-million-strong Ukraine, quite impoverished, joining it and have the borders for the army opened,” Girnius emphasized.
If the European Union expands further, it would rather be embracing smaller European nations and the process will likely get lengthier, he believes.
“So the Ukrainian EU bid can be put on hold for quite a while,” the analyst concludes.