As the European Union prepares to hold the third Eastern Partnership Summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius later this month, the United States is supporting moves to strengthen EU ties with countries on its eastern border, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. At a hearing on November 14 in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on European Affairs, a senior State Department official outlined the U.S.’s policies toward the EU’s expansion east.
“In recent months, as Vilnius approaches, we have kicked our political, economic and technical assistance into high gear,” said Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, testifying (pdf) at the hearing. “Our interagency team on Europe has worked with all parties to build consensus for the most forward leaning outcome in Vilnius. We’ve met with decision-makers in all the candidate countries to drive home the need to make tough choices and lock in real reforms before Vilnius and to show they are serious about their commitments.”
At the summit, the EU will decide whether to sign formal agreements on closer ties with Ukraine, and to initial the same agreements with Georgia and Moldova. Armenia had been in the same position as Georgia and Moldova, but earlier this year Armenia’s president announced that the country would be seeking membership in Russia’s nascent rival organization, the Customs Union, effectively taking it out of the running for closer EU ties. The Senate hearing nevertheless covered Armenia’s eventual prospects for EU ties, as well as those of Azerbaijan and Belarus, the other members of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program.
“The U.S. strongly supports the institution of the Eastern Partnership and we will remain deeply involved – as appropriate – to support the vision of Europe whole, free, and at peace,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), the chair of the subcommittee. “While these agreements are exclusively between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries, the U.S. does have an interest in furthering democracy and stability throughout Europe and Eurasia.”
Russia has strenuously opposed this EU expansion, using a variety of levers to pressure the Eastern countries. “Unfortunately, it seems as though Russia sees this whole contest as a zero-sum game and has put considerable pressure on each of the [Eastern] Partnership countries to discourage them from strengthening relations with the EU. We’ve seen a ban on wine imports from Moldova, chocolate from Ukraine, fertilizer from Belarus, and the list just goes on and on and on,” Murphy said.
Nuland said that part of the U.S.’s efforts include trying to convince Russia that EU expansion is in its benefit. “In our discussions with Russia about the Eastern Partnership, we are encouraging Moscow to abide by its commitments in the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and elsewhere regarding sovereign neighbors’ rights to pursue any political and economic arrangements they choose,” Nuland said. “We have also encouraged Moscow to see the benefits of deeper integration between its neighbors’ economies and the EU’s 500 million consumers, as well as the significant prospects for economic reform and sustainable growth that integration will bring to these countries.”
Members of a panel of analysts, testifying after Nuland, encouraged the U.S. to be more aggressive in conditioning aid to the Eastern Partnership countries on their undertaking of reforms that move them closer to the U.S. But Murphy noted that if the U.S. conditions aid, “at some point our tactics start to look like the tactics that the Russians are using.”
The hearing also touched on several recent political developments in the Caucasus and the U.S. response. Some senators expressed concern about efforts of the Georgian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, to prosecute members of the former government for crimes committed in office, which critics have said amounts to politically motivated selective justice. “We share your concern about the way the former leaders are dealt with,” Nuland said. “We have stressed to the Georgian government the importance of conducting investigations with full respect for due process in a transparent manner avoiding any political influence on prosecutorial actions. I would say that in the context of this period, where Georgia wants to have its association agreement and its [Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement] initialed, it’s been a powerful lever in that conversation to remind them that it’s not only the EU that’s watching that the U.S. is watching the way political opponents are dealt with.”
In response to a question about the prospects of Georgia regaining control over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Nuland said that EU integration would encourage that process. “When Georgia has completed all the work for the association agreement it will be eligible for visa-free travel for Georgians to Europe, it will be eligible for these trade benefits and incentives from Europe,” she said. “As I think about the choice that young people in Abkhazia, young people in South Ossetia have to make individually about their future, it’s going to look a whole lot more attractive to be carrying a Georgian passport whether you’re trying to travel to Paris or whether you’re trying to attract investment in your neighborhood. So I think the EU is playing a potent role in the strengthening of Georgian sovereignty with this agreement.”
On Armenia, the participants discussed Yerevan’s decision to join the Customs Union. “Does that mean we give up on Armenia as a potential partner down the road with the EU?” Murphy asked. “There’s nothing in the Association Agreement that precludes any of the Eastern Partnership states from continuing to have strong trade relations with Russia or any of the Customs Union countries. There are provisions in the Customs Union that prevent Customs Union members from associating with anybody else. So the Armenians had a difficult choice to make, and they have made it. It doesn’t change the fact that both the EU and the United States will continue to try to build our economic and trade relationship with Armenia. We think that there is more that we can do together, but they’re not going to have the benefits of the Association Agreement under Customs Union rules.”
On Azerbaijan, whose recent presidential elections were criticized by the U.S. State Department, Nuland made only a measured assessment: “The United States continues to encourage Azerbaijan to build the democratic and economic institutions and conduct the reforms necessary for a deeper relationship with the Euro-Atlantic community.” But Murphy was harsher, calling on Baku to release political prisoners. “One very positive step Azerbaijan could take would be the release of a list of prisoners [made by] the State Department and human rights groups being detained currently,” he said.