The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a carefully crafted political format meant to boost ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbours Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
However, next time EU leaders meet with their counterparts from EaP, “probably, their number will be a bit lower”, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša told Brussels reporters visiting his country as Ljubljana began its six-month stint at the EU’s helm.
“Probably” is doing a lot of work there.
Earlier this week, Belarus said it was suspending its participation in the initiative, a move condemned by Brussels as “another step backwards” after the skyjacking of a European Ryanair flight last month.
The suspension comes a few months before this year’s EU-Eastern Partnership summit is to be held, under the auspices of Slovenia’s EU Council presidency in December.
Some diplomats in Brussels and beyond have been suggesting that an idea worth exploring is whether it might be possible to instead include Belarus’ anti-Lukashenko opposition in the summit, to send a signal of support to democratic Belarus.
One of the advocates of this idea, Lithuania’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mantas Adomėnas, told EURACTIV: “The decision to suspend Belarus’ participation at Eastern Partnership was adopted by the illegitimate president, not by Belarussians. Belarus should be represented by the representatives of democratic civil society”.
Asked whether the EU is considering such an option, the EU’s chief foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said such a decision will be taken “closer to the event”.
“Within the Eastern Partnership multilateral framework, and with the exception of institutions responsible for violations and abuses of human rights, we will maintain cooperation with Belarus at non-political level, and intensify cooperation with key non–state Belarusian stakeholders,” Stano added.
Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Belarus’ opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, told EURACTIV that the autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko “doesn’t have the legitimacy and power to suspend Belarus membership in the Eastern Partnership, Belarusian people and all democratic forces are interested to continue the EaP programme on all levels”.
Tikhanouskaya’s team has already discussed the summit with the European Commission, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi and with EU leaders and is pushing for the exiled leader to participate “on behalf of Belarusian people”, considering participation in either in an official capacity or in the form of a high-level summit event.
The former option would be unprecedented, as it would see the EU de facto recognise Tikhanouskaya as head of state although she has never held elected office prior to last year’s elections, widely believed to be have been rigged by Lukashenko’s regime and therefore not recognised by the EU.
Experts stress it will be important to see how the EU-Eastern Partnership will react to the Belarusian demarche.
“The EU has no other alternatives here, except to increase assistance to the civil society of Belarus, independent media, help victims of repression and, at the same time, put pressure on the regime,” Pavel Slunkin, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told EURACTIV.
Slunkin, however, also said that following the logic of not recognising the result of the presidential election and the legitimacy of Lukashenko, the current Belarusian authorities cannot reflect the opinion of the Belarusian people.
“The refusal of the Belarusian authorities to participate in the Eastern Partnership should not deprive the Belarusians of such an opportunity – and in this case, the invitation of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is already holding meetings with European leaders at the highest level, looks not only symbolic but also quite appropriate and logical,” he added.
The Eastern Partnership region has been burning for quite a while already, destabilised by the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, the political crisis in Georgia, and the continued uncertainty caused by the war in Eastern Ukraine.
However, as Brussels movers and shakers like to say, every crisis is an opportunity.
EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is already high on the Slovenian presidency agenda. Janša said that “further steps can be made” towards Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, all three aspiring to join the EU one day.
This less than enthusiastic rhetoric stands in sharp contrast with his view on the Western Balkans EU hopefuls:
“The basic idea of the founding fathers of the EU was Europe, whole and free, at peace. This is still our first goal. We are convinced that the people living in the countries of the Western Balkans deserve a European future, and those who were granted support some two decades ago, are those that need to lend a hand to those countries.”
But does Europe really end on the Balkan peninsula? Geographers would disagree.