The BEARR Trust Annual Lecture 2020

7 July 2020

‘Europe’s Eastern Partnership/Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ – Living with Powerful Neighbours’

Speaker: Tom de Waal

In case you missed it, you can watch the lecture online here.

For many years, at about this time of year the BEARR Trust’s friends and supporters and others with an interest in our region get together at the premises of the EBRD in central London to hear a talk on a topic of current interest by an eminent expert, after which we enjoy chatting over drinks and snacks kindly provided by our hosts. This year it was not to be. Instead, on 7 July, The BEARR Trust held their Annual Lecture on-line for the first time. The lecture reached an audience of nearly 70 people. We missed the convivial drinks afterwards, always an excellent opportunity for members of the audience to engage further with the speaker, but enjoyed seeing our friends on the Zoom screen!

The lecture was given by Tom de Waal, an expert on Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, who has authored numerous publications on the region. 

His topic was ‘Europe’s Eastern Partnership/Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ – living with powerful neighbours’. It was moderated by Marcus Warren of the EBRD. The BEARR Trust is very grateful to both Tom and Marcus for a fascinating talk and an excellent Q&A session. 

The six countries that formed the focus of the talk, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, are members of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), a joint initiative with the EU and its Member States. 

Tom de Waal explained that while these countries are often seen as being in between Europe and Russia, or part of Russia’s periphery (or, worse still ‘backyard’), or of the “post-Soviet space”, they are individual sovereign states with their own specific histories and characteristics. In reality they are part of several neighbourhoods – those of the EU, Turkey and Iran, as well as Russia. No single neighbouring power has dominance over them, and the countries themselves seek to have a multiplicity of relationships with states or regions near them. For historical reasons Russia has a substantial diaspora in each of them and still has an influence, often negative, on them. However, de Waal suggested, Russia’s actual capacity for influencing them is often exaggerated.

The EU has an interest in them and their future and so set up the Eastern Partnership. The six countries started out as independent states in 1991 on a level with the Baltic States, now EU members, but now lag far behind them in economic terms, as can be seen from their expenditure on health for example. While Estonia spends US$1300 per capita annually, Ukraine spends US$177, Azerbaijan US$275 and Belarus US$342. 

Their problems are often blamed on Russian meddling, but are also due to the acquisition of power in the 1990s by local nationalist nomenklaturas, which based their power on assets seized during privatisation of nationalised industries. This was particularly so in Ukraine and the South Caucasus countries, less so in Belarus where most industry was not privatised. A great deal of the wealth the elites acquired has been deposited offshore, including in UK property, assisted by the British legal system. Their governance is riddled with corruption.

Russia under President Putin has a menacing profile towards the region, claiming it to be a region of “Russia’s special interests”, and sees itself as first among equals in its relationships with them. However, there is a gap between Russia’s ambitions and its capacities, which – apart from in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine and South Ossetia in Georgia – are weaker than is often assumed. The countries’ trading patterns are diverse and their economies highly dependent in some cases on remittances from citizens working abroad – more remittances come into Moldova from Israel than from Russia, for example. Many younger citizens of these countries don’t speak Russian these days. Surveys show that the Russian public are not hostile towards these neighbours and with the exception of Crimea, do not covet their territory, despite Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe, and despite bitter arguments about differing views of history. In a survey in Russia 82% of respondents said their government should prioritise the domestic economy over military adventures abroad. In one conducted in Georgia, 52% said their country’s foreign policy should be pro-Western, while maintaining good relations with Russia, against 16% who wanted a pro-Russian policy, while maintaining good relations with the EU and NATO. Only 15% were just pro-West and 5% just pro-Russia.

Looking at what benefits the EaP brings this quite diverse group of countries, de Waal pointed to their greater importance as a group in dealings with the EU, such as an on-line summit Chancellor Merkel held with all their leaders. (“Stronger together”, as the slogan goes.)  Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have all signed trade agreements with the EU, while Azerbaijan relies more on its energy exports as the primary focus of its relationship with Europe. Repression of dissent in Azerbaijan and Belarus makes their relationships with Europe less intensive. Emphasis on Russia and its influence often obscures the need for the countries themselves to do more about reform and economic development.

Questions came thick and fast and ranged widely. Looking at what the EU could do better, de Waal thought it could work harder at conflict resolution, especially in Abkhazia and Transnistria, at engaging more with rural communities, which western partners mostly neglected. He told us of one village in the Caucasus where only one resident remained, all other inhabitants having left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Here he is tending his bees:

Questions also touched on Russia’s priorities – currently its own political succession, according to Laurie Bristow, former Ambassador to Moscow; on civil society – Ukraine’s and Georgia’s elites are caught between the international community and their country’s civil society, Armenia’s civil society has become very active, while in Belarus and Azerbaijan it is much weaker; and on UK policies following the merger of the FCO and DFID. There were contributions from two civil society participants about the prospects for change in Belarus, where a presidential election will be held on 9 August. The future for Armenia and Azerbaijan and resolution of their conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh were also raised. Sadly, soon after the lecture, fighting broke out again in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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