The “Eastern Partnership Initiative” seeking to create the necessary conditions to increase political links and economic integration between the EU and the six eastern states adjacent to this Union (Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia), and ease movement and mobility of citizens of these states has recently taken on new dimensions. Since 2013 the EU has seriously pursued the plan for the abolition of visa for states of Eastern Europe to grant them economic and political incentives against Russia. In the last step, the members of European parliament in their meeting on February 2, 2017 voted (553 votes) in favor of the plan to abolish visas for the Georgian citizens. Accordingly, the Georgian passport holders can freely travel to Schengen member states for 90 days every 180 days without a work permit.
On the decision of European parliament for the abolition of visas between the EU and Georgia, some point should be mentioned as follows:
Visa-free travel to Europe does not mean that Georgia has joined the Schengen Treaty, but it only means that the Georgian citizens, like citizens of some non-European states, do not need to get a visa for a short-term travel to Schengen member states.
The abolition of visas for Georgia will be available for a nine-month trial period, and the process will not be executed before implementing a new mechanism that allows for a quick suspension of the exemption granted to any other state. Some states call this mechanism an “emergency brake”. In other words, a specific mechanism for the (possible) suspension of the plan is predicted. Accordingly, if the Georgian citizens apply for asylum or stay more than 90 days in the Schengen member states, or if they practically pose a risk for the internal security of the EU, Georgia will be excluded from this project.
The fact is that the abolition of visas, first in Moldova and then in Georgia and Ukraine, has paved the way for the convergence of these states into the EU, so the EU’s boast against Russia seems to draw new borders in the Eastern Europe. In other words, this is not far-fetched to analyze that if these three republics located in the territory of the Soviet Union - the Russian near abroad - join Europe, and separate from the historical area of the Russian Empire, the balance of power in the great Eurasian landmass will be in favor of the West.
Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan, as other members of the Eastern Partnership Initiative, after three years of negotiations with the EU have decided to withdraw from the process, and join the Russian-led Customs Union (so far Armenia and Belarus have joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Azerbaijan is also expected to join it).
The abolition of visas for Georgia can prepare the ground for the integration between the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Georgia’s central government. It seems that the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under Russian domination can receive Georgian passport, and this can pave the way for reuniting Georgia.
The full realization of the Eastern Partnership Initiative and the accession of new states to the EU will bring about tangible effects for the citizens of these states in the areas of education and research, training, youth employment, innovation and creativity.
Although the process of NATO membership for Georgia has not begun, measures have be taken that can cover the establishment of some NATO infrastructure in this state - a neighbor to Armenia. NATO has also similar plans for Ukraine and Moldova. Joining the EU free trade zone is considered as a powerful factor for the progress of these states, but it is more important to get these states under the umbrella of NATO. Georgia acts as a link connecting the Central Asia and the Caucasus region to the West, and this is an advantage. But at the same time, locating on Russia’s southern border, and having two disputed areas can be considered as the main barriers facing Georgia to join NATO.
The Eastern Partnership Initiative can in the long term threaten the interests of Russia in the Eastern Europe. In fact, this Initiative can be analyzed within the framework of using the EU’s soft power to include the states of Eastern Europe in its policies. The continuation of the Eastern Partnership Initiative can have negative consequences for Russia from a geo-economic perspective; it will weaken her position in the European energy market. Therefore, it is not accidental that Russia’s attempts in recent years to restore her former power, and pursue a more aggressive policy at times have created some friction with the interests of the West.
From the perspective of Russia, the West has not yet retreated from the traditional policy of advancing to the East, and the ultimate goal of the EU for finalizing the Eastern Partnership Initiative is also to attract states in the region politically and economically, bring them close to the West, and integrate them with the Euro-Atlantic community in the regional and international interactions and exchanges which can be considered as the “pathfinder” for the accession of these states into NATO.
The geopolitical and economic resurgence of Russia in global politics, and her show of power in the equations of Eurasia and Europe, from the Baltic to the Balkans, have made it harder for the Western actors to achieve an integrated policy towards Russia, and have left a negative effect on the EU’s common foreign policy.
It seems that Putin is trying to softly return to the Soviet prosperity period, and this can be realized through the Russian new approach to Eurasia, and reviving the “Eurasian Union”, and restoring her superpower status.
Restoring the Russian power conveys this global message that the US will not be the only global peace and war making actor. In this respect, the upcoming meeting between Putin and Trump in Helsinki can show a new version of the realities of the relations between the two states.
In the context of the aftermath of Brexit as well as Trump’s presidency and the formation of a serious gap between Europe and the US, and the EU’s latest efforts to implement the Eastern Partnership Initiative, the EU is trying to convince the states of the former Soviet Union that not all roads lead to Moscow, and they can develop their relations with the EU to achieve more safe margin, and speed up their development process. On the other hand, the EU, insisting on pursuing this Initiative, tries to tell Moscow that she should say farewell to her geopolitical ambitions, and do not consider the former Soviet space as her own specific area of interests any more.
However, the fact is that the European society has faced great challenges. The rise of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the performance of governments, the influx of refugees to Europe, terrorist operations in Belgium, France and Germany and the failure of European states to set realistic mechanisms to deal with the terrorist threats have all led to the reduced confidence of the “EU” facing swift international developments. At the same time, the passage of time in the context of international developments and realities, on the one hand, and “the emergence of Russia”, on the other hand, have made most European states understand the fact that providing security on the continent will be impossible without the Russian cooperation.
Shahram Farsaei, an expert on strategic affairs, is the fellow at IRAS.
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