Thursday

17th Jan 2019

Opinion

Eastern partnership countries: Democracy in limbo

As we enter 2015 it is worth taking another look at the political developments in the EU's neighbourhood.

A glance shows us that democracy progress in the Eastern Partnership countries – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus – has been uneven.

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  • Belarus is part of the Russia-led Eurasian economic union (Photo: Marco Fieber)

There are big differences between the six countries, although they are governed by the same EU policy – the Eastern Partnership Initiative.

Nevertheless, looking at the trends in the past years, it seems the countries of the region can be divided into two groups.

Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine - which signed Association Agreements with the EU last summer - show higher standards of democracy than the other three countries; Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan.

Moldova

In the past years Moldova has clearly been the frontrunner, showing higher standards of conduct of elections, political freedoms and human rights. It tops the latest European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership countries.

The pro-European coalitions that have been running Moldova since 2009 demonstrated political will to reform and have achieved a lot.

In the recent parliamentary elections, the pro-European parties again won a majority, though the vote was close this time.

Moldova was also the first country in the region to adopt anti-discrimination legislation in line with EU requirements. It also made significant progress in fighting corruption and reforming the judiciary.

Georgia

Georgian political elites have also demonstrated willingness to integrate with the EU. Despite significant democracy shortcomings during Mikhail Saakashvili’s presidency, the country implemented certain reforms successfully and has begun to tackle corruption and to reform the judiciary and the public service.

The pro-European coalition that has been in power since 2011 is continuing this course despite the most recent internal turmoil.

In the latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), which analyses transformation processes towards democracy and a market economy in 129 developing and transition countries, Georgia made the largest gains in political transformation in the Eurasian region since 2011.

Ukraine

Ukraine, however, has been rocked by turbulence in recent years. The inability of the ‘Orange’ political elites to institutionalise democratic achievements led to the consolidation of authoritarian trends during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych between 2010 and 2014.

It was only due to the Euromaidan protests that that opportunities for reform arose.

In October 2014 Ukraine managed to hold free and fair elections. Yet it remains a highly dysfunctional state which has to overcome corruption and promote the rule of law.

Armenia

In 2008, Armenia saw a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests against alleged electoral fraud yet it has since seen an improvement both in the conduct of elections and media freedom.

The country also managed to make some progress on reforming the judiciary, fighting corruption and improving public administration.

Armenia actively pursued rapprochement with Brussels until September 2013 when President Serzh Sargsyan announced that closer ties with the EU was no longer on his agenda.

In October last year, Armenia became a member of the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Azerbaijan and Belarus

Azerbaijan and Belarus remain highly authoritarian states where human rights and political freedoms are suppressed.

According to some estimates, there are around 142 political prisoners in Azerbaijan yet its position as an exporter of oil and gas allows the country to ignore criticism coming from the West.

While Belarus is subject to EU sanctions, Azerbaijan enjoys extensive cooperation with the EU in the field of energy.

Azerbaijan negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU but then dropped the idea and proposed an alternative strategic modernisation partnership. Brussels’ leverage in both countries is limited and the prospects of democratisation remain gloomy.

Civic engagement

Political will and a strong civil society combined with pro-EU public opinion appear to be key factors for successful democratisation. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine serve as good examples.

Where the survival of the regime is at stake, however, democracy has no chance of succeeding. Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine during the Yanukovych presidency demonstrate this very clearly.

The political elites in these countries have sustained their power through clientelistic networks, corruption, and elimination of political freedoms. Liberalisation of the political environment would undermine the pillars that uphold the regime.

Only a strong push from within such a system can challenge it.

Eastern partnership countries and democracy

There is also an interesting relationship between the Association Agreements (AAs) with the EU and the state of democracy in the Eastern Partnership countries.

Commitment to European integration and the political will to implement reforms seem to go hand-in-hand. The AAs serve both to recognise the reforms that have taken place in some of the eastern neighbourhood countries, and as a tool to push for further change.

Georgia, Moldova and post-Euromaidan Ukraine have taken this path.

From this perspective the gap between the three countries that have signed the AAs and the other three, which have opted for other arrangements, might grow over time.

Iryna Solonenko is a DAAD/Open Society Foundations Scholar at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder. She is also part of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Thinkers network.

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