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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Eastern Partnership Holds Key to Russia Ties

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A fundamental tenet of Polish foreign policy is to support Eastern European countries' democratization and economic transformation. States based on liberal democratic political systems and on modern market economies are going to be more credible EU candidates and also become more attractive partners. That's why Poland has repeatedly tabled initiatives designed to strengthen the EU policies toward Eastern Europe.

The European Council's December 2007 conclusions were the cue for Poland and Sweden to draft a concept paper for deepening cooperation with six Eastern European and south Caucasus states -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It was presented to EU foreign ministers in May 2008 and endorsed a month later by the European Council. This Eastern Partnership initiative laid down a new structure for tightening cooperation with these eastern partners and added a missing dimension to the emerging architecture of EU relations with neighboring states.

The concept of active engagement in advancing the democratic transformation of Eastern Europe and the south Caucasus is based on a conviction that stability and prosperity there is fundamental to the future of the whole European continent. Five years ago, when the EU's "Big Bang" enlargement brought in the Central European and Baltic states, the union's eastern border shifted to new neighboring countries with either short or shaky traditions of statehood, all of which were also struggling with serious economic and social problems.

The EU's new European neighbors to the east do not only belong in Europe in a geographic sense but also because their citizens consider themselves European by virtue of common experience and culture. What distinguishes these states from EU countries is their democratic deficits, their weak and inefficient legal institutions, their underdeveloped civil societies and their low levels of economic development. We should not forget that these countries have been independent states for a mere 18 years, during which time they had to design a new economic system, confront all the problems created by the Soviet collapse and build the foundations of their own statehoods.

It should be the common concern of EU countries to narrow the economic and social gaps between the union and its eastern neighbors. The joint Polish and Swedish initiative is an open offer of closer cooperation and aims to support transformation by stimulating their economic development and strengthening democracy, freedom and civil societies by enhancing legal and administrative capacities enough to approach EU standards.

Implementation of the Eastern Partnership will bring benefits to these Eastern European nations. Although EU membership for Eastern Partnership states is not yet on the agenda, we in Poland feel that the prospect of accession should be kept open. The alluring prospect of joining the European Union is one of the main sources of EU influence and constitutes -- as the example of Central European states like Poland so clearly shows -- a powerful incentive for deep reforms.

The Eastern Partnership countries have great geographic, demographic and economic potential. The advantages of establishing a free-trade zone with this area of almost a million square kilometers with a consumer market of almost 80 million people may seem fairly limited right now, but they are growing fast and promise future benefits once the introduction of EU-based rules has been achieved. The new free-trade zone would give the European economy a boost, and the new eastern partners would gain access to the EU's single market.

The countries of Eastern Europe and the south Caucasus are strategically situated between the EU and the rich natural resources region of the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and Russia. Important energy transit routes to the EU go through Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia, and Azerbaijan is itself a major oil producer. The gradual integration of these countries into the EU economy would strengthen Europe's energy security, and that would be further enhanced if we bought gas on the Russian border and invested in new transmission infrastructure in those states that lie between the EU and Russia.

The principles of differentiation and joint ownership are to get high priority in the Eastern Partnership's development, so it will allow partner countries to approximate EU standards at whatever pace they choose. Joint ownership will ensure that partner countries have a real influence on deciding Eastern Partnership goals, and multilateral cooperation will create flexibility within the Eastern Partnership framework. It is also being designed to strengthen bilateral links between the EU and partner countries. The Eastern Partnership initiative is to be managed by the European Commission, which over the last 20 years has had vast experience in managing similar initiatives and projects.

That said, it would be worthwhile for the EU to think about setting up inside the commission's structure an Eastern Partnership special coordinator who would be tasked with coordinating all actions covered by the initiative. The Eastern Partnership's institutional structure spans meetings at the level of heads of state and government, foreign and other key ministers as well as lower-ranking senior officials, so a coordinator could play a significant role in giving the whole initiative the political impulse needed to expand and launch ambitious new projects.

The Eastern Partnership also has an important political aspect: It shows partner countries attractive development prospects and offers them the opportunity to make the strategic choice of adopting a pro-European orientation. The Eastern Partnership highlights the empowerment of these countries by treating them as independent entities and not pawns that are organically linked to Russia.

Russia remains a strategic partner of the EU and one of the essential pillars of the European political architecture. Hopefully, we will in the foreseeable future manage to negotiate a new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia that will be a realistic foundation for a future European-Russian alliance. Russia is still seeking its own partnership formula with Europe and with other leading international actors while at the same time trying to define its place in today's dynamically developing world. As part of that search, our Russian partners at times resort to instruments and formulas from the past, although doing so tends to reflect their helplessness and their problems with adapting to new realities. Although we in the EU may refuse to accept certain Russian actions, we should, nevertheless, judge them in the context of Russia's ambitions and against the traumatic background of recent Russian history. Most important, we should look at them in the context of a not-so-distant future, in which it would be hard to imagine a Russia that is not in Europe and of Europe.

If we see Russia's future as being in partnership with the European Union, we cannot deny the same prospect to the people of the countries that make up the joint neighborhoods of both. It would be a poor solution for the EU and Russia to be separated by a region whose contacts with Europe are less substantial than those it has with Russia. That is why I am convinced that the faster we integrate the states of Eastern Europe and the south Caucasus with the EU, the more likely it will be that Russia itself adopts a pro-European orientation. Russia has vast potential, but as we learned during last August's conflict in South Ossetia and the gas crisis in January, it is a potential that can be used to the detriment of Europe's economic stability and security. The Eastern Partnership, with Russia encouraged to participate in its multilateral projects on a case-by-case basis, would open the way to the gradual convergence of the western and eastern parts of Europe.

Radoslaw Sikorski is Poland's foreign minister. This comment will be published in the summer issue of Europe's World (www.europesworld.org).