Between the European Union and Russia: A Decade in the Contested Neighbourhood


European Union’s (EU) capacity of influencing (and even changing) other actors without recurring to coercion is one of its defining features as an international player. Although it has been seriously challenged by the economic and financial crisis, migration crisis, terrorists’ attacks and the Brexit, the countries to EU’s East continue to look for strengthening of their existing ties with the EU. This makes it important to analyse the Eastern Partnership (EaP), an initiative which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2019, targeting a group of six countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The EU made an unprecedented offer to these states: a perspective of Association Agreements and the associated Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas. While this offer could be expected to reinforce the EU’s standing in the region, one cannot forget that the relations between the EU and the EaP states do not evolve in a vacuum, and in this particular region, this means paying attention to an important regional actor, namely, Russia. So how far can the EU project its influence towards the EaP countries?

Georgia and Ukraine are two EaP states that have accepted the Association Agreements as their ‘civilizational choice’, resulting in a course on comprehensive adoption of EU’s norms, values, and regulations, while simultaneously rejecting participation in any Russia-led integration initiatives. Moreover, both have been constantly putting forward initiatives that go beyond their existing advanced relationship with the EU. In addition to Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova has also embraced the EU’s offer of the Association Agreement and all three states have been keen to emphasise the ‘irreversibility’ of their political course. Armenia in its turn has adopted the position of ‘complementarity’ between its advanced cooperation with the EU’s and its adherence to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. While explicitly abstaining from references to the EU as a ‘civilizational choice’, Armenia has nevertheless concluded its own Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, and has continuously emphasized the importance of reform process. As for Belarus and Azerbaijan, they demonstrated no interest in signing an Association Agreement. While Azerbaijan’s has abstained not only from the EU’s but also Russia-led integration initiatives, Belarus embraced the latter (a position that may be changing in the course of 2020 post-election protests).

There are further important differences among individual countries. For instance, while both in Georgia and Ukraine as well as Moldova, the increasing rapprochement with the EU has been evolving along with detachment from Russia, such detachment has been more moderate in Moldova than in the two other states. At the same time, within the group of ‘contesters’, Belarus and Azerbaijan have been acting upon different premises, and contrary to Azerbaijan, Belarus has never insisted on a special type of (Strategic Partnership) agreement with the EU.

This is not to say that there are no ideas shared by the majority EaP states: the idea of a EU-supported reform process has been central to the leaderships in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova (and until 2013, also to Azerbaijan). However, even when certain ideas are shared by EaP countries, they need to be approached carefully, since they may reflect radically different positions. For instance, the idea of ‘complementarity’ related to the Association Agreements in Moldova, Armenia as well as Belarus, corresponds to fundamentally different visions of cooperation with the EU. In Belarus, ‘complementarity’ supports the idea of ‘pragmatism’ and the notion of Belarus as a ‘cooperation platform’ between the East and the West. This is contrary to Moldova, where ‘complementarity’ reveals a potentially problematic relationship with the idea of ‘(ir)reversibility’ of Moldova’s integration with the EU. This means that any possible institutional compromises (such as Armenia’s aforementioned advanced cooperation agreement) are not viewed as a unequivocally positive precedent guiding and supporting reform process, but rather associated with a danger of abandoning of the existing Association Agreement with the EU and the ensuing course on reforms.  This explains why the idea to connect, institutionally, the Eurasian Economic Union and EaP has been raising concern in Moldova while welcomed in Belarus.

The systematic analysis of all the EaP states positions between 2009 and 2019 allows for the conclusion that the EU maintains its capacity of influencing and changing the EaP states, even though there are significant variations. The same cannot be said about Russia: its power of attraction is uncertain even in such closely aligned countries as Armenia and Belarus.

This blog post draws on the JCMS article, ‘The European Union’s ‘Potential We’ between Acceptance and Contestation: Assessing the Positioning of Six Eastern Partnership Countries’.



Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira is Professor at the University of Minho, Portugal, and the Integrated Member of the Research Centre in Political Science (CICP). She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Erlangen-Nuernberg, and was Visiting Research at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (Lisbon), and at the University of Leuven. She also published several briefing papers and reports for EU institutions and other think-tanks (orcid 000-0002-5643-0398).