Moscow is viewing the EU’s new project – the Eastern Partnership – with suspicion. The Kremlin believes the decision to establish the group (made up of the six post-Soviet nations – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) would weaken Russia’s clout in the post-Soviet space and hurt Moscow’s politic and economic interests in its “special interests zone.” The Kremlin is unhappy about the fact that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, that are traditionally mistrustful of Russia’s policy in Europe, are the Eastern Partnership’s main driving force.
However, Moscow’s leverage to prevent a rapprochement of the former Soviet states with the European Union and their subsequent integration in Big Europe is not that large. Admittedly, energy factors do play a significant role in Moscow’s close ties with Kiev, Minsk and the other post-Soviet capitals. But the EU is offering them something much more superior. Brussels is ready to offer these six nations €600 million in financial aid and use the Eastern Partnership as a mechanism for investment in these countries. Establishing a free economic zone and a visa-free regime with the European Union, implementing alternative energy projects – all this is drawing in the leaders of the post-Soviet nations and is encouraging them to take a stance toward the EU that is independent of Moscow.
In this context, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko’s evolution is quite telling. Following the Kremlin’s failure to provide the financial assistance in the amounts he had expected, Lukashenko is aggressively flirting with Brussels and is sending it the signals that the Minsk regime is “liberalized.” Lukashenko has failed to honor his promises to the Kremlin and recognize the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and even backed out of putting these initiatives before the Belarus parliament. This has brought about a cooling in the Moscow-Minsk relationship, but at the same time has been deeply appreciated by the European Union which has invited Belarus to join the Eastern Partnership.
Clearly, the post-Soviet states do not view their relationship with the EU as an end in itself. Rather it is a means to address a host of economic and political issues facing these nations. But the mere fact that they are increasingly leaning on the West rather than on Russia should have made the Kremlin ask itself the tough questions as to Russia’s place and role in Europe and whether its development model meets the modern world requirements.