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Tomasz Horbowski

The Eastern Partnership: More Than Diplomats’ Talk – Interview With Nicu Popescu, Part Two

We present the second part of the interview with Nicu Popescu, analyst in the European Council on Foreign Relations ECFR and co-author of a report “Turning Presence Into Power: Lessons From The Neighbourhood.” Nicu Popescu was a guest of the Stefan Batory Foundation and ECFR’s Warsaw office in July.

Nicu Popescu, Warszawa, lipiec 2011; autor: M. Popielewicz

Nicu Popescu, Warsaw, July 2011, author: M. Popielewicz

The report is available in English on the ECFR website and in Polish on the Batory Foundation website. The first part of the interview you can find here.

The report was published in May this year. But on May 25 the European Commission published its own “New Response For Changing Neighbourhood.” Do you think it is a response to your publication?

Well, I am afraid that a lot of issues which we face within the Eastern neighbourhood, state-capture by the political elites above all, and a very high degree of corruption cannot be addressed by short-term bureaucratic solutions. We need more time than the report of the Commission suggested. We have to build a base for developing future relationship in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Of course, the principle ‘more for more’ is an attractive and logical one, but it is just a start. It is not likely to be implemented neatly. Poland will be always more interested in Belarus than in Armenia, and France – in Morocco than in Jordan. And even if the latter would take the lead in terms of reforms, you cannot run away from geography. Thus ‘more for more’ has its limitations. There is likely to always be a geographic bias towards individual countries. You will always end up aiding countries like Ukraine more than those like Georgia, even if Georgia is more reformist.

The problem is that these governments do not want to reform themselves because they can lose power.

In most cases – yes. However, there is Georgia which is an opposite example. Georgian authorities launched reforms aiming to consolidate power, whereas other governments in the region – for instance Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Belarusian – abandoned reforms for fear of losing it. So you see – there are differences in their policies.

The context is complicated. Nevertheless, overall elites tend to retain control over the country in order to make profits – their methods and instruments are corruption and monopoly of the state sectors, and money is power. Once you sit in a comfy chair, you do not want to abandon it if you have means, and they do. I have just been discussing this issue with someone from Russia, who said: ‘Yes, Medvedev and others know exactly what is needed to be done to modernize the country, but they do nothing.’ So I asked: why? The answer was: ‘That’s life. We all know we shouldn’t smoke and drink, should exercise and shouldn’t stay up late. But very few of us actually do those things which are needed to live a healthy life. We indulge ourselves. This way, we can compare it to the situation of elites in the post-Soviet countries. Many of them know what should be done, but they do nothing.’

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine is the biggest failure in this respect. Were the plans of reforms abandoned because they gained power very quickly? Because they could participate in corruption schemes and control the country through unauthorized patronage? The picture is not pretty. But there are two brighter spots. One is Georgia, which reformed a lot, however is entering a very uncertain phase after the end of Saakashvili’s presidency in January 2013. The problem is that Georgia, which made impressive progress – rebuilding the country, fighting against corruption, attracting investment and creating well functioning state institutions – has not so far stabilized its political system and transformed into a normal democratic state. Its political system is quite fragile. Politicians are divided. The quality of its state functioning has increased, but its political system is dysfunctional and pretty immature. It does not have a stable political system that would continue to move forward irrespective of whether the power changes from one party to the other, or not.

Another bright spot on the map is Moldova, which has a pluralistic political system, is implementing reforms, but it has not been able to elect a president in more than two years. The country of course moves on, but because of this political uncertainty most fundamental and lasting reforms have yet to be implemented.

N. Popescu, Warszawa lipiec 2011, autor: M. Popielewicz

N. Popescu, Warsaw, July 2011, author: M. Popielewicz

In the context of what you have just said about the Eastern Partnership, what are we to expect at the upcoming EaP summit in Warsaw? Any ‘fireworks’?

Do not expect major changes after any summits, unless the Union agrees on anti-crisis bail-outs. 90 percent of such meetings do not result in immediate effects – they are only one more step forward, towards bigger goals. It is nice that the summit brings the region into the spotlight, but real work is taking place at grass roots level. As I said: free trade, dialogue concerning visa issue, internal reforms regarding ministries, exchange in many sectors, including student exchange. Such summits should be an instrument which pushes everything forward.

But overall the problem is not the lack of contact between the EU and Eastern partners at the political or ministerial level. There are regular bilateral visits and foreign ministers of the member states meet frequently, also in Brussels. The bigger challenge is developing contacts and relations at other levels. The Eastern Partnership should not be limited to diplomats’ talks. We need more fundamental dialogue among politicians and experts – the ministers of each sector in the EU and EaP: energy, trade, etc. We must create more channels for communication at the EP ministerial levels, apply more dynamic approach to work among the parties.

Please, grant me a favour and answer my last question. How do you perceive the Eastern European analytical centres and think-tanks? Do they have any influence on the official EU policy? Are their concepts, ideas and opinions heard and used?

I see an intense dialogue between thinks-tanks of Central Europe and EU new member states, and they seem to agree on the East. But the governments do not. The attitudes of individual countries are different, and they also differ on their perception of Russia. I do not see a united political approach of new members at the governmental level. In principle, they all want to engage themselves in the East. But as far as details matter, there are many questions. How much shall you challenge Russia in the region? Where should you focus? Which countries should come first: Ukraine, Moldova, or maybe Georgia? There is no consensus, no united group. The EaP itself was an initiative of only two countries – Poland and Sweden. For example, Romania – the second biggest new member state: it is interested in Moldova, but does not care for Belarus. Or Poland – a country big enough to take interest in all EaP states, but Belarus, which is closest to its heart, is its priority within its foreign policy. There is no coalition of new EU members. I think they do not consult with each other sufficiently in regard to priorities of their foreign policies. I doubt Poland discuss with other new EU members its plans of action regarding the East, and so does Romania. And other countries are even smaller…

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.


Nicu Popescu (b. 1981), ECFR expert (European Council on Foreign Relations). His area of expertise is Eastern Europe and Russia. He holds a doctorate in International Relations from the Central European University in Budapest; in 2010, he was and advisor on foreign policy and European integration to the Prime-Minister of Moldova.

The interview was held through the good offices of the Stefan Batory Foundation.

– Artur Kacprzak, Tomasz Horbowski

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Tomasz Horbowski, rocznik 1985. Absolwent Studium Europy Wschodniej na specjalizacji Europa Wschodnia/Azja Centralna i Papieskiego Wydziału Teologicznego "Bobolanum". Spędził rok w Kazachstanie na stypendium naukowym w Ałmaty. Pracuje w Centrum Informacyjnym dla Władz Lokalnych w Mołdawii. Idealista z urodzenia, przekonania i wyboru.

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