As it approaches its fifth birthday, the Civil Society Forum (CSF) of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) faces difficult choices. So does the EaP as a whole before its summit in Vilnius. This was to have celebrated the completion of negotiations with four of the six partner countries showing that the EaP had indeed brought these countries closer to the European Union (EU).
But the sudden decision made by President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia to pull away from the EU and join the Russian supported Customs Union, and continued uncertainty as to whether Ukraine will free Julia Tymoshenko – and thus be able to sign the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU – leaves a mere two certain signatories: Georgia and Moldova. These developments are also fuelling uncertainty about the future of the EaP led by doubters in the EU such as France, the country which has never really accepted the wisdom of a policy which could, at some time in the future, lead to the enlargement of the Union to the East.
This scenario would leave the CSF isolated. Originally the brainchild of think tankers in the Czech Republic and elsewhere the CSF project was taken up by the European Commission that saw non-governmental organizations from the six partner countries as an ally in the drive for democratic and market reforms in the EaP countries. The CSF has been supported by Stefan Fule, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, whose term ends next year. He has irritated some member states by his support for the EaP and it may well be that these countries will lobby for someone less committed to the East to be appointed in his place in the new commission.
This would mean a cut in support for the CSF, a diverse grouping of NGOs, which is able to survive not only because of the funding from the EU, supporting an ably run professional secretariat in Brussels and the meetings throughout the year enabling contacts to be maintained.
That is important. At the moment the CSF is an archipelago of organizations, or rather six archipelagos which owe their allegiance first to their own organizations, then to the national platform and then maybe to the overarching aim – to advocate reforms throughout the region and demonstrate solidarity with each other across borders if organisations come under pressure. In the past year it has been the Steering Committee which has spoken out against a mounting anti-civil liberties campaign by the government in Azerbaijan and lately in Armenia when human rights activists and protesters have been beaten. But the CSF has yet to achieve, if ever, a state of mutual solidarity when an attack on an activist in Baku will provoke protest actions in Minsk or Kiev.
After Vilnius the CSF will have to reconsider its role whichever way the EaP goes. If the Association Agreement is signed with Ukraine and initialed with Georgia and Moldova then the monitoring and the advocacy which the NGO movement has done up till now will focus on implementation of the AAs. The roadmap by which the European Commission has hitherto sought to monitor progress on reform will in the case of these countries become obsolete. The future of Armenia is unclear while in the case of both Belarus and Azerbaijan the EaP formula will have to wait until the governments decide to change its stance on civil rights observance.
On the other hand if AAs are initialed only with Georgia and Moldova in Vilnius, the Eastern Partnership project will be declared a failure and could, de facto, be dismantled. This will be a major blow for the CSF. Up till now the activities of the CSF – and indeed of the EaP as a whole – have been based on a post-1989 belief that the partner countries want to proceed with adopting EU standards and values. It was thought in Brussels that all that is needed to help these countries to reform was financial support and training. After a time, according to this theory, “they will become like us”. However it has turned out that conservative domestic forces – and opposition from Russia – have been much stronger than was originally imagined. Indeed the changes which were achieved have above all favoured local oligarchs and the kleptocrats in government, and not the population at large.
If the belief in the EaP governments’ will to reform disappears then who will the local NGOs belonging to the CSF national structures work with? As supporters of reform and potential allies of – by now defunct – reformers in EaP governments, they will be seen as enemies by rulers who will have moved away from the EU. Will the NGOs then disband or adopt a more oppositionist stance? This is the dilemma which currently the CSF structure faces in Armenia. And is the EU emotionally ready to support a confrontational stance on the part of the NGOs? This is the situation in Belarus where the CSF national platform is entrenched in opposition to the government and there is no dialogue between the two sides. This situation fails to give Brussels what it needs most: friendly and inherently stable societies in the East.
Indeed, do NGOs in the region need a cross border structure such as the CSF? After all they grew and developed before the EaP and the CSF came into existence in 2009 thanks to funding by donors from Europe and the USA. This will be a question which some of the participants of the 5th annual forum in Chisinau will be asking themselves in the Moldovan capital.
Krzysztof Bobiński is the Co-Chair of the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum