The importance of the relationship between the EU and the countries that comprise its Eastern Partnership project, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, was once again stressed in the following documents: the revised 2015 European Neighbourhood Policy and the 2016 EU Global Strategy.
Both documents call on their EU partners to build up diversified and vibrant economies and to invoke efficient reforms aimed at strengthening public institutions alongside stepping up their efforts in the fight against corruption – a chronic disease inherited from the Soviet past. All those goals look barely achievable, however, without building a strong and dynamic civil society – a society that would hold the government accountable for their policies and prompt them to respect democratic principles.
The building of strong civil societies in the region, which only relatively recently, in terms of historical perspective, has embarked on a path of democratization, may prove to be a challenging task for not only the countries involved in this process but also for the EU. Nevertheless, a number of projects that have been launched in those countries with the support of Brussels have already brought tangible results in terms of strengthening cooperation and networking among the civil societies and governments.
Georgia, a South Caucasian republic located at the strategic crossroads between Europe and Asia, was one of the first countries, after the collapse of the USSR, to declare its orientation towards the West. The dark legacy of a totalitarian regime multiplied by an extreme nationalism, however, considerably complicated the process of Georgia’s further democratization and its dialogue with the EU, who placed the introduction of reforms at the heart of the process. In 2014, when Tbilisi and Brussels signed an Association Agreement (AA), the development of civil society and an enhanced process of institution building were seen as necessary components for the future strengthening of cooperation between Tbilisi and Brussels.
Three years since the signing of the AA, it appears that the Georgian government has already achieved results in terms of a developing relationship with the civil society. For instance, Georgian National Forum (GNF), a part of Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, whose aim is to foster cooperation and improve the exchange of experience between civil society organisations from partner countries and the EU, actively participated in the process of designing the new Constitution. Moreover, two recommendations proposed by GNP, concerning the constitutional right of citizens to have access to the Internet and to be able to freely use it, were included in the document – a significant achievement for a country that gained independence just 26 years ago.
A regulation granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians, adopted by the EU in 2017, can be seen as another example of a growing influence on public policy by civil society. The campaign for a visa-free regime had been led by civil society groups for many years, and after many debacles from both the EU and Ukrainian side, the first “visa-free train” departed from Kyiv to the Polish city of Przemysl on 11 May.
However, the process of further democratization and, as a result, the implementation of necessary reforms by the EaP with the assistance of the EU may suffer from double standards. At the beginning of this year, notwithstanding significant human rights abuses and political repression, the EU lifted most sanctions, including the travel bans against 170 individuals, one of which was the president, Alexander Lukashenko.
“Belarus is in dire need for real liberalisation since the whole process after August 2015 largely represents the imitation of reforms rather than a systemic effort. The government must realise that in order to avoid deeper political, social and economic crises in the near future the civil society, political parties and enterprises should be able to operate in a free environment.” Mikayel Hovhannisyan, Key Expert of the Monitoring Mission by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum said.
Thus, despite prosecution of Belarusian human rights activists and journalists on spurious charges, with the use of the death penalty and severe restrictions on the independent media and opposition, the desire to cooperate with the Belarusian government prevailed over the EU commitment to respect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
An involvement of a dynamic civil society in the public realm has always played a significant role in building stable and accountable state institutions, achieving economic prosperity and prompting governments to respect the democratic principles and rule of law. A set of 20 deliverables for 2020, identified and published by the EU for EaP, aims to deliver concrete results in key priority areas, which include the building of strong institutions and good governance. At present, the EU and its EaP partners have already achieved tangible results in a number of fields. But the EU should not compromise its values over its relationship with countries whose civil society role is to serve the interests of public officials.