international analysis and commentary

The good, the bad and the ugly: the EU and the autocrats to its East


What should be done with the semi-democratic, post-Soviet countries at the eastern borders? The question has haunted the EU for the last ten years, after its enlargement to ten new members in 2004. The European Neighbourhood Policy, with its regional branch – the Eastern Partnership – made up a first attempt, whose potential has always been under question. Finally, the events of 2014, with Putin’s war in Ukraine, have made it clear that a deep review of the EU’s Eastern foreign policy is desperately needed.

Today, the relations between the EU and its East-bordering countries – Russia and the six belonging to the Eastern Partnership – are divided in two groups. First, there are the democratic countries of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, with which the EU has launched an incremental integration process through trade and mobility measures. Second, there are the three autocratic ones: Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan, with which relations are tailor-made and sector-based. Finally, there is the hybrid regime of Armenia: the EU would have liked to have it in the first group, but recognizes that its geopolitical situation makes this impossible due to its over-dependency on Moscow for energy and weapons and the crawling conflict with Azerbaijan.

The good: Aliyev’s Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is the dictatorship that doesn’t want to be called one. The country has seen a steady degradation of its democracy index over the last decade, with opposition politicians and independent journalists turned into political prisoners, and a hike in military expenses that makes a restart of the conflict with Armenia over the occupied territories of Nagorno Karabakh ever more realistic. Yet, Azerbaijan has also increased its geostrategic importance as a source and transit country of gas and oil for Europe, as a partial alternative to Russia. Because of this, when EU officials meet their counterparts from Baku, talks deal more with “strategic partnerships” and the like, than with President Ilham Aliyev’s sorry track record with democracy and human rights.

At the same time, the oil and gas bonanza that has swelled the public finances of Baku has also allowed it to mount a huge public relations exercise in the West. Azerbaijan’s so-called caviar diplomacy has been credited with the taming of the Council of Europe (in theory, a human rights watchdog), where Baku has found some international legitimacy as a decent member of the pan-European community, in exchange for trips and gifts to Western politicians. Moreover, hosting Eurovision in 2012 and the first “European games” in 2015 is meant to help Azerbaijan find its place in the Western imaginary as a Caspian Dubai rather than yet another autocratic petrostate.


The bad: Lukashenko’s Belarus

For a long time Belarus was the only full-blown autocracy in Eastern Europe. Consolidated soon after Aleksandr Lukashanko’s rise to power in 1994, Belarus has always been considered a pariah state in the eyes of the rest of Europe. While the other countries in the region became members of the Council of Europe around 2000, Belarus is still excluded. Its pattern of neo-authoritarianism seemed impervious to reform, whichever approach the EU took – whether one of engagement, or one of isolation. Belarus remained untouched by the wave of “coloured revolutions” that shook Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and that threatened to move toward Moscow and Yerevan. The repression that came on the heels of the 2010 elections and the few “clapping protests” in the years after, along with the array of political prisoners that followed, was enough. A couple of executions in 2012 reminded Europe that the death penalty is still a reality in that corner of the continent.

Yet, Belarus seems to have made a comeback since 2014. Minsk hosted the “Eastern European Diplomatic Room” in which Russia, Ukraine and the EU discussed ceasefire. Belarus maintained a neutral position, condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, did not follow Moscow’s import ban on EU food (with almost comical consequences, given the customs’ union among the two countries: “Belarusian” salmon and lemons became a commodity overnight in Russia) and kept selling fuel and weapons to Kiev. Although the truces agreed in that negotiating format (Minsk-I and Minsk-II) seem to be a way to only contain, rather than solve, the armed conflict, hosting the talks definitely improved the international standing of Belarus – no longer just “the last dictatorship in Europe”. As Lukashenko himself quipped, in an interview with Bloomberg: “There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I’m the lesser evil already.”

In the current scenario of high volatility in Eastern Europe, the West has reconsidered the benefits of authoritarian stability in Belarus – and some Belarusian citizens have done the same. Lukashenko has tried to steer away from Moscow, reinforcing national identity and national sovereignty, in order to reduce the risk of being the next in line for Putin’s “Greater Russia” project.The EU has tried to re-engage Belarus, through a technical exercise – the visa facilitation agenda – that may bring concrete benefits to Belarusian citizens and provide them with more opportunities for work contacts in EU countries. Yet, among the three, Belarus remains “the bad” country to deal with.


The ugly: the metamorphosis of Putin’s Russia

The third country of the strange lot, and the one with which the EU currently has more problems when rethinking its relationship, is of course Putin’s Russia – if only due to its sheer size. For almost 15 years, Putin was somehow well-received in the West, and at the start of his tenure many Western politicians appreciated his pragmatic and “can-do” attitude. Putin oversaw the first phase of power (re-)centralization in Russia, fighting the oligarchs that had haunted Boris Yeltsin’s country and seemingly providing the EU and the US with the necessary stability – albeit at the cost of severe human rights violations during the two Chechen wars. In 2003 the NATO-Russia Founding Act marked the zenith of relations in the OSCE area.

Yet, soon after, Russia refused to take part in the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy, asking instead for an equal, one-to-one relationship. It was an inkling of what was to come: rather than working together with the EU on the ambitious “four spaces” of cooperation foreseen by EU-Russia relations (trade and investments; freedom, security and justice; external security; research, education and culture),, Moscow started to look at the ENP as a competitive project in its backyard. As such, the EU’s plans would undermine its possibilities of maintaining or regaining influence in that “near abroad” whose independence was seen by some in Moscow as merely “temporary”.

Feeling threatened by the idea of a consolidating democracy in Ukraine after the 2004 “Orange Revolution”, Russia effectively managed to freeze Ukraine and Georgia’s relations with NATO through the armed conflict with the latter in 2008. And the further consolidation in power of a closed autocracy made the Kremlin eager to use force against the 2014 power change in Ukraine: first by occupying and annexing Crimea, then by fuelling a conflict in Donbass that has taken more than 7,000 lives and created two million refugees. Confronted with this, the EU has reacted by suspending and minimizing bilateral relations with Russia. Yet, while individual and targeted sectoral sanctions have been implemented, the EU has recognized the need for a constructive involvement with Russia – as a UN Security Council member – on all other open dossiers, from Libya and Syria to the Iran nuclear deal. That’s why dealing with Putin’s Russia, today, remains an indispensable and “ugly” business for Brussels.