by Stefanie Schif­fer, Deputy Chair of the Asso­ci­ation Human Rights in Belarus

28–31 Nov. 2016: Annu­al East­ern Part­ner­ship Civil Soci­ety For­um in Brus­sels – two days of dis­cus­sion and plan­ning with part­ners from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Geor­gia, Mol­dova, Ukraine and the EU, plus guests from the EU-Rus­sia Civil Soci­ety For­um. An import­ant “get-togeth­er” with around 300 par­ti­cipants from all over Europe. ” Back in Brus­sels for the first time since 2009. High level rep­res­ent­at­ives from the EEAS, DG Near and the European Par­lia­ment were present.

Key ques­tions for the EU rep­res­ent­at­ives from the civil soci­ety side: Will the EU carry through on a visa-free regime for Geor­gia and Ukraine? Com­mis­sion­er for Enlarge­ment Johannes Hahn: “They did their job. Now it is time for the EU to deliv­er.” Will the asso­ci­ation agree­ment with Ukraine be con­cluded after all, des­pite the no-vote in the Dutch ref­er­en­dum? The ball is in the EU’s court. The Czech Republic’s ambas­sad­or to the EU, Mar­tin Pove­jšil, was the most out­spoken in this regard: “I hope we won’t fail. This would dam­age the cred­ib­il­ity of the EU”. Refer­ring to the EU as a “pro­ject of mutu­al cred­ib­il­ity”, he said “…if we fail with the asso­ci­ation agree­ment and visa lib­er­al­isa­tion for Ukraine, the EU will have a cred­ib­il­ity prob­lem.” The grav­ity of the situ­ation has not escaped ana­lyst Ian Bond (UK) either though, he advised the East­ern Part­ner­ship to learn the les­sons from Brexit before it is too late, adding “your job: keep your gov­ern­ments hon­est. Cyn­icism about the sys­tem is the greatest ally of pop­u­lists and author­it­ari­an states.”

How will the EU ensure that its budget sup­port does not fall prey to cor­rup­tion? What is the EU doing to com­bat cor­rup­tion in its own del­eg­a­tions (Armenia)? The reply from an EU admin­is­trat­ive staff mem­ber was very evas­ive: “Some­body is look­ing into it.…” First and fore­most though: can the EU provide secur­ity guar­an­tees to the EP states? The EU side respon­ded with a kind of sober solid­ar­ity – “EU is a pay­er but not a play­er” (Katarína Mater­nová, Deputy Dir­ect­or Gen­er­al, DG NEAR) – and with the repeated invoc­a­tion of the “resi­li­ence” of the EP states. The EU, of course, could sup­port this “resi­li­ence” only through the rule of law, by strength­en­ing demo­crat­ic struc­tures (May­er-Hart­ing, Man­aging Dir­ect­or, EEAS). A great deal has been done, but would it suf­fice? The for­um mem­bers from East­ern Europe are optim­ist­ic. What oth­er option do they have. As regards Belarus, Dirk Schü­bel (EEAS) made it clear that the EU had no illu­sions on that score: rela­tions had improved because Belarus had approached the EU, but the human rights situ­ation remains unchanged. The EU intends to engage in dia­logue and con­trib­ute towards improv­ing the situ­ation.

In oth­er respects, a change of gen­er­a­tion was vis­ible – the new for­um is young­er, more female and more East­ern European – the EU rep­res­ent­at­ives on the forum’s steer­ing com­mit­tee come from think tanks in Latvia and Lithuania and radi­ate energy and com­pet­ence. Rus­sia was the “ele­phant in the room”. Remark­ably little was said about Rus­sia; no par­tic­u­lar atten­tion was paid to the coun­try in oper­at­ive or stra­tegic con­texts. Only Heidi Hautala (EP) urged the involve­ment of “the neighbour’s neigh­bours” and that Rus­si­an NGOs be sup­por­ted in their dif­fi­cult work. Only five EU-Rus­sia Civil Soci­ety For­um rep­res­ent­at­ives atten­ded, myself included. Lena Belak­ur­ova from St. Peters­burg was par­tic­u­larly act­ive in the dis­cus­sions and volun­teered to help dur­ing all of the vot­ing. She showed real solid­ar­ity, which was good to see. Her ques­tions remained unanswered though – how the EU plans to sup­port Rus­si­an civil soci­ety, which is act­ively work­ing on behalf of the EU and against author­it­ari­an­ism and chau­vin­ism in its own coun­try. EPDE set up the work­ing group on elec­tions – sev­er­al EPDE mem­bers were rep­res­en­ted, with Anar Mam­madli, Artur Sak­unts, Aman­da Valentin, Ion Man­ole and Misha Ben­idze. Plan­ning for the upcom­ing elec­tions in Armenia and for the annu­al meet­ing also took place.

On the whole, it was a good for­um – the fact that it took place in Brus­sels, with many EU rep­res­ent­at­ives attend­ing, was bene­fi­cial. New par­ti­cipants from the EaP brought in new ideas and ques­tions. Discussion/​analysis of Rus­sia (or lack there­of) on the stra­tegic and oper­a­tion­al level con­tin­ues to remain unsat­is­fact­ory though.

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