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.