Latvia holds the EU presidency in the first half of 2015. Its work programme has the Eastern Partnership among top priorities (along with competitive economy and digital society). Latvia hosted the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on 21-22 May.
Politicians of various calibre have repeatedly underlined importance of the summit for the nation. It was described as the most significant foreign policy event since 2004 when Latvia joined the EU, and the crown of its presidency. In March 2015, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called it the “wartime summit” (kara laika samits) which would be crucial for peace in Europe . Diana Potjomkina, expert at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, noticed that Latvia’s ambitions on some topics surpassed even those of the European Commission .
General points of the plan were known back in 2013. Press releases after the Vilnius summit specified a list of future goals that had to be reached within two years. These included strengthening democracy, signing and implementing Association agreements, visa-free regimes, financial support for reforms, designing projects in education and infrastructure, and conflict resolution . The triumph in all these areas had to be cemented at the Riga summit. It was also a venue for demonstrating the results of the programme for the past two and six years as well as its efficiency in terms of quick and painless reforms in post-Soviet space.
However, things turned out differently. As the time passed, the sense of triumph vanished. “In general, everything will remain as usual,” Latvian online website nra.lv wrote on the eve of the summit . Ambiguously, these words resonate with the press release from the State Chancellery after the event. It stresses ‘stable and unchanged’ relations between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries (‘irreversible’ in the English version) [5, 6].
The summit could not, of course, end without any result but it was poorer than expected. In fact, the only document that appeared to be significant to all participants was the Declaration, a 13-page document that allowed comparing positions but nothing else .
There are deep disagreements between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ approaches, especially in the context of the crisis in Ukraine, that explain the failure. The ‘positive’ approach sees the conflict in Ukraine as a failure of the Eastern Partnership in its current form. Its proponents want to change the programme and to make it more responsive to Russia.
For instance, Latvian MEP Andrejs Mamikins published an open letter in the Diena daily . He argues that the Eastern Partnership is confrontational in its nature because it forces its participants to choose between Russia and Europe. It brings instability and economic risks. Mamikins believes only a pragmatic approach can be effective.
The ‘choice’ was also an obstacle to Armenia and Belarus, as the discussions on the Declaration showed. The two countries aim to conduct a multi-directional foreign policy (we wrote about Armenia recently) so the attempts of the EU to bring all parties to one side are predictably facing resistance.
With the EU presidency, Latvia could smooth the contradictions and give a new impetus to the programme. However, it has obviously chosen a ‘negative’ approach which is not aimed at bridging differences but at making others to accept a single point of view. This is evident not only from ‘military’ rhetoric of government members but also from top experts’ comments. Andris Spruds, director of the Latvian Institute for International Affairs, claimed his disappointment after the summit “did not resolve some fundamental issues” (that is, a unanimous condemnation of Russia’s actions) .
Ironically, one of the key aims defined both at the Vilnius and Riga Declarations is conflict resolution. In the meantime, the Vilnius summit in 2013 led to an unrest in Ukraine and to spoiled relations with Russia. The Riga summit could ‘reset’ the Eastern Partnership. Instead, it brought nothing to deal with the consequences of the past decisions and to propose new (and inevitable) measures.