A Multi-Speed Eastern ‘Neighborhood’

By Syuzanna Vasilyan, Jean Monnet Chair of European Studies and Assistant Professor, American University of Armenia


The 2013 Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership became a ‘critical juncture’, demonstrating the real inclinations of the EU’s eastern neighbors without the ‘veil’ of diplomatic assertions of being on the path to integration ‘with’ (approximation) the EU when faced with the necessity to choose a specific economic/political vector. The picture narrates a multi-speed neighborhood whereby it became explicit that the eastern neighboring countries not only have a different level of commitment – as far as their willingness of integration through the pre-signature of the Association Agreements (AAs) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) versus tightening their relations with Russia through joining the Customs Union/Eurasian (Economic) Union – but also that they are at a different pace in terms of their present performance and prospective aspirations.

The idea of European Union’s regional space being characterized by different speeds is not new. The report written by Leo Tindermans, then Prime Minister of Belgium, referred to a two-track Europe back in the 1970s, implying the degree (the desire)  of alignment in the economic/monetary field by different member-states; the negotiations over the Single European Act in the 1980s raised the possibility of institutionalization of this term with France and Germany, positioned on the first (being prone to completion of the single market) and United Kingdom on the second. The Maastricht Treaty put the notion of a multi-speed Europe into circulation; the Eurozone (with the euro entering into circulation in 2000), the Schengen (the agreement signed in 1995), the British, Irish and Danish opt-outs have demonstrated that the Union is a heterogeneous, rather than a homogeneous club itself. Efforts directed at regionalism have been observed around the Union, e.g. the European Economic Area (EEA)/European Free Trade area (EFTA) countries, North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Mercado Común del Sur (Common Market of the South) (Mercosur), Andean Community, African Union, Gulf Cooperation Council, etc for which the EU has tried to provide either deliberately of involuntarily a template for regional integration, as well as offered expertise with establishing institutional capacity emulating itself and developing formal relations. Interestingly, in the case of the South Caucasus the EU has opted for supporting the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization – a Turkish venture, which, most importantly, is trans-regional since it comprises also EU-member states Greece,  Bulgaria and Romania – rather than the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (Vasilyan 2009).

Meanwhile, the Union’s political neighborhood (comprising 16 countries) stands out as a most heterogeneous grouping with the differences between the south and the east, and with the competing hegemony by others, such as the US, Turkey and Iran in the case of the former and Russia, Turkey, the US and Iran in the case of the latter. Ironically, in the case of the eastern periphery, the Union had conceived of potential emergence of a more homogeneous grouping similar to that of the Western Balkans without offering membership. As a result, Russia’s resurgence as a regional power and willingness to keep the countries, which had traditionally fallen within its power ‘orbit’, as well as efforts to capture those that were perceived of as slipping out of its ‘hands’ came as an undesirable surprise for the EU.

Georgia and Moldova proceeded with pre-signing the AAs and the DCFTAs in Vilnius (although the former is craving for a NATO Individual Membership Action Plan (IMAP), while the latter is neutral and concerned with the fate of Transdnistria whose leadership withdrew from the talks, while previously having expressed its interest in attaching itself to Moldova taking the EU ‘train’, as well as the referendum held in Gagauzia. Ukraine’s track is unclear provided the internal unrest with the concomitant external preference in favor of European integration, the pending presidential elections, and the ‘fate’ of Crimea after the referendum. Azerbaijan has stated its willingness to pre-sign the AA, while it has not been offered a DCFTA provided that it is not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) yet, and is additionally seeking a Strategic Modernization Partnership with the EU. Belarus has not improved in terms of its democratic credentials or economic liberalization, while Armenia abruptly receded from closer integration with the EU opting for entry into the Customs Union and, potentially, the European (Economic) Union due to be launched in 2015 (with possible expansion of its membership to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) (Vasilyan 2013).

Consideration of individual country dynamics one by one along the political, social, economic and security dimensions will provide an explanation for the multi-speed neighborhood. The EU is an economic power and by default its relations with others hinge on trade, which is tackled through ‘exclusive competence’ or the ‘Community method’ with the Commission speaking on behalf of all the member-states. Overall, the EU has stood out as a primary trade partner of all the eastern neighbors. In 2012, trade with the EU represented 27,3% of the total trade for Armenia, 45.6%  for Azerbaijan, 26.6%  for Georgia, 54% for Moldova, 29% for Belarus (the only case where Russia precedes EU-28), 34% for Ukraine. While Armenia belongs to the CIS, it is the only country in the South Caucasus that is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova belong to GUUAM (with the unifying common denominator being the inclination towards the principle of ‘territorial integrity’ Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria), which has been supported by the US. Georgia and Ukraine are also members of the Community for Democratic Choice (CDC) established as a result of the Rose and Orange revolutions in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Azerbaijan has been a member of the Islamic Cooperation Organization and preferred asserting its individual standing vis-à-vis the West and Russia by using the energy ‘card’ (not least with the help of SOCAR) to gain political favoritism. Belarus has been in a Union State with Russia and is a member of the Customs Union. The Armenian diaspora in Russia is a major source of remittances (Vasilyan and Petrossian 2014, upcoming), Azerbaijan’s social links are with its kin Turkey and the trade flow largely comprising energy is directed through Turkey towards the West. Belarus shares close social links with Russia, Ukraine’s largest minority is Russian – a factor that has become the nucleus for the civic rift, Moldova’s cultural affinity with Romania has made the country’s proneness towards the EU more explicit.

The EU’s recent reaction to the post-Vilnius developments, while uttered with disappointment towards Armenia’s abrupt foreign policy shift was tolerant. The preference is utmost possible engagement – even if that entailed re-prioritization of the policy target, namely, more support to civil society and evasion of policy domains such as trade and those tied to it. For Georgia and Moldova this has implied being viewed as success stories and increasing their expectations that this will be met with appreciation by Brussels. The Union has also considered Azerbaijan as unwavering and not wished to lose it by even adopting a tacitly appeasing attitude not to lose a major energy provider, especially, after having imposed sanctions on Russia. The hope that Belarus would change has waned given the ‘departure’ of allegedly more pro-European other neighbors. The attention together with efforts has been fully concentrated on Ukraine not least because of the push by the US to react with proportional condemnation and relevant (financial) assistance.

Although in the matters of external relations/foreign policy the EU comprises member-states with different visions, the EU’s hegemonic (implying dominance through legitimacy) paradigm can be contrasted with the Russia/Turkey one presented through the following dyads:

  1. social-liberal versus ‘managed’-‘sovereign’ democracy: the former entails existence of strong party system based on solid ideological platforms and open democratic deliberation as a result of free and fair elections through contestation of power, as well as nurturing the democratic triad of representation, accountability and legitimacy. The latter implies control by the government over political processes and stronghold of the governing regime on power (Georgia having preferred the former, Azerbaijan – the latter);
  2. socio-liberal market economy versus political-economic entwinement: while model proposed by the US starting from the 1990s was solely capitalist, the one suggested by the EU is socio-liberal (possibility for private, especially small and medium size enterprises to function and compete with potential capacity of the state to intervene both to provide welfare guarantees and to recuperate the negative side-effects, e.g. crises. The opposite model is the one whereby the economic resources are controlled by those (even if in disguise) holding public offices and the economic and political circles represent close(d) networks of amity (pre-crisis Ukraine representing the latter, Georgia – more the former not faring well in terms of the ‘social’ aspect);
  3. military offense versus human defense: the model represented by Russia and Turkey is possession of a strong offensive military capacity with a large share of military expenditure as a part of the state budget resulting in escalation and (causing) an arms race (Vasilyan 2010a), the reverse being human defense with de-militarization as a trend, civilian control over military and preference for human rights, and particularly, right to life, over sacrifice of life for the patriotic purposes (Azerbaijan being reflexive of the former, Moldova – more of the latter (See Table 4)).

The public perceptions of the EU vary ranging from isolated Armenians viewing the EU as an important partner to least enchanted Azerbaijanis, trustful Georgians and wary Belarussians (Table 2). While with the launch of the ENP the Union had adopted a regional approach, it has deviated towards bilateralism – a feature, which will be reinforced further in the EU’s policy. Thereby ‘differentiation’ has become the most emphatic one marginalizing the other key features of the ENP, namely, ‘shared values’ (with the necessity to acknowledge the difference between the desirable and the deliverable), ‘partnership’ (with the Union hierarchically dictating to the beneficiaries its own rules, principles, standards), conditionality (with the latter being simply ‘partial positive conditionality’ (Vasilyan 2010b)), ‘ownership’ (with the variation ranging from Georgia to Azerbaijan as being apt or reluctant to embark on transforming the country from within in all policy domains), respectively. To compare with the Western Balkans where the key international players, especially, the US and EU concurred over the future of the region, in the Eastern neighborhood the ‘presence’ and ‘actorness’ of competing actors has led to a different state of affairs (Vasilyan 2014). Moreover, unlike the Western Balkans, which comprises countries with more or less equal structural conditions, the eastern neighborhood exhibits asymmetries: at one extreme, Azerbaijan is energy-rich, Moldova is agricultural/poor, at the other – Georgia and Ukraine are hybrid regimes, Azerbaijan and Belarus are consolidated authoritarian regimes (See Table 3, 4) (Ibid.). Such asynchrony manifesting the intrinsic differences per neighboring country, coupled with the lack of a genuine dialogue (which has rather been a combination of monologues) between the EU and Russia, has triggered the choice for a specific model.

Table 1

Public Opinion (EU Neighborhood Barometer, 2012) Armenia Georgia Moldova Ukraine Belarus Azerbaijan
EU as an important partner 86% 71% 67% 60%  39% 37%
Sharing common values 73% 62% 56% 57% 48% 51%
Greater EU role desirable in economic development 85% 92% 77% 76% 65% 48%
Trade 87% 87% 60% 69% 71% 47%
human rights 84% 87% 60% 69% 42% 51%
Democracy 74% 85% 52% 60% 45% 59%
Trust in the EU 63% 71% 61% 53% 36% 39%

Source: EU Neighborhood Info Centre 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c, 2013d, 2013e


Table 2

Countries Armenia Azerbaijan Georgia Belarus Moldova Ukraine
GDP 9,951 66,605 15,747 63,267 7,253 176,309
GDP per capita 3,351 7,164 3,490 6,685 2,038 3,867

Source: http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/GDP-ranking-table, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
Table 3

Country Armenia Azerbaijan Georgia Belarus Moldova Ukraine
Democracy Score 5,36 6,64 4,75 6,71 4,82 4,86
Best score Civil society – 3,75 Civil society – 6,25 Civil society- 3,75 Corruption – 6,25 Civil society – 3,25 Civil society – 2,75

Source: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit


Table 4

Countries Armenia Azerbaijan Georgia Belarus Moldova Ukraine
Military Expenditure as % of GDP 3,92 4,64 2,88 1.20 0,3 2,77

Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html





Central Intelligence Agency (N.d.), Military Expenditures, World Factbook, accessed on March 20, 2014:


EU Neighborhood Info Center (2012), EU Neighborhood Barometer: Azerbaijan. Accessed February 28, 2014: http://euneighbourhood.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FactsheetENPI_wave2-AZ-EN1.pdf
——– (2013a), Most Armenians want greater EU role, poll finds. Accessed February 28, 2014:


——– (2013b), EU-Georgia: poll finds vast majority of Georgians want greater EU role. Accessed February 28, 2014:

——– (2013c) Belarus Autumn 2012, Accessed February 28, 2014: http://www.enpi-info.eu/maineast.php?id_type=3&id=431
——– (2013d) Most Ukrainians want greater EU role in their country, Accessed February 28, 2014: http://www.enpi-info.eu/eastportal/news/latest/32845/Most-Ukrainians-want-greater-EU-role-in-their-country
——– (2013e) Moldova Autumn 2012, Accessed February 28, 2014: http://www.enpi-info.eu/main.php?id=433&id_type=3&lang_id=450


Freedom House, n.d. “2013 Nation Report.” Freedom House. Web. <http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit>.
Vasilyan, Syuzanna (2009b), ‘The EU’s Ambitious Regionalization of the South Caucasus’, in De Lombaerde, P. & Schulz, M. (eds) The ‘Makability’ of Regions: The EU and World Regionalism (Farnham: Ashgate), 205-221.

Vasilyan, Syuzanna (2010a) ‘A Cacophony: The EU’s Security Policy towards the South Caucasus’, in Karen Henderson and Carol Weaver, eds, EU Policy in the Black Sea Region, 87–107, Farnham, England: Ashgate.
Vasilyan, Syuzanna (2010b) ‘The “European” “Neighbourhood” “Policy”: A Holistic Account’, in David Bailey and Uwe Wunderlich, eds, Handbook on the European Union and Global Governance, 177–87, London and New York: Routledge.


Vasilyan, Syuzanna (2013), ‘Armenia from a Foreign Policy of Complementarity to Supplementarity? A Sandwich Story!’ International Affairs Forum, Washington, DC: Centre for International Relations.


Vasilyan, Syuzanna and Shant Petrossian (2014, forthcoming) “Russia’s Policy towards the South Caucasus: Triangulation of Domestic, Border and Foreign Loics”, in L. Asta, Padova: University of Padova.


Vasilyan, Syuzanna and Raffi Elliott (2014) ‘A Dyadic Insight: Comparing the (EU’s Approach to) the Western Balkans and the South Caucasus’, Paper presented at the conference organized by the College of Europe, Bruges, Belgium, March 20-21.
World Bank, N.d. ‘GDP Ranking’, accessed on March 20, 2014: http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/GDP-ranking-table
——– N.d. ‘GDP Per Capita’, accessed on March 20, 2014: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD


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