Top eight forecasts for Eastern Partnership states in 2021 – between “contestation” and “renewal”. Analysis by Dionis Cenușa
The year 2021 will be different from the previous one, but insufficient to compensate for the losses. Most of the political, socio-economic and geopolitical processes that characterize the Eastern Partnership states will perpetuate. Based on the complications and the progress achieved a year ago in the region, a series of developments can emerge in 2021 (IPN, December 2020). Each of the six Eastern Partnership countries will face individual challenges, many of which are deductible from the ongoing political-strategic and socio-economic processes. Besides, there are common trends that can synchronize at the (semi-) regional level. From here, the forecasts related to the vaccination process appear in the spotlight differing from country to country, given the financial resources to procure the vaccine or only the geopolitical preferences. Simultaneously, there is a steady assumption that in many corners of the Partnership, political contestation, the configuration of power or government system will also persist throughout 2021. The region’s relationship with Western political actors will undergo a revitalization, taking into account of the first signs of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery, as well as the post-Trump transition in Washington. At the same time, local political forces, allied or compatible with Russian interests, will not lose the chance to reposition themselves. This likelihood will increase if national governments lose control over the balance between national budgets’ stability and the help of disadvantaged social segments, respectively. It does not rule out an increased competition between states in the region for vaccines and external assistance. Therefore, inter-state coordination and intra-regional solidarity will become essential elements for the inclusive advancement of the region. In this respect, the EU can act as a benchmark by coordinating pan-European vaccination schemes. Thus, in addition to expressing solidarity, the EU can reduce the fragmentation effect caused by travel restrictions and invest in pre-pandemic benefits (trade flows, interpersonal etc.).
The eight forecasts for the Eastern Partnership
The forecasts for 2021 focus on two distinctive aspects, one of which illustrates the comparable internal dynamics in the Partnership states, and the other one looks at the implications arising from the competition of regional geopolitical actors, as can be seen below:
1. Difficult vaccination can lead to regional “isolation”. Unlike the EU and Russia, which started vaccination in December 2020, the Eastern Partnership countries are at the beginning of the process (Belarus) or hold. If the infection does not decrease in intensity and vaccination occurs with difficulty, it is likely that EU countries will condition the access on their territories based on negative tests or even documents confirming the vaccine’s application. In order for a successful vaccination strategy, the authorities need human resources and logistical organization. Vaccination must take place simultaneously as two other urgent tasks – ensuring the current treatment of those infected and preventing the spread of the virus in general. Therefore, until the vaccine reaches them, the Partnership countries need an objective assessment of state resources to restructure the available infrastructure and seek additional human resources, including from abroad, based on humanitarian aid operations. States with large populations, especially Ukraine (43.7 million), will be disadvantaged compared to Moldova, Armenia or Georgia, which must vaccinate about 3 million people per country. Moreover, the actual procedures for purchasing vaccines are complicated. The six largest pharmaceutical companies (BioNTech-Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, CureVac, Sonofi-GSK, Moderna) have contracts with the developed countries – the US and EU Member States – to deliver vaccines. The EU alone has ordered about 1.5 billion vaccines, which can reach the EU population’s post-Brexit size (447.7 million people) for three vaccine injections per person. Given that Western companies’ potential is busy, the Partnership’s states will have to adapt in order to start the vaccination as soon as possible, avoiding socio-political tensions and further economic stagnation.
2. The geopolitical competition of vaccines divides the region into several groups. Obtaining the vaccine is the most urgent issue for Eastern Partnership governments. The lack of a concrete timetable for accessing vaccines distorts the calculations regarding the post-pandemic recovery period. Belarus seems to be the only country in the region that has started vaccination with “Sputnik-V”, wanting Russia’s approval to set up local vaccine production. Armenia will be able to join Belarus, thus forming the “Eurasian bloc“. Moldova forms another category that rather “wait and watch” relying primarily on the COVAX platform of the World Health Organization, which benefits of generous EU funding (500 million euros) and plans to deliver vaccines for the need of about 20% of the population of the developing countries. Optimistic estimates indicate that the vaccine may be available as early as the spring of 2021. In addition to that, Moldova will benefit from Romania’s humanitarian assistance, consisting of 200,000 BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines purchased by the EU. Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan represent the group with a more pro-active and diversified approach. Following the Karabakh war’s victory in 2020, Azerbaijan tends to show self-sufficiency, including greater autonomy from the EU, unilaterally appealing to vaccine manufacturers and its batches through COVAX. Georgia and Ukraine are open to more assistance that is consistent from Brussels. The first is the most affected country in the Partnership, and the second needs to start vaccination quickly due to the size of the population. Georgia is primarily interested in Western vaccines, while Ukraine is also open to Chinese vaccines, even if it is less effective (Sinovac Biotech – 78%). Although diversification of procurement is vital for the start of vaccination, most Partnership states will reluctantly view the Russian product. Until the price-effectiveness ratio, including the delivery capacity, of the “Sputnik-V” vaccine becomes attractive, geopolitical scepticism about Russia will prevail. The pandemic allows the EU to outpace its geopolitical competitors in the region – Russia and China. With certified vaccine production capacity (especially of the German companies), the EU can lay the groundwork for a sort of “Marshall Plan of anti-COVID-19 Vaccination” in the Eastern Partnership, winning Eastern Europeans’ hearts and investing in public health from its immediate neighbors.
3. Strategic renewal of the EU-Eastern Partnership dialogue. The Eastern Partnership Summit planned for spring 2021 will renew priorities and subsequent funding for the region, respectively, based on a fresh set of projects – “Post-2020 Deliverables”. The EU is pursuing democracy, prosperity and stability, which are incompatible in some Partnership countries. For example, if the EU invests preserving Belarus’s stability, it can surely benefit Lukashenko’s autocracy. The same type of shortcomings characterizes the EU’s relationship with Azerbaijan. In the other four countries – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – the balance between democracy and stability is more proportionate and advantageous for reforms. However, even with a renewed agenda, the EU’s relations with the states in the region will continue to be influenced by local political elites’ credibility and the effectiveness of European conditionality.
4. Increasing dependence on external financing – a “window of opportunity” for reforms. Due to the pandemic’s adverse economic effects (IPN, December 2020) and the need for post-pandemic recovery, the states in the region will be in fierce competition for financial resources. Therefore, international financial and development institutions (IMF, World Bank) and European ones (EBRD, EIB), as creditors-financiers, can dictate the conditions. There is a historical moment in which the external partners are able to sell easier the structural reforms, while the Partnership’s states have little maneuvering space not to implement them adequately. External donors have the opportunity, by aligning the requirements, to promote measures specific to the Partnership’s states, which face common cross-border issues. In this way, it can target more effectively the fight against smuggling at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. Moreover, a “window of opportunity” is arising to restore and/or strengthen anti-corruption instruments in Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia. Reducing the room for reluctance for local elites, including the oligarchic ones (Ukraine, Georgia) promises a higher yield for the EU’s conditionality mechanism.
5. Repositioning of political forces allied with Russia or compatible with Russian interests. The erosion of democratic foundations or reforms that benefit democracy are some of the attractions of (pro-) Russian forces in the region. In Moldova and Ukraine, parties with explicitly pro-Russian rhetoric – the Socialist Party and the Opposition Platform “For Life” – will not cease to offer anachronistic solutions as an alternative to the reforms put forward by pro-European progressive parties. The autocracies in Belarus and Azerbaijan will also serve as strongholds against liberal democracy in 2021, which the EU tends to root in the Eastern Partnership. The degradation of democracy in Georgia will progress if Brussels refuses to apply conditionality to remove Bidzina Ivanishvili from the country’s decision-making apparatus. The outlook for pro-reform forces is bleak in Armenia. Even with the provision of financial assistance, Western actors will not replace the doubling of Moscow’s share in the architecture of Armenian security.
6. The political challenge in Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia continues. In the first case, the non-stop of anti-regime protests prevents any relaxation of pressure from European and American decision-makers on President Alexander Lukashenko. That will increase the number of officials and entities sanctioned by the EU and the US. At the end of 2020, after three waves of sanctions, the EU applied travel bans and accounts freezing on about 80 civil servants and 7 public companies in the military, real estate and surveillance sectors. As a result, the geopolitical confrontation around Belarus may increase. While the West is imposing sanctions on Minsk’s repressive apparatus, Russia is counting on accelerating constitutional reform in Belarus to create the illusion of democratizing the political decision-making process. Moldova will go through another type of political challenge. Specifically, President Maia Sandu’s office will trigger early parliamentary elections to end the 2019 elected Parliament. In addition to the two constitutional possibilities of activating early elections – inactivity of Parliament for three months and double failure to appoint the government (Art. 85 of the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova) – the allied political forces of Maia Sandu (the Action and Solidarity Party) promote the urgency of a unique solution – the “self-dissolution” of the parliament. However, the latter requires the validation of the Constitutional Court and a political majority in the current Parliament. Against the background of the loss of the Second Karabakh War, the positions of the government led by Nikol Pashinyan are incredibly fragile, and the popularity of the majority parliamentary party “My Step” cannot prevent a decline. Uncertainty over the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, on the one hand, and the superiority discourse of Ilham Aliyev’s regime, on the other, will strengthen the opposition’s joint move to oust Prime Minister Pashinyan. Georgia’s political challenge will turn into street protests by the opposition, which has virtually wholly given up the seats in Parliament voted in October-November 2020 controversial elections.
7. Increases US visibility in the context of the Joe Biden administration taking over the presidency. The end of Donald Trump’s administration will benefit the US image globally, including in the Eastern Partnership states. First, the incompatibility between the American government’s abusive practices at home, and the pro-democracy diplomacy articulated at the international level will disappear. The second positive change that may have beneficial effects on the EU’s eastern neighborhood is the cancellation of populist-nationalist discourse, which has also contributed to the worldwide normalization of political nepotism, misinformation and authoritarian-paternalistic style. Finally, the reviving of the transatlantic dialogue between Washington and Brussels will (re-) connect bilateral coordination with the promotion of democracy through reforms abroad, definitively giving up personal transactions and intimidation (used by Trump towards Ukraine’s leadership).
8. The persistence of social tensions due to the pandemic’s socio-economic repercussions, the inconsistency of the vaccination process, and political populism are imminent. The risk of socio-economic protests, in addition to political ones, will increase exponentially, if national governments ignore the degradation of living conditions, below the acceptable minimum. In the absence of feasible vaccination schemes, states will find themselves more isolated, affecting migration, which provides remittances and reduces pressure upon the state. Reforms, external assistance and effective vaccination, are the pillars that can help Eastern Partnership states reduce the likelihood of socio-economic protests. These solutions will however not have the same impact on political rallies (Belarus), caused by the absence of democratic conditions and less by government’s sectoral performance.
In lieu of conclusion…
Unlike most European states, Eastern Partnership states are experiencing systemic crises, similar to those caused by the pandemic. The survival of the multiple crises in the post-Soviet period – from the collapse of the economic system to the erosion of public order and territorial disintegration – reinforces the belief that governments and people in the region can recover again.
Creating an optimistic outlook for the population, business, and democratic freedoms impose titanic tasks on national governments from the Partnership in 2021. With positive “chain” effects at the intra-regional and intra-state level, the main qualitative changes will depend on anti-COVID-19 vaccination. That will determine, to a considerable extent, the evolution within the Eastern Partnership.