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What is EU Visa-Liberalization and Why is Russia so Afraid of it?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (not pictured) following talks between the Russian government and the European Union executive at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Febuary 24, 2011. Vladimir Putin and Jose Manuel Barroso clashed over plans that hamper Russian gas giant Gazprom's control over its supplies to Europe. At the heart of their squabble is a change in European Union law to unbundle gas supplies from transportation networks, meaning companies in essence can no longer own both the gas and the pipeline through which it is transmitted. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (not pictured) following talks between the Russian government and the European Union executive at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Febuary 24, 2011. Vladimir Putin and Jose Manuel Barroso clashed over plans that hamper Russian gas giant Gazprom’s control over its supplies to Europe. At the heart of their squabble is a change in European Union law to unbundle gas supplies from transportation networks, meaning companies in essence can no longer own both the gas and the pipeline through which it is transmitted. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

The EU is Sending a Strong Message for Kremlin; This Time, it’s The EU’s Turn to Win

by Maia Otarashvili*

The European Union is expanding in an untraditional sense by granting Georgia and Ukraine visa-free travel throughout member states. This process was not easy. Both Georgia and Ukraine face immense domestic and regional challenges. Their economic and political instabilities, coupled with their complicated relations with Russia, were some of the major concerns that kept the EU from approving the visa-free travel deal sooner. But even during the most turbulent times, Georgia and Ukraine have proven their unwavering commitment to their European paths, and the EU has finally rewarded them with this coveted incentive.

This move also carries major importance in terms of broader geopolitics of the region. Visa-free travel to the EU brings Georgia and Ukraine deeper into the European orbit, and further away from Russia’s sphere of influence. Thus, it is a major gain for the EU at Russia’s expense, especially important because Russian President Vladimir Putin faces challenges to his goal of reestablishing regional hegemony. Putin has Russia fighting expensive traditional and hybrid wars in Europe and Eurasia. Moreover, the Kremlin’s massive disinformation propaganda campaign has failed to discredit the EU in the eyes of the Georgians and the Ukrainians; the EU continues to enjoy high approval ratings in these two countries, and it is about to start seeing the economic benefits of this new travel deal, too.

THE VALUE OF THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP

The EU offers a unique route for states to be a part of the EU without granting them actual membership. Through its four-pronged “Neighborhood Policy,” the EU has been able to establish with its neighbors the type of relations that goes beyond just border-sharing or good-will exchange. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) concept, a part of the Neighborhood Policy, has been highly effective in terms of garnering influence over and establishing closer ties with post-communist non-EU member countries (many of whom reside in Russia’s backyard).

The EaP aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU and its six Eastern neighbors: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. It offers a number of benefits; its bilateral dimension includes fostering political association and further economic integration with the EU and supports greater mobility of citizens through initiatives like visa-free travel. Its multilateral dimension includes exchange of best practices on good governance, economic integration and growth, and energy security and transport; it also includes regional cooperation programs in the fields of energy, environment, disaster relief and response, border management, and support of small businesses. The EaP also has an Association Agreement component, which three of the six countries have already signed:

“An Association Agreement is the EU’s main instrument to bring the countries in the Eastern Partnership closer to EU standards and norms. It comprises four general chapters: Common Foreign and Security Policy; Justice and Home Affairs; the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA); and a fourth chapter covering a range of issues including the environment, science, transportation, and education.”

These benefits, depending on how the programs are implemented, can be very valuable to the recipient countries. But at the end of the day, many of these countries are participating because EaP group membership puts them on a path (albeit a very long one) to eventual full-fledged EU membership. When the Ukrainians overthrew their president in 2014 after he chose not to sign the EU Association Agreement, they were not demonstrating because they were upset about missing out on a chance to “exchange industry best practices with the Europeans,” they were protesting because they knew their chance to receive visa-free travel to Europe, and to eventually join the EU, had been quashed.

THIS TIME, RUSSIA MUST ADMIT DEFEAT

In March 2017, Georgia held public celebrations across the country to commemorate the visa-free deal, and Georgian politicians called it an “historic” achievement. In a video address, President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, congratulated Georgia on this achievement: “from now on, our nations will be even closer all because of the efforts of the Georgian people.” Lithuania, a former member of the USSR, and now a member of the European Union, is a role model for many of the EaP countries. Grybauskaite welcoming Georgians into their new visa-free relationship with the EU is a symbolic gesture carrying a strong message for Kremlin; this time, it’s the EU’s turn to win – first Moldova, now Georgia, and soon Ukraine. Visa-free travel is the first step towards membership for these countries, away from Russian imperialistic motives. This is why Russia has been keen on offering the EaP countries EU-like alternatives. For example, in 2013, after convincing the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, not to sign the EU Association Agreement, Russia, alongside Belarus, offered up Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) membership to Armenia. President Sargsyan eventually accepted, formally joining the union in January 2015. The EEU itself is supposed to offer the Eurasian countries an EU-like economic union – an integrated single market that allows free movement of goods,services, and people, and it even intends to eventually implement a single currency regime. Currently, the EEU has four members: Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.

Moreover, as soon as the news of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s forthcoming visa-free deal with the EU hit, in December 2016, Mr. Putin announced that he was prepared to offer visa-free travel to Georgia and Ukraine. Putin’s offer was also followed by a flurry of disinformation in and criticism by the Russian-language media, often calling the visa-free travel deal a trap for Georgians and Ukrainians. According to these writings, the EU will actually use the terms of the deal, which includes a suspension mechanism for security-related emergency situations, to keep the citizens of these countries from entering the EU, rather than welcoming them in larger number. Essentially, these claims imply that the visa-free deal was made for the sake of putting in place the suspension mechanism, not for the sake of allowing visa-free travel. Some critics also called the visa-free travel deal a pure public relations campaign for the EU, one that was not designed to benefit Georgia or Ukraine. Yet as soon as the European Parliament voted in favor of Ukraine’s visa-free travel deal, the state-operated passport service website went down due to overwhelming activity as Ukrainians flocked to the site to obtain passports in order to travel to the EU.

ONE MAN’S TRASH, ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE

Since well before the establishment of the USSR, Russia has claimed the EaP countries as part of its own sphere of influence. Operating within this sphere, however, hasn’t come with lucrative benefits like those that the EaP offers; it brought gulags, forced collectivization, and later failed economies, organized crime, and billionaire oligarchs. Equal, peaceful coexistence with Russia has never been possible for Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and others. Vladimir Putin clearly understands the attractiveness of Western integration via EU membership for these countries and works tirelessly to prevent the EU’s expansion so close to Russia’s borders.

A large part of Moscow’s efforts to discredit the EU has involved covert actions to destabilize it from within. Currently, the EU is struggling to overcome internal, economic, administrative, and political issues. Thus, at such a fragile time, any small Russian effort can have a big impact. Moscow’s disinformation propaganda is said to have had a critical impact on the outcome of the Brexit vote for example. Ahead of the French national elections, Russian funding of xenophobic, nationalistic-populist parties in Europe is one of the top concerns. The atrocities of the still-ongoing refugee crisis add to the outrage for those who are disenchanted with the EU.

Thus, the Euroskeptics have had many good reasons to argue that the EU is a “failed project,” and that it has no value. Yet, many of the EaP countries remain stable and continue to reform often solely as a result of EU assistance, and for the sake of even the sheerest possibility of obtaining the much-coveted EU membership one day. Besides, the EU wasn’t created to spread democracy around the world, or even throughout Europe itself. Its initial mission was to foster economic cooperation. The idea behind this was simple: “countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict.” After decades of peace among EU member states, it is easy to neglect the fact that, historically, European nations had engaged in bloody wars against one another. The devastation of World War II was what necessitated the creation of the EU, in order to achieve a stable and lasting peace, first and foremost. The EU member-states have done a good job at not going to war against one-another since. This simple truth is what makes the Union so attractive to its often war-shattered neighbors in the East. Stable and lasting peace seems to be a lifetime away for Ukrainians, whose homeland has been the theater of still-ongoing Russia-backed civil war since 2014. This type of peace is also what drives Georgia’s desire to somehow stay out of Russia’s orbit and join the EU. Thus, when it comes to the EU, its value appears to drastically increase when viewing it from East-to-West, instead of West-to-East.

*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.

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