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If the EU wants to partner with Russia, it can't ignore six Eastern and South Caucasus States: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

OP-ED: By Radoslaw Sikorski, Foreign Minister of Poland
The Wall Street Journal Europe, London, UK, Thursday, June 18, 2009

A fundamental tenet of Polish foreign policy is to support eastern European countries' democratization and economic transformation. First during the spring 2009 European Council and then at the Eastern Partnership Summit held in Prague last month, the EU adopted a joint Polish-Swedish proposal for deepening cooperation with six Eastern and South Caucasus States -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The European Commission laid down in December a new structure for tightening cooperation with these eastern partners, adding a missing dimension to the emerging architecture of the EU's relations with neighboring countries.

The concept of active engagement in advancing the democratic transformation of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus is based on the conviction that in these post-Soviet times, stability and prosperity in this region are fundamental to the security and economic future of the whole Continent.

The EU's "Big Bang" enlargement five years ago brought in the Central European and Baltic states and shifted the Union's eastern border to new neighboring countries with either short or shaky traditions of statehood and serious economic and social problems.

The EU's new neighbors to the east do not only belong in Europe in a geographic sense. Their citizens also consider themselves European by virtue of common experience and culture -- not least because of their mainly Christian roots.

But what distinguishes these states from EU countries is their

     [1] democratic deficits,
     [2] their weak and inefficient legal institutions,
     [3] their under-developed civil societies and
     [4] their low levels of economic development.

We should not forget that these countries have been independent states for a mere 18 years, during which they had to design a new economic system, confront the problems created by the disintegration of cooperative ties within the former USSR, and build the foundations of their own statehoods.

The Eastern Partnership is an open offer of closer cooperation. Its aim is to support transformation by stimulating the region's economic development and to strengthen democracy, freedom and civil societies by enhancing judicial and administrative capacities to approach EU standards.

Although EU membership for the countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus is not yet on the agenda, we in Poland feel that the prospect of accession should be kept open. The alluring prospect of joining the European Union is one of the main sources of EU influence and "soft power." As the example of Central European states like Poland so clearly shows, it's a powerful incentive for deep reforms.

The six new partner countries have great geographic, demographic and economic potential. A new free-trade zone with a consumer market of almost 80 million people would give the European economy a boost and the new eastern partners access to the EU's single market.

The countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus are strategically situated between the EU and the rich natural resources region of the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and Russia. Important energy transit routes to the EU go through Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia, and Azerbaijan is itself a major oil producer.

The gradual integration of these countries into the EU economy would strengthen Europe's energy security. That security would be further enhanced if we bought gas on the Russian border and invested in new transmission infrastructure in those states that lie between the EU and Russia.

The East European-South Caucasus initiative also has an important political aspect. It shows partner countries attractive development prospects and offers them the opportunity to make the strategic choice of adopting a pro-European orientation. The policy highlights the empowerment of these countries by treating them as independent states and not pawns that are organically linked to Russia.

Russia of course remains a strategic partner of the EU. Hopefully, we will in the foreseeable future manage to negotiate a new "Partnership and Cooperation Agreement" with Russia that will be a realistic foundation for a future European-Russian alliance.

Changed and constantly changing, Russia is still seeking its own partnership formula with Europe and with other leading international actors, while at the same time trying to define its place in today's dynamically developing world.

As part of that search, our Russian partners at times resort to instruments and formulas from the past, although doing so tends to reflect their helplessness and their problems with adapting to new realities.

Although we in the EU may refuse to accept certain Russian actions, we should nevertheless judge them in the context of Russia's ambitions and against the traumatic background of recent Russian history. Most important of all, we should look at them in the context of a not so distant future in which it would be hard to imagine a Russia that is not in Europe and of Europe.

If we see Russia's future as being in partnership with the European Union, we cannot deny the same prospect to our common neighbors. It would be a poor solution for the EU and Russia to be separated by a region whose contacts with Europe are less substantial than those with Russia.

The faster we integrate the states of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus with the EU, the more likely it will be that Russia itself adopts a pro-European orientation.

Russia has vast potential for Europe, but we learned during last August's conflict in South Ossetia and the gas crisis in January, it is a potential that can be used to the detriment of Europe's economic stability and security.

The Eastern Partnership, particularly if Russia can be encouraged to participate in its multilateral projects on a case-by-case basis, would open the way to the gradual convergence of Europe's western and eastern parts.
FOOTNOTE: Mr. Sikorski is Poland's foreign minister.This is an edited version of an article to appear in the summer issue of Europe's World.

LINK: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124527840353824969.html