Three Eastern Partnership neighbours: Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus

The EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, established in 2009, covers six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It was created to support political, social and economic reform efforts in these countries with the aim of increasing democratisation and good governance, energy security, environmental protection, and economic and social development. All the members except Belarus participate in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.

Ukraine

The dramatic events that have taken place in Ukraine since November 2013 began as a pro-EU protest against then-President Victor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, which had been initialled in March 2012. This movement eventually led to a change of government and to parliamentary elections in October 2014, which brought pro-European and pro-reform parties to power.

Following the Euromaidan movement, Russia illegally annexed Crimea in March 2014, and the eastern part of Ukraine plunged into an armed conflict spurred on by Russia-backed separatists. According to the UN, by February 2020 more than 13 000 people (among them at least 3 350 civilians) had been killed in Ukraine since the onset of the conflict. This includes the 298 people travelling on 17 July 2014 on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in a separatist-controlled area. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), there has been a downward trend in the number of civilian casualties since 2017.

Despite the Minsk agreements brokered in 2015, and the establishment of negotiating formats such as the Trilateral Contact Group (the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine) and the Normandy format (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France), periodic outbreaks of fighting have called into question the sustainability of the truce. The EU has linked its economic sanctions against Russia to Moscow’s full compliance with the Minsk agreements. The sanctions have remained in place following periodical renewals ever since.

On 11 June 2017, visa-free travel to the EU for up to 90 days entered into force for Ukrainian citizens with biometric passports, as Ukraine had fulfilled the visa liberalisation action plan benchmarks. This short-term visa-free regime aims to facilitate people-to-people contacts and strengthen business, social and cultural ties between the EU and Ukraine.

The Association Agreement entered into force on 1 September 2017, having been provisionally and partially applied since 1 November 2014. One of the agreement’s cornerstones, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), became fully operational on 1 January 2016.

The Association Agreement offers new economic opportunities to both the EU and Ukraine. The EU has reinforced its position as Ukraine’s most important trading partner. In 2019, bilateral trade volume reached EUR 43.3 billion and the EU accounted for over 40% of Ukraine’s total trade.

In the April 2019 presidential elections, President Poroshenko was defeated by newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky. President Zelensky dissolved the parliament and called snap elections in July 2019. In these parliamentary elections his party, ‘Servant of the People’, won a landslide victory resulting in an absolute majority of 254 out of 424 eligible seats. As a consequence, Servant of the People members filled the posts of both Speaker of Parliament (Dmytro Razumkov), and Prime Minister (Oleksyi Honcharuk). In March 2020, despite having a solid parliamentary majority, President Zelenskyy launched a major government reshuffle (Denys Shmyhal took over as Prime Minister). Several key institutions also changed leadership, following dismissals or resignations.

In addition to political support, since 2014 the EU and its financial institutions have mobilised more than EUR 15 billion in grants and loans to support the reform process in Ukraine. This includes EU transfers under the European Neighbourhood Instrument (EUR 1.365 billion), the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (EUR 116 million) and the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine, EUR 116 million), as well as very significant loans from the European Investment Bank and investment by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (over EUR 4 billion each) and the EU External Investment Plan, a key EU initiative mitigating financial risks through the EU Guarantee Fund (EUR 1.5 billion) and by blending EU grants with loans from EU financial institutions via the Neighbourhood Investment Platform.

Under a jointly established reform agenda, the EU is closely monitoring progress in a series of priority areas: the fight against corruption, reform of the judiciary, constitutional and electoral reforms, improvement of the business climate, energy efficiency, and reform of public administration. The third and final instalment of EUR 600 million of macro-financial assistance (MFA) was cancelled on 18 January 2018 on account of Ukraine’s failure to comply with the conditions set. However, in July 2018 the EU agreed to a new EUR 1 billion MFA programme. The first instalment (EUR 500 million) of this package was disbursed in November 2018 following Ukraine’s fulfilment of the policy commitments agreed with the EU. The EU disbursed the second EUR 500 million tranche under the fourth MFA programme on 10 June 2020. With this release, the total value of MFA transfers to Ukraine by the EU since 2014 reached EUR 3.8 billion (out of EUR 4.4 billion committed), the largest amount of such assistance directed at any single partner country. In addition, the EU has also made available MFA loans of up to EUR 1.2 billion to Ukraine to help limit the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 9 December 2020, the EU offered to pay EUR 600 million to Ukraine under its COVID-19 emergency MFA programme, but the disbursement of the second tranche will be conditional on Ukraine introducing eight specific measures in the areas of public finance management, the fight against corruption, improving the business environment and the governance of state-owned enterprises.

In autumn 2014, the Commission created a dedicated Support Group for Ukraine, comprising experts from the EU institutions and Member States, who provide coordination and advice to the Ukrainian authorities in key reform sectors.

Deployed in Ukraine in December 2014, the EUAM Ukraine coordinates international support for the civilian security sector and, in addition to operational activities, provides strategic advice, including training, to the Ukrainian authorities on how to develop sustainable, accountable and efficient security services that strengthen the rule of law.

A. The European Parliament’s position

During the eighth legislative term (2014-2019), the European Parliament adopted 19 resolutions on Ukraine, including one on the implementation of the Association Agreement with Ukraine in 2018. On 11 February 2021, the European Parliament adopted a key resolution on the implementation of the Association Agreement, with a strong focus on the ongoing reform process and the anti-corruption architecture.

In 2018, the European Parliament also awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia for protesting against Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. Mr Sentsov was released from prison in September 2019 and was able to collect the prize in Strasbourg in November that year.

B. Interparliamentary cooperation

Under its democracy support activities in Ukraine, the European Parliament is also implementing a far-reaching capacity-building programme for the parliament of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada. These efforts build on the recommendations drawn up as part of the needs assessment mission conducted by Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament, between September 2016 and February 2017.

The European Parliament is also responsible for steering a mediation process, the Jean Monnet Dialogue, which brings together the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and leaders of the political factions to follow the implementation of these recommendations.

The legal framework for the European Parliament’s support and capacity-building is provided for by the Memorandum of Understanding, signed with the Verkhovna Rada on 3 July 2015 and renewed for the new parliamentary term, and the Administrative Cooperation Agreement, signed by the Secretaries-General of the two legislatures in March 2016.

The tenth meeting of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee took place in December 2019 in Strasbourg, while a remote meeting by videoconference took place on 7 December 2020. On both occasions, the committee reiterated its strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders and took stock of the ongoing reforms and legislative agenda, as well as the implementation of the Association Agreement. It also reiterated that an effective fight against corruption is paramount for the success of the entire reform process, alongside pursuing an ambitious and credible reform of the judiciary.

C. Election observation

The European Parliament has been very active in observing elections in Ukraine, sending observation missions in 2014 and 2015 for the presidential, parliamentary and local elections, and in 2019 for the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The elections to the Russian Duma took place throughout the territory of Crimea on 18 September 2016, but were not observed by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). On 18 March 2018, Russian presidential elections were also held in Crimea, drawing condemnation and prompting the adoption of new sanctions by the EU. On 11 November 2018, ‘presidential and parliamentary elections’ were held in the eastern regions of Ukraine. The EU did not recognise these elections and considered them to be against the letter and the spirit of the Minsk agreements.

Moldova

On 27 June 2014, the EU and Moldova signed an Association Agreement, including a DCFTA, which entered into force in July 2016. The agreement strengthened Moldova’s political and economic ties with the EU. It set out a reform plan in areas vital for good governance and economic development and reinforced cooperation in several sectors. By signing the agreement, Moldova committed to reforming its domestic policies on the basis of EU laws and practice. The roadmap for the implementation of the Association Agreement was defined in the revised 2017-2019 Association Agenda, with 13 key priorities, which the Commission evaluated in November 2019. The validity of the roadmap was extended in 2019 and it is currently being updated. In order to carry out this ambitious agenda, the country benefits from substantial EU support.

In April 2014, Moldova became the first country in the Eastern Partnership to benefit from a visa-free regime. Following a very large banking fraud scandal in 2014, EU assistance was temporarily suspended. However, after an agreement was struck at the end of 2016 on a programme between Moldova and the International Monetary Fund, the main aim of which was to stabilise the banking sector, the EU resumed its disbursement of budget support. Bilateral assistance to Moldova under the former European Neighbourhood Instrument ranged from EUR 284 million to EUR 348 million under the 2017-2020 EU multiannual programme, and focused on economic development and market opportunities; strengthening institutions and good governance, including the rule of law and security; connectivity, energy efficiency, environment and climate change; and mobility and people-to-people contacts.

The cancellation of the June 2018 Chișinău mayoral elections based on spurious evidence after an opposition leader, Andrei Năstase, had won them, marked a new low in EU-Moldova relations. It represented one more indication of widespread corruption and of the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc’s control over Moldova’s state institutions. EU budget support was frozen again, as was the first instalment of its MFA package.

The results of the February 2019 parliamentary elections provoked a political impasse for several months. President Igor Dodon’s PSRM (pro-Russian) Party obtained 35 of the 101 seats, Plahotniuc’s then-ruling Democratic Party won 30 seats and the ACUM (pro-EU) centre-right alliance won 26. In June and July 2019, the Democratic Party failed in its attempt to call new elections, despite a PSRM-ACUM coalition agreement. The government refused to surrender power and a serious institutional crisis was triggered. As soon as the new government had been set up, led by the ACUM leader, Maia Sandu, with a committed reformist and anti-corruption programme, the EU reinitiated its bilateral aid and MFA. However, Sandu’s government lost the confidence of parliament in November 2019 and was replaced by a PSRM-Democratic government led by Ion Chicu. This coalition survived until November 2020 because the reformed Democratic Party was much diminished, with a significant number of its parliamentarians having switched allegiance to the new Pro-Moldova and later on Pentru Moldova groups. There is currently an interim government led by former Foreign Minister Aureliu Ciocoi and supported in Parliament by the PSRM, the Șor party (founded by one of the alleged main perpetrators of the 2014 banking fraud) and Pentru Moldova.

Former Prime Minister Sandu won the November 2020 presidential election. In the run-off of 15 November she won 58% of the votes, while the incumbent, Dodon, obtained 42%.

The political co-habitation of President Sandu with the parliament and the government has been very tense. Just before she took the oath, the parliament diminished her powers. The constitutional provisions on the process to call an early parliamentary election are vague. When on 15 April 2021 the Constitutional Court recognised the right of the president to call an election after two attempts to obtain the confidence of the parliament for her pro-EU candidates, the parliament attempted to dismiss the president and one other judge of the Constitutional Court without following the proper legal procedures. The date of the parliamentary election was finally set for 11 July 2021. The number of parties obtaining parliamentary representation is expected to be much less than now.

Moldova has been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU has provided significant medical and economic support, totalling EUR 127 million so far. Moldova’s agricultural sector also suffered from a persistent drought in 2020.

The breakaway region of Transnistria, which unilaterally declared independence in 1990, remains a major challenge for Moldova. The EU participates as an observer in the 5+2 negotiation process on the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, and it continues to support a comprehensive, peaceful settlement based on Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, with a special status for Transnistria. In addition, political tensions between Chișinău and Comrat, the capital of the Gagauzia autonomous region, surface from time to time.

A. The European Parliament’s position

On 4 July 2017, the European Parliament adopted a favourable position on the Commission proposal granting a maximum of EUR 100 million in MFA to Moldova. Unfortunately its third and last instalment could not be disbursed as Moldova had not fulfilled all the agreed conditions before the contractual deadline in July 2020. A new EU MFA emergency package for Moldova was agreed in 2020.

In its resolution of 14 November 2018 on the implementation of the EU-Moldova Association Agreement, the European Parliament expressed extreme concern about the backsliding of democratic standards in the country and the ‘state captured’ by oligarchic interests. However, its resolution of 20 October 2020 on the same topic acknowledges the improvements made in the country, while repeating its call on the authorities to continue anti-corruption efforts and to guarantee the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. It also defines the November 2020 presidential election as a test for democracy and the rule of law in the country.

B. Interparliamentary cooperation

The EU-Moldova Association Agreement established a Parliamentary Association Committee (PAC) in its Article 440. The first PAC meeting was held on 16 October 2014 and the ninth meeting was held remotely on 22 March 2021. In its final statement and recommendations, the PAC acknowledged the human pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and called for a quick distribution of vaccines to the entire population in 2021. The PAC welcomed the sector budget and macroeconomic support provided by the EU and expressed its hope for the economy to be reactivated, with special attention paid to young people. The PAC called for the adoption of the new Association Agenda. It also expressed concern about the slow pace of the judicial proceedings on the massive 2014 banking fraud and recalled that Moldova’s European outlook must be rooted first and foremost in adherence to the values and principles which underpin the EU. The PAC also called for the extreme political polarisation suffered by Moldova to be lessened

C. Election observation

The European Parliament has been invited to observe all the recent elections in Moldova. In February 2019, the European Parliament observed the parliamentary election and stated that the vote had taken place without major incidents and was generally well-managed. However, there were concerns about reports of citizens being paid to vote for particular parties in an organised movement of voters by bus from Transnistria. Due to the pandemic, the European Parliament could not send an election observation mission to the November 2020 presidential election, but the findings of the OSCE/ODIHR (reduced) mission acknowledged that voters had a choice between political alternatives and that the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression had been respected, despite negative and divisive campaigning and polarising media coverage.

Belarus

In recent decades, the EU’s relations with Belarus have been difficult at times, owing to constant human and civil rights violations in the country. Between 2014 and 2020, however, Belarus did seemingly display a more open attitude towards the EU and the Eastern Partnership policy. Its relations with Western countries had somehow improved and it played an important role as host of the EU-mediated talks on the Ukraine crisis. In response, the EU committed itself to a policy of ‘critical engagement’ with Belarus, as outlined in the Council conclusions of 15 February 2016, according to which tangible steps taken by Belarus to enshrine fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, human rights – including the freedoms of speech, expression and media – and labour rights, will remain essential criteria for shaping the EU’s future policy towards this country.

On 25 February 2016, the Council decided not to prolong restrictive measures for 170 people and three companies, which had already been suspended in October 2015. However, it did extend the other pre-existing measures, including an arms embargo, an asset freeze and a travel ban imposed on four people listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, a businessman and a journalist. The Council prolonged the restrictive measures until 28 February 2020.

The EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue resumed in 2016 on the initiative of the Belarusian side, with the sixth round taking place in June 2019. In order to provide a forum for a policy dialogue at the level of senior experts, the EU-Belarus Coordination Group was established in 2016. The main goal of this body is to steer cooperation between the EU and Belarus and oversee the further development of relations. In December 2019, the group convened for the eighth time: the EU Delegation to Belarus confirmed its openness to the further development of EU-Belarus relations for the benefit of Belarusian citizens and with a view to strengthening the resilience of Belarusian society and supporting the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, but also reiterated the need for a comprehensive reform of the electoral legislation, raised a number of concerns related to fundamental freedoms, notably the freedom of the media, the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly, and recalled its firm opposition to the death penalty.

Belarus participates proactively both bilaterally and in the multilateral formats of the Eastern Partnership. Negotiations on a mobility partnership were concluded in 2017, and visa facilitation and readmission agreements entered into force on 1 July 2020 with the objective of fostering people-to-people contacts. Both sides are currently negotiating the partnership priorities, which will be the framework for EU-Belarus cooperation in the years to come.

Very regrettably, despite the adoption of a human rights action plan for 2016-2019, Belarus has not lived up to its commitment when it comes to human rights. It remains the sole country on the European continent that still carries out capital punishment, which excludes it de jure from the Council of Europe. Debates on a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to its possible abolition are regularly evoked but seem to be a smokescreen, as no concrete action has been taken so far.

The EU strongly condemned the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in February and March 2017. The early parliamentary elections of 18 November 2019 were marred by a number of malpractices and shortcomings, as a result of which the opposition was deprived of any parliamentary representation. The presidential election of 9 August 2020 was deemed neither free nor fair by the international community and was preceded by systematic persecution of opposition members, then followed by a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, opposition representatives and journalists of unprecedented proportions in the country’s history. As a consequence, the EU imposed three rounds of sanctions (the last in December 2020) against 88 individuals and seven entities responsible for or complicit in the electoral fraud and violent repression, and stated its readiness to take further restrictive measures against the regime’s entities and high-ranking officials, including Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is no longer recognised as Belarus’s legitimate president. Furthermore, the EU has scaled down bilateral cooperation with the Belarusian authorities at central level, increased its support for the Belarusian people and civil society, and recalibrated its bilateral financial assistance accordingly.

A. The European Parliament’s position

The European Parliament has adopted a number of resolutions criticising Belarus on account of its political prisoners, its constraints on media freedom and civil society, its failure to respect human rights, including its retention of the death penalty, and its flawed parliamentary elections. In its resolution of 19 April 2018, the European Parliament expressed support for the EU’s critical engagement with Belarus, as long as this is conditioned on concrete steps being made towards democratisation and respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. In particular, it called on Belarus to join a global moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its permanent abolition. In its resolution of 4 October 2018, the European Parliament condemned once again the harassment and detention of journalists and independent media outlets and reiterated calls to strengthen respect for democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In response to the fraudulent presidential election of 9 August 2020, and the subsequent brutal crackdown on opposition members, independent media and peaceful protesters, the European Parliament adopted resolutions on the situation in Belarus on 17 September 2020 and again on 26 November 2020. In these resolutions, the Members took note that the election was conducted in flagrant violation of all internationally recognised standards and that a majority of Belarusians considered the united opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to be Belarus’s real President-elect. They called for prompt EU sanctions against the officials responsible for electoral fraud and repression, including former President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. They expressed their support for the Coordination Council established by Ms Tsikhanouskaya as an interim representation of the people demanding democratic change. The Members reiterated these principled positions in their recommendation of 21 October 2020 on relations with Belarus.

In addition, the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus (D-BY) and the Standing Rapporteur on Belarus have issued a number of joint statements in which they deplored the continued worsening of the human rights situation in the country and criticised Lukashenka’s continued usurpation of power. In December 2020, the European Parliament conducted a fact-finding mission on Belarus in order to assess the needs of the Belarusian democratic forces and evaluate how the European Parliament could support them, at both administrative and political level. It is also worth noting that the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was bestowed on the democratic opposition in Belarus.

B. Interparliamentary cooperation

The European Parliament does not have official relations with the Parliament of Belarus, due to the country’s repeated failure to conduct free and fair elections and to fulfil international standards for democracy and the rule of law, as illustrated by the new waves of protests and all-out repression following the fraudulent parliamentary elections of 18 November 2019 and the presidential elections of 9 August 2020. Likewise, Members of the Parliament of Belarus have not yet been invited to sit in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, as meeting OSCE election standards is a precondition for admission.

That being said, the European Parliament maintains an active and close dialogue with representatives of the country’s political forces, independent non-governmental organisations and civil society actors, who have been represented in the Coordination Council since the last presidential election. Regular meetings of the D-BY are held in Brussels and Strasbourg – and remotely for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic – to discuss the evolution of EU-Belarus relations and to assess the political and economic situation in the country, as well as the latest developments regarding democracy, human rights violations and the rule of law. The D-BY also travelled to Minsk in June 2015 and July 2017, as did its Bureau in October 2018 and February 2020.

C. Election observation

Belarus has not invited the European Parliament to observe elections since 2001. As is customary in such cases, the European Parliament relies on the evaluation carried out in the country by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the OSCE/ODIHR Parliamentary Assembly. Regrettably, these international observers were not invited to observe the presidential election of 9 August 2020 either, despite the Belarusian regime’s prior commitment to invite them.

 

Fernando Garcés de los Fayos / Florian Carmona / Levente Csaszi