Fighting for a more democratic eastern neighborhood

23 June 2022 /

7 min

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) gathers the European Union and six post-Soviet countries, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Launched in 2009 at the Prague Summit, the EaP supports a stronger economy, governance, connectivity and society in these countries. However, given their difficult democratization process and the challenging geopolitical situation in the region, what are the concrete effects of the EU’s efforts to promote human rights and democratic values in these countries through the EaP?

A historical background

The Eastern Partnership initiative, as part of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), was set up after French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to create the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008. The same kind of initiative was then proposed by Poland and Sweden regarding their neighboring post-Soviet states. The Eastern Partnership policy’s goal is to intensify the relations with these six countries and to bring them closer to the EU. Its primary objectives concern the establishment of a political association, gradual visa liberalization and the creation of bilateral deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (DCFTA) between the EU and its partner countries. It also establishes a structure of multilateral cooperation organized in four thematic platforms: democracy, good governance and stability; economic integration, energy security and contacts between people. Even though being a member of the EaP does not necessarily lead to accessing the EU, a resolution passed in December 2019 by all the members of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, which reunites the six countries and the EU, states that the European enlargement process is also open to Eastern Partnership countries.

Challenges and reality of the EU’s cooperation

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia reflects the challenges that the region is facing in terms of geopolitics as well as state-building and democratization. This leads one to wonder about the concrete effects of the EU’s promotion of human rights and democratic values through the Eastern Partnership.


In Armenia, the EU plays a major role when it comes to the promotion of fundamental rights by providing an annual financial assistance of around 65 million euros. This assistance is destined to support the country’s reform agenda. The Armenian authorities have in fact been leading a comprehensive reform agenda since the so-called « velvet revolution » of 2018, which crushed the previous pro-Russian authorities that in 2013 decided to abandon the DCFTA with the EU due to Russian pressure and joined instead the Eurasian Economic Union. The current reforms of the Armenian government are linked to fields such as the fight against corruption, the reform of the judiciary system and fostering equal social-economic opportunities. The new agreement between the EU and Armenia, the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), signed in 2017, entered into force on 1 March 2021. The CEPA is now shaping and serving as a basis for EU-Armenia relations. Among its many objectives, it also comprises the commitment to strengthening the respect of human rights in Armenia.


Despite Azerbaijan’s authoritarian political regime, which has been controlled by the same family for more than three decades, and despite its constant crackdown on civil liberties, the EU still tries to support the country’s civil society. It is actually its major economic donor in this regard. As a matter of fact, in 2019-20, the EU supported 300 local civil society organizations in areas such as youth, gender equality and assistance to the most vulnerable people. Bilateral relations between the EU and the Azerbaijani state are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that entered into force in 1999. More specifically, this agreement regulates economic, trade and cultural relations while pointing out the respect for human rights and the rule of law.


Belarus joined the Eastern Partnership initiative with the other countries in 2009, but decided to leave in 2021. This decision mostly revolves around the fact that the EU imposed sanctions on the country and its authorities following electoral fraud in the Presidential elections and repression against the protesters in 2020. Despite the persistence of an authoritarian regime under the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko, throughout Belarus’ membership to the EaP, the EU has contributed to multiple initiatives regarding the respect of fundamental rights and the rule of law in the country. Despite having suspended its participation in the Eastern Partnership, the EU is still working on a more democratic future for Belarus. Since the electoral fraud, the EU has supported the Belarusian people and its democratic aspirations by providing financial assistance of close to €65 million. This assistance has been mostly directed to key priority areas such as independent media, entrepreneurs and SMEs in exile, cultural and art initiatives and People-to-people contacts, especially among youth, academic staff and other professionals. In addition, there is a €3 billion plan elaborated by the EU Commission to support the democratization of Belarus.


Tbilisi’s democratization efforts are as well supported by the EU. In fact, the European Union is providing an annual financial aid of more than €120 million in order to support the reform agenda of the Georgian government. Since 2003 and the « rose revolution » that overthrew its pro-Russian authorities, Tbilisi managed to improve the respect for human rights and the rule of law. In recent years, the EU has funded 40 projects regarding human rights and led various actions against discrimination and inequalities. It has also been contributing to the development of national human rights institutions and to the works of civil society organizations in the field. The EU has participated in the implementation of more than 120 training programmes on human rights issues related to the judiciary and the legislative and executive bodies of Georgia. It has led as well different projects aiming at strengthening women in business, such as “Job Equality: Equal, Inclusive and Safe Work Place in Georgia” and “EU4Gender Equality: Together Against Gender Stereotypes and Gender-Based Violence” initiatives. The EU has also promoted equal social and economic opportunities and gender equality, including for ethnic and sexual minorities and for people with disabilities through the “Promotion of Rights Based Social Services for People with Disabilities and Elderly” and ”Civil Society Action for Promoting Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Georgia” projects.


In Moldova, human rights are promoted by the EU through the EU-Moldova Association Agreement of 2014. This agreement is in fact shaping the EU’s assistance in terms of support for democratic reforms in the country. Within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, the EU and Moldova gather each year to perform a ‘human rights dialogue’ which, in 2021, pointed out Chișinău’s positive results regarding the holding of elections and the need to implement the reforms. The Commission adopted in January 2022 the €150 million macro-financial assistance proposal for the coming two years. This assistance is planned to be distributed in a conditional way. It indeed depends on the good implementation of the IMF programme as well as specific policies which would tackle issues related to good governance, the fight against corruption and the rule of law.


Since the Maidan revolution of 2014, the EU has supported Ukraine’s reform agenda. Its financial institutions have indeed since then mobilized more than €17 billion in loans and grants. The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) has been, in that regard, also contributing to this promotion of human rights in Ukraine through multiple projects since 2014. Their aim is to support voting rights and the fight against corruption, torture and discrimination, as well as to monitor human rights in Ukraine’s occupied territories. Alongside the EIDHR, the European Endowment for Democracy (EDD) funded a certain number of projects related to the promotion and respect of human rights, especially among civil society organizations.

Toward a more democratic eastern neighborhood

The EU is hence playing an active role in the promotion of fundamental rights in these Eastern Partnership countries. It has multiple instruments at its disposal to support human rights, such as the EDD and the EIDHR, like we have seen in the case of Ukraine. Moreover, it has dedicated a large part of its budget to this end. Although the European Union’s work is challenged in some member states due to their undemocratic or not fully democratic political regimes, it still manages to contribute to civil society organizations operating on the ground in these six post-Soviet states.

[This article was first published in the issue 36 of the magazine]

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