The Assembly of Changes of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Hennadiy Maksak, Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism", National Coordinator of the Ukrainian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

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The Annual Assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum took place in Tbilisi in December 2018. Despite the fact that this event is annual and is rather routine for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, this time was different in terms of both its format and content.

There are several reasons for this. However, all of them played a significant role when defining and shaping this event.

The Assembly puts emphasis on four key issues

Let us start with the factors immediately concerned with the Eastern Partnership development as part of the EU European Neighbourhood Policy.  

First of all, the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in November 2017 saw the official launching of a certain “road map” for the Eastern Partnership development, which is provisionally called “20 deliverables to 2020”. This document contains 4 priority areas and 20 deliverables in different spheres of multilateral and bilateral cooperation with the European Union and partner states. This was the first year when 20 deliverables proved to be a real guideline for shaping the agenda for the Forum, its working groups and subgroups.

Secondly, in March 2018 the European Union officially introduced a renewed structure of multilateral cooperation, with the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum being a part of it. It is indeed a welcome development that the new multilateral architecture secured additional provisions for bigger political involvement of both six partner states and other international stake holders. There are now better opportunities for the civil society to influence the process of decision-making. The Forum made a stronger appearance at different international EaP platforms: from participating in EaP MFA meetings to a more practical line of work involving panels and expert groups. It was the Forum’s new role in the system of multilateral cooperation evaluation that provided new directions and approaches when preparing for the event in December.

Thirdly, the keynote while preparing for the annual Forum’s Assembly was the internal reform of the Civil Society Forum, which was approved just before the annual meeting even though the work on it had been in progress for two years. This was not the first attempt to optimize the Civil Society Forum’s work. By the way, previous reforms also took place in Batumi, Georgia, in 2014. This time the transformations were aimed at improving the active participation of the civil society in expertise and advocacy while assisting the EaP policy both at the European level and at the level of national partner states. It is natural that detailed information on new reforms took a central stand during the Assembly in Tbilisi.

Fourthly, the agenda experienced a significant influence of the upcoming 10th anniversary of Eastern Partnership policy initiative, which will be celebrated in May 2019. Apart from the official celebrations planned in many capitals of EU members and partner states there are also legitimate expectations that next year should be dedicated to reflecting upon the Eastern Partnership future while searching the answer to the question what will follow after 2020, when the above-mentioned road map is no longer valid. This issue was also discussed at the Forum, which is understandable as it is the institution within EaP frames.

Worrisome elections in the region

However, it is important to keep track of both domestic and regional political features that influence the course of the Assembly and its thematic layout. It is worth mentioning that the events in Eastern Partnership countries dedicated to the 100th anniversary of declaring independence in five out of six states in 1918 made a strong symbolic impact, as it was in Tbilisi that the independence of three South Caucasian states was declared. This very symbolism, the similarity of situations with modern-day reality in the region, where all countries are subject to Russia’s hybrid aggression attacks, did not allow the participants to concentrate solely on official celebrations and promising expectations.

Uneasiness was imperceptibly present and made its impact on the discussions due to the peak season of elections in the majority of EaP countries, with the outcome of the elections not always being predictable within the context of following the way of European integration for these countries. In case of both recent direct presidential elections in Georgia and snap elections in Armenia the results were quite positive, however, the parliamentary elections in Moldova present a significant threat to the very possibility of following the democratic route of development and keeping a pro-European foreign policy orientation. Another challenge is presented by both presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine in 2019. Furthermore, there is a possibility of Belarusian presidential elections being held in 2019 instead of 2020, which might be a worrisome development taking into consideration Kremlin’s recent pressure on official Minsk forcing the latter into stronger integration within the frames of the Union State of Belarus and Russia in December 2018.  

the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2019, where different surprises are also possible against the backdrop of populist sentiments in EU member states, should also be remembered.

In fact, these very factors made up the basis for shaping the thematic layout of the Civil Society Forum. Therefore, all formal and informal parts of the Assembly, panels, sessions and groups were organized correspondingly.

Unfortunately, ambitious agenda was not always balanced by sufficient political level among EU and EaP representatives. For instance, Ukrainian top-level speakers could not make it due to their workload towards the end of the year. The same situation could be observed with EU high-level speakers, with Commissioner Johannes Hahn recording a video message for the event.   

South Caucasus in the center of discussions

It can be said that the Forum developed a political focus on the region of Caucasus against this backdrop, which is in essence not a disadvantage at all but an additional feature that logically fits the context of democratic transformations in Armenia during the Velvet revolution.

The main role of Armenia’s civil society in the transformational processes happening in the country was on multiple occasions highlighted during the Assembly. The co-chair of the EaP Civil Society Forum Steering Committee Haykuhi Haratunyan shared her inspiring story, while the EaP CSF Activists Award was given to Armenian civil activist Davit Petrosyan for his active involvement in the events of the Velvet Revolution. It is a welcome development that the civil society and its active role in the democratic transformations was stressed upon during the panel by Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs  Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

Special attention should be paid to the high level of interest to the Assembly demonstrated by Georgia’s top authorities. Georgia’s prime-minister Mamuka Bakhtadze’s speech was the high point of the Assembly’s first day, while the country’s speaker Irakli Kobakhidze launched the political part of the Forum on the second day in the Georgian Parliament.

It is worth noting that both Georgian politicians made positive remarks on the level of cooperation with the civil society in Georgia and on its role in securing the chosen European way of this South Caucasus state. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a lot of credit should be given to the Georgia’s Civil Society Forum National Platform as it managed to establish a solid contact with Georgian authorities and directly participated in developing the constitutional reform. Some instruments used by Georgian counterparts can be successfully adapted at the level of other Civil Society Forum national platforms, for instance, signing memorandums on cooperation between the platform and the parliament, the platform and the government.

Civil society not ready for compromise as well

As for the content of the event it should be mentioned that the Civil Society Forum traditionally manages to diagnose rather clearly those societal and political issues that Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are facing. It suffices only to have a look at the texts of speeches given by the representatives of the Civil Society Forum at different levels of meetings among EaP leaders, as well as the statements and resolutions of the Civil Society Forum Steering Committee.

This time during the meeting in Tbilisi the following issues again were discussed: human rights, fighting corruption, fair and untainted elections in EaP region countries, rule of law, public administration and judicial reforms. A video message from Bill Browder on campaigning for sanctions against human rights violators on the EU level, with providing Magnitsky Act as an example, was quite motivating.

The forum’s domestic “mechanics” this year was also different from the usual chronic electoral process as a result of the Forum’s internal reform which ensured two main changes – a two-year working cycle and a different timetable and decentralizing the election process for the Civil Society Forum Steering Committee members. On one hand, it did allow for more time to hold important talks and attract attention to vital issues for the states in the region. On the other hand, it was a nostalgic moment for the Forum’s long-time participants when adrenaline level and unofficial agreements are kept to a minimum. The only elections held were to elect the members of the Arbitration Committee created as a result of the internal reform, and voting to determine the winners of the Civil Society Forum re-granting projects.

It will be fair to say that not everything was done the way it had been planned.  First and foremost, let us turn to the resolutions, which are traditionally made following the results of the Assembly. This is when a traditional sore point – a low level of compromise regarding the text – comes into the picture. Unfortunately, the civil society does not greatly differ from the official authorities of EaP countries; they dilute EaP Summit texts until they are unrecognizable. Overall, Centenary Resolution can be named in terms of good content.

The tiring search for mutually acceptable wording forced Ukrainian and Georgian Civil Society Forum National platforms to prepare a separate statement, which clearly highlighted the necessity to restore territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia over occupied territories and which confirmed without corrections that the EU should assist these countries in counteracting Russia’s hybrid aggression.

In the end, each platform committed to a duty of suggesting its own interpretations of evaluating the situation in their own countries, which led to an even bigger devaluation of the general resolution. Thus, the rationale for modifying the approach to shaping concluding documents was questioned.

Progress monitoring

Unfortunately, the work on Eastern Partnership Index, the Forum’s main monitoring document that provides comparative evaluation of the progress made in bilateral and multilateral integration and cooperation in the EaP region, was still in progress by the beginning of the Assembly. It should become a clear signal for the future that it is necessary to revise methodology for better timing and accessibility.

The EaP index can be one of those instruments that can facilitate a more active involvement in decision-making process of the EU and national governments as well as reform advocacy.

It is also desirable to see the Forum’s more active involvement in the systematic monitoring of “20 deliverables to 2020” implementation. This year mobilizing all national platforms in order to conduct a joint research of EaP countries success in achieving the deliverables was not accomplished. At the moment of hosting the Assembly only the Civil Society Forum Ukrainian National Platform supported by the EU project “Common Synergy” had its own complex analysis of Ukrainian track record on the way to achieving EaP 20 deliverables.

The situation may experience a positive change in 2019 as the Civil Society Forum Secretariat resource support for national platforms is increasing and a part of it can be used for operational needs. Taking into account continuous calls coming from European institutions regarding the necessity to focus the Forum on 20 deliverables, a joint complex analytical product can become a major asset.

Summing up, it can be agreed that the Forum is on the brink of major changes. It is essential that its role as an indispensable partner, which broadcasts civil society voices from Eastern Partnership countries addressing European institutions and national governments and offering practical steps for developing European Neighbourhood Policy, should get stronger.  

It is also extremely important that 2019 should see the Forum and platforms completely immerse into work on the EaP new horizons after 2020. Moreover, there is a lot of interest to such projects both on the level of EU member states and on the level of official Brussels.