Scholars participating in a Washington seminar Monday on developments in Eastern Europe say that for economic and political reform in Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia to gain momentum, the 25 nation European Union needs to make clear that the door to eventual membership is still open.
Scholars expressed concern that if the European Union closes the door to further eastward expansion, reform momentum in aspiring EU member states will diminish with potentially destabilizing consequences. The forum, entitled, "The EU's New Eastern Border" focused particularly on Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, which until 1991 were part of the Soviet Union. On Belarus, where anti-reform hard-line former communists seem firmly in control, there was little optimism. Much discussion focused on Ukraine, which experienced a pro-reform revolution in December and very much wants to join the EU and diminish its links with Russia.
Participants suggested it is hard to predict whether Ukraine will end up as part of the west or revert to its traditional ties with Russia to the east. Janusz Bugajski of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies says the EU lacks a clear policy on Ukraine as only Poland and a few others strongly favor Ukraine membership in the EU. Germany and France, he says, downplay Ukraine's entry prospects, because they do not want to jeopardize their strong ties to Russia. Economist Oleg Havrylyshyn suggests that Ukraine's fate may be determined by whether it stays on the path to market based reform.
"If we see that [reform momentum] fizzling out and being reversed and going back to an equilibrium of a captured state and a freezing of the process of continued liberalization, that is an extremely strong alarm bell," he said.
Scholars generally believe that French and Dutch referendum votes in May and June against a new European Union constitution signaled strong west European opposition to further E.U. eastward expansion. Eight former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe joined the EU in May 2004 and Romania and Bulgaria are on track to join by 2008. Mr. Bugajski believes it is vital that the EU make good on its pledge to eventually admit the countries of the western Balkans. Closing the door, he says, would be dangerous.
"That could lead to potential isolationist and nationalist backlash in some of these countries and it could revive some of the conflicts," he added. "Of course, much depends on whether the final status of Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo are resolved as well."
The two speakers emphasized that a special trade relationship short of full membership would be an inadequate remedy and not provide enough of an incentive for sustained reform.