Ambassador Gert ANTSU: ”At times reforms sound like a tired buzzword that has lost its luster”

18.07.2021 (Caucasian Journal).  The today’s guest of Caucasian Journal is Mr. Gert ANTSU,  Director of the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership and Special Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Eastern Partnership. 

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a joint policy initiative which aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the European Union and its six Eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. EaP was inaugurated in 2009.

▶ ქართულად: 
Read the Georgian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Welcome to Caucasian Journal, thank you for attention to our readers. We often talk about successful European reform experiences and best practices, and whether they can be used in our region. But our today’s theme is a special case: We discuss the Eastern Partnership, which is in fact all about applying the EU approaches in our neighborhood. Let me start with a conceptual question: Who is the main driving force in this process – in theory it must be the Eastern side, not EU? Or, is it different for each EaP country, which are so dissimilar? 

Gert ANTSU: It is a conceptually interesting question. If we talk about partnership, then by definition it needs a strong interest from both sides to work. At the same time we can see that there is more urgency on the side of the EaP countries, especially those who have declared their European ambitions – people want better livelihoods, better governance in their countries and they understand that closer relations with the EU are a key to reach those ends. Then again, these countries do not stress as much the multilateral Eastern Partnership as their own bilateral relationship and integration with the EU. However, viewed from the EU’s side, everything one does with EaP countries, bilaterally or all together, is Eastern Partnership, so there is no contradiction here.

AK:  You are the head of EaP Center in Estonia, while the experiences of Estonia and other Baltic states are particularly interesting to our readers, since EaP  countries are also former parts of Soviet Union and Russian Empire. Can you comment on the Estonia’s role in EaP, from this perspective?

GA: It is very important for us to play an active part in shaping the Eastern Partnership as we understand the past and also the present problems of countries in the region. We have travelled a path from a “former Soviet Republic” to a successful country known for its IT savvy, electronic governance, clean air and much else, but we did not get here on our own – we received lots of help and encouragement from our neighbours in Northern Europe and the EU more broadly. Therefore we know very well that you cannot leave alone those who also want to escape the clutches of the Russian Empire. We understand that Russia is working hard to keep the countries in the neighbourhood under the control, but this does not really hold us back, quite the opposite. 

AK:  Would you like to highlight any concrete EaP projects, perhaps related to South Caucasus?

GA: If we look back over the past years then the Estonian assistance to Georgia in designing its educational system, especially curricula, has been most visible. Today our Centre has started a Norwegian-financed project enhancing local governance in Georgia and Armenia (and Ukraine as well). We have put together an excellent team of Estonian experts that also includes current and former mayors who are willing to share their own experiences. In Georgia we have started work with the municipalities of Mtskheta, Tsageri, Telavi and Samtredia, and in Armenia with Lori Berdi and Alaverdi.  Six more municipalities in Georgia and three in Armenia will also join the project. Our experts have been there and groups from the four Georgian municipalities have recently visited Estonia in order to identify the fields where the Estonian expertise would be the most relevant in order to help to reach the next level. Having met the groups in Estonia myself, I could really see their inspiration and motivation after visiting our municipalities and seeing how they solve different problems and improve the lives of their inhabitants.

So-called "Associated Trio" of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has been calling for a closer relationship with EU – I am sure we can accommodate that wish.

AK: Prior to your appointment in EaP, you served as Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine. So you are especially competent person to talk about applicability of Baltic experience for other former Soviet states.  Perhaps you could add your comments on this subject, but in a broader context – outside of EaP programs, maybe even on the “mentality” level – from your previous ambassadorial experience?

GA: Our similar past also means that our reform experience is really relevant for the Eastern Partnership countries – often more than that of Western European countries, where certain problems may have already been solved a century ago, but in our case it is much more recent. This also means that we have lots of people who have often themselves been the authors or implementers of reforms in Estonia. Often they speak Russian which is invaluable for working in many of the Eastern Partnership countries as not everyone in our partner organisations speaks English. Our shared past also means that our people are motivated to work with Eastern Partnership countries – not only can we get the best experts but, for instance, when we recently asked different Estonian municipalities whether they would find time to host visiting groups from Georgia, none of them declined.   

AK:  Some EaP countries like Georgia are striving for EU membership, some are not. Is it a factor that plays a role in forming EaP country-specific policy?

GA: Indeed, the Eastern Partnership countries are rather diverse – three of them have European aspirations while one has gone into reverse, two others have more ambiguous policies. At the same time its inclusiveness is one of the strengths of the Eastern Partnership policy – the framework does allow partner countries to move at different speeds. The so-called Associated Trio of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has been calling for a closer relationship with EU – I am sure we can accommodate that wish, Estonia very much supports the further integration of the three Associated countries with the EU internal market, including the digital single market, also increasing political cooperation and strengthening the resilience of those countries and much more. I am confident than this can all be done in the framework of the existing Partnership and if any of the three countries wants to move slower in a certain are or if a fourth countries wants to move at a similarly high pace, that is also possible. So yes, we have to take the diversity into account when shaping the policy but the instruments do offer enough flexibility for that. 

We do not have alternatives: EaP countries have to keep reforming at an increasing pace, otherwise the risks of not being able to escape from poverty and corruption are real.

AK:  In connection with my previous question on Georgia’s EU aspiration, I cannot help quoting a recent statement made by former Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand, who is now a Member of European Parliament: “EU is not ready for enlargement among the Eastern Partnership countries… there is also some fatigue with the Eastern Partnership, because what I hear here in Brussels is …How come the Baltics did it in 10 years, and these guys can’t do it in 30 years? And in this reality, I think it’s important to be frank and open” (source). Quite “sobering” remarks, and unusually straightforward for a diplomat. Would you like to comment? 

GA: People in the Eastern Partnership countries themselves, politicians included, admit that they have wasted precious time. In Estonia many of the reforms were completed in the early 1990s and thus we escaped from the lawlessness and poverty quite rapidly so there was no time for any oligarchs to evolve or for state capture by illicit interests. The Eastern Partnership countries are aware that their challenges are sometimes even bigger than we or themselves faced 30 years ago. And yes, there is “fatigue” all around – on the EU’s side and in the EaP countries – at times reforms sound like a tired buzzword that has lost its lustre. I still believe that we just do not have any alternatives – in the EaP countries they have to keep reforming at an ever increasing pace, otherwise the risks of not being able to escape from poverty and corruption are real. On the EU’s side, there is no arguing that these are the countries that are our neighbours to the East, and even if their speed and direction may sometimes be frustrating, we have to keep the faith and work with them in order to bring about reforms that would benefit both the citizens of those countries but also the whole EU – if the countries to East would become properly stable, prosperous and democratic, then this would also increase our security and prosperity. 

AK: Can you share some insider’s views about EaP’s internal organization? For instance, what is the role of Estonian EaP Center – I understand it is more than just a national coordination body? Also, is it true that EaP is partially funded by sources from outside EU?

GA: ECEAP brings together Estonian expertise, our reform know-how and helps to channel it to Eastern Partnership countries. Our work is financed from Estonian development cooperation funds but even more by foreign donors such as the European Union and the governments of Norway and the United States but also at different points Canada or Flanders. This shows that the development of our Eastern neighbours is important for Estonia and the EU but also for our more distant cooperation partners. Equally it shows that it is often in the interests of foreign donors to work with Estonian partners to get the best possible expertise to the Eastern Partnership countries – as I explained before, our reform know-how is seen as more recent and more relevant to the Eastern Partnership countries. 

AK:  Georgia is lucky to host a EaP’s project which is my favorite – I’m talking about the European School in Tbilisi, located just a several minutes’ drive from our office. We all – and the Estonians in particular – know about the critical importance of school education (I’m referring to Estonia’s leading position among Europe’s schools, read here), but this is more than a good school. IMHO, if we want our nations to speak the same language in the future, educating kids is really the only way to go.  If I was EaP’s decision-maker, I would have shifted the financing priorities, launching many dozens of such schools across our countries. While that’s far from reality, what are the real-life priorities of EaP?

GA: The European School in Tbilisi is certainly a good example of European Union presence in Georgia. I fully agree that education is the key for modernizing societies. However, I think that a dozen or two European schools would not do the trick – improving the quality of education in Georgian schools across the field is necessary to give the young people necessary knowledge and skills for modern society. If we look at the financing priorities for the future of EaP as listed in the Joint Staff Working Document of EU institutions that was published on 2 July, 2021, then education does have a prominent place as student exchange will be increased further – and the European School in Tbilisi will develop into a full secondary school. Funding priorities are rather diverse ranging from transport infrastructure to improving access to clean water to providing fast internet to households, and the list goes on and on.  

AK:  How do you see the future of EaP on the political level, and what about the plans for organizing EaP Summit? I believe the Summit is suspended because of pandemics?

GA: The political aspect of the partnership is certainly very important. Unfortunately the last summit between the EU and EaP countries took place during the Estonian presidency of the EU in 2017. After being postponed numerous times during the Covid pandemic, the new date has finally been fixed for December. It is really important that the heads of state and government would have a chance to meet physically as a number of important issues need to be discussed, most notably the future of the Eastern Partnership itself, as its first decade has passed. 

AK:  Speaking about the summits, there is often a long distance between the political declarations, and the practical results that average citizen might experience. And if the society has high expectations it should be taken into account in particular. What about EaP’s “deliverables” – are they substantial enough, in your view?

GA: I fully agree. The bureaucratic language or even the journalistic jargon does not really bring the meaning of the Eastern Partnership or the European Union more broadly to the citizens. How are you supposed to feel a connection to something that is called a ‘deliverable’? The only thing that truly helps here is concrete actions – projects that make people’s lives palpably better – be it constructing a new road or upgrading a hospital or, as I saw in Ukraine with an Estonian cooperation project, introducing a computer-based tool for kids to improve their arithmetic skills and compete with peers in those skills. The new proposals for the future of the EaP that have just been published [see here] are quite exciting in the sense that they focus more on tangible results and I hope very much that the citizens of Eastern Partnership countries will appreciate it once the aims have been achieved. 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

GA: Perhaps I should underline that despite any priorities in EU documents, finally the choice about the extent of European integration is up to the peoples of the Eastern Partnership countries – it is they who decide the future of their countries. It is also up to the governments of those countries – how far and how fast are they willing and able to move with reforming their countries. The EU and the Member States, including, of course, are there to support the reforms and the European integration of our neighbours.

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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