EU and Russia: overcoming or building the non-partnership?

Monday, 4. May 2009     0 comment(s)
Arkady Moshes
Programme Director - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

In early April the European parliament adopted Recommendation to the Council on the new EU-Russia agreement. This is a comprehensive and honest document, full of concerns as regards the state of relations between the EU and Russia. And these concerns are worth sharing.

As Russia’s citizen and EU resident, I have a personal stake in the partnership between the two. I want my parents to be able to visit me here without the obligatory queuing at the Embassy, and my Finnish colleagues - to visit their friends there without the visa and registration hassle. I want custom, financial and education regulations to be much more mutually compatible and friendly than now. For as long as I don’t see a convincing progress on my personal level – and I don’t - I will not believe that the EU and Russia are coming closer together.

Diplomats on both sides may feel differently. No wonder, I’d say. They’ve negotiated the visa freedom for themselves as a part of visa liberalization package that entered into force in 2007.

Same confusion exists on the general level. On the one hand, we see that the list of controversies between EU and Russia is getting longer and not shorter. Just within one month the EU, despite Russia’s demarche, signed an agreement with Ukraine as concerns its gas transportation system, put an end to Gazprom’s dreams to get access to EU downstream market, strengthened the willingness to ensure diversification of energy supplies and seems to have reached preliminary understanding on the issue with Turkmenistan, a potential major supplier, and invited Belarus, Russia’s perceived closest ally, to join the Eastern Partnership. In turn, Russia indicated that it might leave the Energy Charter altogether. All these facts hardly point in the direction of partnership. And facts, as they say, are a stubborn thing.

On the other hand, the Russia-EU Permanent Partnership Council that had its session in Luxembourg in the end of the month strove to produce an impression that the negotiations on the new framework agreement were advancing and that the next bilateral summit in May in Khabarovsk would be quite constructive. And, frankly, it’s quite possible to believe that as well. It will most likely be, on paper and before the cameras at least. Otherwise why would all European leaders be willing to fly to this city in Russia’s Far East?

But maybe we are at a loss because the question is wrong. May be, instead of trying to understand where the EU-Russia relations are going it’s worth asking where they should be going, what we should mean by partnership, and only then judge if the direction is right or wrong?

Three things, as often, seem to be critical.

First, the EU should set its own goals right. It does not need ANY partnership with Russia at ANY price. Quoting the above-mentioned recommendation, I can’t but support the Parliament’s view that the relationship should be based on “reciprocity, sustainability, transparency, predictability, reliability, non-discrimination and good governance”. For a layman this means that if property can be purchased by a Russian in the EU and be later protected by the existing laws, the same should apply to EU citizens in Russia. Laws should be harmonized rather then used as a pretext to give advantages to one side.

The EU does not need ANY framework agreement but the one that will be legally binding. Since there is the whole body of agreements that were never implemented, before signing anything EU should make sure it has an enforcement mechanism on which it can rely more than on verbal promises.

Second, EU should be confident that it IS in possession of resources to achieve the rule-based partnership. Today’s Russia is an important country, which can present an opportunity or a risk, but it’s not a superpower. In the world, there is simply no such thing as energy superpower, even when the oil price stands at 150 dollars per barrel. To make it to the world’s top a country should be more than a raw material exporter. Large territory, great past and no less great culture do not compensate for the non-modern industry and infrastructure or appalling demography. More than on economic power, the EU could rely on its soft power. In times of prosperity as well as in times of economic hardship, European lifestyle, with all its components including the rule of law, has a much larger power of attraction in Russia than vise versa.

Third, it is worth repeating ad nausea that the EU should finally take the task of having ONE Russia policy – not 2, 3 or 27 + 3 - seriously. Playing by the rules internally is the only way to gain respect and make full use of the resources in external relations. Everything else is no different from the original and now archaic type of lobbying: an attempt to secure special interest at the expense of the common good.

Of course, there is always an alternative. EU-Russian relations have survived Kosovo and Georgia, gas cuts, timber tariffs, feudal-type Siberian overflight payments, that Russia charges European airlines, EU frustration with Russia’s alleged non-compliance with its obligations in OSCE and the Council of Europe and other problems. The relations can no doubt muddle through also further. But that would be a different ball game, which would probably not be terminologically correct to call a “partnership”.


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