Will we see a reset between EU and Russia?

Tuesday, 2. February 2010     0 comment(s)
Arkady Moshes
Programme Director - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme
In recent years the stagnation in relations between the European Union and Russia has become obvious to all independent observers. Of course, routines are followed, summits are held twice a year and diplomatic niceties are regularly said. But in practice the picture looks as follows.

The negotiations on the new framework agreement, which should replace the one that expired several years ago, demonstrate little progress if any. Technical solution to extend the old treaty annually can hardly camouflage the lack of consensus among the parties as concerns the future. On-going political dialogue is an exchange of statements not really aimed at hearing each other.

The agreement on reciprocal liberalization of visa practices and readmission of illegal migrants – the last tangible result of all talks – was concluded back in 2005 and entered into force in 2007. Finnish and German EU presidencies of 2006-2007 were last serious but futile attempts to inject dynamism into the process. After the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008 the relations were declared to be business as usual, but if this is “business”, we might need a better definition of what we would call a “problem”.

No doubt, the current state of affairs is not in the interest of European Union as a whole, its member states that treat Russia as a priority, and companies which would like to work with Russia. They do not have to care whether or not the relationship between the two entities is called “strategic partnership”, but they do need a working set of rules and regulations, both economic and political, which they could refer to in a transparent manner.

So, it does not come as a surprise that many Europeans become envious when they look at Moscow’s growing interaction with other Western actors. American president Barak Obama proclaimed a reset in US-Russian relations. This was followed by a certain improvement of climate between Russia and NATO. Even within OSCE the Corfu process was able to make Russia’s attitude to this organization more positive.

From the European angle, there are some reasons to hope that the “reset” wave will now come to the EU-Russian relations as well. On the one hand, Europe is a natural source for Russia’s modernization. Amidst the global crisis, Kremlin should view this challenge more seriously than before. On the other hand, two Moscow’s major headaches have been recently removed from the political agenda. The Nord Stream pipeline has been given a green light in respective EU countries. Ukraine’s perspective to be formally integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community, on the contrary, has been postponed beyond foreseeable future.

These are important developments. But looking at the whole picture, it is not possible to ignore the fact that the fundamentals have not changed.

The first one is the nature of the Russian internal system, which remains non-liberal, deeply corrupt and suffers from all sorts of opaque influences. In these circumstances it is difficult to restore mutual trust. In the situation when Brussels believes that Moscow does not comply with various commitments that were taken before – on issues ranging from the withdrawal of troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to collection of feudal-type payments from European airlines flying over Siberia – it is difficult to be sure that new commitments will be fully honoured.

The second one is a paradoxical situation in the energy sphere. Energy remains the backbone of economic interdependence, but mutual frustration is growing, and as a result the whole relationship is full of conflicts. EU has to hedge itself against risks related with Russia, like possible decrease of Russia’s output due to under-investment, its transit monopoly on the way to Central Asian resources, or recurrent conflicts with transit states. For this reason EU has to find new sources of supply. With the arrival of new technologies the task does not look impossible. Europe’s imports of Russian gas in 2009 fell by 12 per cent, and it is now Russia’s turn to worry about markets.

Finally, the policy of Moscow and Brussels in the so-called Common Neighbourhood area will stay on a collision course. Russia has not abandoned its official line to re-establish the zone of special influence in the region. In turn, EU cannot withdraw, because successful economic and political transformation is the only way to overcome the wealth gap on EU’s eastern borders. Furthermore, Europe’s involvement is welcome. Ukraine is unlikely to revise its European aspirations, the new government in Moldova is pronouncedly pro-European, and the dialogue between EU and Belarus is more active than ever.

Against this background, the breakthrough in EU-Russian relations is far from guaranteed. Strengthening some preferred bilateral relations at the expense of others and of the whole Union is a lot easier.

At the end of January, speaking at a long press-conference and analyzing the results of 2009, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov did not mention Russia-EU relations a single time – unlike Serbia or Latin America. EU was mentioned, but only in the context that it should do more to protect the rights of Russian minority in Latvia.

There is no need to draw the conclusions from this omission too far. But this is definitely a reminder for the emerging EU External Action Service that the challenge of proving itself relevant for one of Europe’s most important relationships is very urgent.

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