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Are EU-Russia Relations Stuck In A Loop?

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an EU-Russia meeting in Luxembourg on April 28

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an EU-Russia meeting in Luxembourg on April 28

Curiously, each successive EU-Russia meeting increasingly gives the impression of being the first.

At their own admission -- more palpably on the EU's part -- the two sides continue to know little about each other.

The Czech foreign minister and current EU chairman, Karel Schwarzenberg, told journalists in Luxembourg after a morning of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on April 28 that after a "very frank and open discussion," he has "better knowledge of the views [of] and prospects for cooperation" with Russia.

The statement comes after more than eight years of biannual EU-Russia summits, and 12 years during which one Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the two sides has lapsed and another, more "strategic" accord, is in the process of being negotiated.

The root cause of the problem is that there is very little the EU and Russia can agree on. Schwarzenberg found it necessary after the latest meeting to reiterate the most basic of tenets held dear by the EU.

"It is well known that the EU attaches great importance to issues of freedom of expression and association, activities of civil society, independent media and judiciary," Schwarzenberg said.

Profound disagreements over basic political precepts are accompanied by disputes over fundamental rules of economic conduct. The EU has failed to make any significant inroads toward lowering Russian resistance to free-market principles in its economy.

Issues Of Trust

The deepest dissent is currently reserved for discussion of the neighborhood the two sides share, which is riven by worsening political and economic instability.

"We need to restore trust" between the EU and Russia after the war in Georgia in August 2008 and the protracted gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine in January 2009, Schwarzenberg said.

Moscow has trust-related issues of its own. Speaking in Brussels last month, Lavrov accused the EU of trying to carve out a "sphere of influence" on the territory of the former Soviet Union with its Eastern Partnership initiative, designed to facilitate closer ties between the bloc and Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Schwarzenberg responded on April 27 at an EU foreign ministers' meeting by denying any such intention and attacking the overall notion of a sphere of influence.

"We strongly defend the point of view that there should be no spheres of influence, neither for the Russians nor for us," Schwarzenberg told reporters.

Prodded on the issue the next day, Lavrov confirmed EU representatives were trying to assuage Moscow's concerns.

"Indeed, we hear from Brussels assurances that it is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence, that it is not a process which is directed against Russia," Lavrov said. "We would like to believe these assurances."

Avoiding 'Russian Route'

Poland and Sweden first floated the idea of an Eastern Partnership in June 2008 in a bid to secure greater EU attention and finances to its eastern neighbors.

But in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war, the project acquired a new kind of urgency.

Policymakers in Brussels and EU capitals began talking of the need to provide an "alternative" to Russian influence for governments on the bloc's eastern borders.

It is not difficult to deduce how the EU sees the difference between what it and Moscow have to offer their neighbors. Even as Schwarzenberg dismissed the notion of "spheres of influence," he noted that the EU wants to develop the Eastern Partnership states "because it is in our interests that these countries don't lag too far behind the European Union -- because that would create difficulties in the future."

"Stability" is another key word often used in Brussels in respect to the Eastern Partnership.

In other words, the EU cannot afford to let the countries take the Russian route.

Lavrov's outburst in Brussels in March gave a tantalizing glimpse into the Russian side of the story. Referring to the EU's insistence that none of its eastern partners follow Moscow's lead in recognizing as independent the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Russian foreign minister asked if the Eastern Partnership is in reality "about pulling countries from the positions which they are supposed to take freely?"

The fact that none of the six countries invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership has caved in to Moscow's pressure and recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a particularly irritating reminder for Russia of the limits of its current power.

Russia's resentment of the EU's eastern outreach attempts -- despite its admittedly limited objectives, which fall far short of the membership track -- seems to have two sources. On the one hand, Russia's leaders themselves continue providing ample evidence that the country has yet to come to terms with the loss of its Soviet (and the preceding tsarist) empire.

Offering Alternatives

On the other, Russia craves respect and inclusion which it appears to believe it is owed. Lavrov on April 28 reiterated President Dmitry Medvedev's ambitions to develop a "new security architecture" for Europe, describing it as giving "full participation" to all countries.

Vladimir Putin, while still president, spoke of Russia as one of the three pillars of "Euro-Atlantic civilization," alongside the United States and Europe.

The EU's visa regime for Russians remains the most humiliating reminder of how far Russia's putative partners are from recognizing its ambitions. Symptomatically, the removal of the EU visa barrier remains Russia's top priority in bilateral relations with the bloc.

Russia's frustration extends to the EU's new, ex-communist member states, whom Moscow tends to regard as usurpers -- obstacles on the path to its own rightful place in Europe.

Even before the EU's enlargement in 2004, Moscow was putting in place a policy of cultivating direct contacts with the EU's largest western capitals. Quoting the poet Aleksandr Blok, a Russian strategist described the strategy as an appeal to "Gallic reason" and "Teutonic genius."

Russia has managed to sow some dissension within the EU's ranks, but has so far failed to thwart the bloc's slow expansionist drift.

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