BRUSSELS -- Russia is keen to get the EU to recognize it as one of the bona fide poles in what it sees as a new multipolar world order -- and to leave behind the days when the EU lectured it on issues ranging from rights to reform.
Russia’s EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov told a press briefing in Brussels that visa-free travel for its citizens throughout the EU is at the top of the Russian agenda for its May 31-June 1 summit with the bloc in Rostov-na-Donu. It’s a long-term goal that was first established in 2003.
Chizhov reiterated Moscow's long-standing view that visa-free travel would benefit both sides equally. "Perhaps there may be more Russians traveling to the EU than EU citizens traveling to Russia, but it's a balanced, two-way street," he said.
Chizhov said Russia is ready to reciprocate by dropping visas for EU citizens "tomorrow morning” and said the main obstacle on the EU side are "some member states cherishing phobias [from] the past."
It was a veiled reference to some of the newer EU member states from the former Soviet bloc, which the Russian government appears to believe are trying to humiliate it by blocking progress on visas.
But EU officials point to real concerns among member states over Russia's existing discrimination against EU passport holders, saying at the very least, it’s a violation of the spirit of the visa-facilitation agreement currently in force.
There are also doubts as to the security of Russian travel documents, the country’s ability to control its borders, and its willingness to root out corruption.
All that does not necessarily mean that some of the skeptics among EU member states might not be politically motivated. But their motivation is not as coarse as suggested by Chizhov.
At an EU foreign ministers' meeting on May 10, a number of participants said Russia must not be allowed to gain an advantage over eastern EU neighborhood countries like Ukraine, which has for years pursued EU-inspired reforms.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski also pointed out during the same meeting that visa-free travel provides the EU's most powerful leverage in dealings with Russia -- a "currency" which it must "spend wisely."
Officials say these concerns are unlikely to prevent Russia from receiving some form of a "road map" to visa freedom at the summit. If that happens, diplomats also say Ukraine would also receive a similar road map.
The Russian envoy today also made it clear that Russia no longer accepts any tutelage from the EU. Referring to plans to sign a joint a summit declaration on economic modernization, Chizhov said any cooperation would be a partnership of equals.
"This is not...about the know-it-all European Union playing god, coming down to earth to modernize Russia," Chizhov said.
The EU has been hoping to foster structural, market-oriented reforms in Russia. However, Chizhov said the cooperation would focus on the similar challenges both sides face in a multipolar world. He highlighted space exploration, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, communications technology, and infrastructure projects as Russia's priority interests.
And he said the Energy Charter, an EU-sponsored framework for energy cooperation which Russia has refused to ratify, is no longer "topical." But he did somewhat lift Brussels’ spirits by saying that Russia remains on course for World Trade Organization membership, with "95 percent of the work done."
In his characteristic acerbic style, the Russian ambassador said the EU's economic woes and the future of the euro will be brought up at the summit by President Dmitry Medvedev.
The Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan are expected to come up at the summit and Chizhov said the "frozen conflicts" in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniester will also be broached.
Commenting on recent developments in Belarus, Chizhov said Russia hopes it will "escape destabilization the likes of which we have seen in some other countries."