Brussels, 3 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Less than three months before the EU's historic enlargement to include 10 new member states, the bloc's relations with its largest neighbor, Russia, are coming under increasing strain.
Russia has long indicated it expects compensation for what it says will be trade losses resulting from enlargement. It also has a number of political concerns, relating to Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics and Moscow's desire to scrap the EU visa requirement for Russian citizens.
"We believe that membership will bring further improvements for those [Russian-speaking] minorities. We believe they are complying with their obligations and we don't see these concerns as a reason to delay what should be [a] routine matter of extending the PCA."
The EU, on the other hand, has long reiterated that enlargement is a matter affecting only itself and the new entrants. No non-EU countries can affect the process. And all of the EU's arrangements with third countries -- such as the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Russia -- will need to expand seamlessly to the new member states.
Russia is resisting that interpretation. Two weeks ago, it presented the EU's Irish presidency with a list of 14 key demands that must be resolved prior to the enlargement deadline on 1 May. On 30 January, Russia's trade and economic development minister, German Gref, traveled to Brussels to raise some of the issues with EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy.
Lamy's spokeswoman, Arancha Gonzalez, yesterday confirmed that talks between the two sides took place and indicated certain Russian demands will be accommodated. "We have received a number of concerns from the Russian side, which we are examining together with them," she said. "There are issues in this list we have received which are related to enlargement. I'll give you an example -- adjustment of the quotas the European Union has on imports of steel products from Russia. It is absolutely clear that when we enlarge, we will have to adjust these quotas to reflect trade between the candidate countries and Russia."
Gonzalez yesterday said other Russian demands were "not really" related to enlargement, and would therefore be rejected. She mentioned as an example Moscow's request to relax health controls on Russia's agricultural exports.
The Russian document -- seen by RFE/RL -- lists a number of demands that are, at best, tenuously linked to enlargement. Among them are a request for a review of EU antidumping measures against Russian exporters, cuts in EU farm export subsidies, the exemption of new member states from existing EU limitations imposed on Russian nuclear exports, as well as energy import ceilings and aircraft noise regulations. There is also a long paragraph on Kaliningrad pushing for concessions from Lithuania.
The most sensitive Russian demands are for acceding countries to lift their visa regimes for Russians, and for measures to be taken to quickly resolve the problem of what Moscow terms "mass statelessness" among Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia.
Commission officials yesterday rejected both demands. Spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL the EU considers the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia a manageable one. "We believe that the process of preparing for membership has improved the situation of Russian-minority citizens there," she said. "We believe that membership will bring further improvements for those minorities. We believe they are complying with their obligations and we don't see these concerns as a reason to delay what should be [a] routine matter of extending the PCA."
A Russian memo included with the list of the 14 general demands sets out in some detail the concessions sought from Estonia and Latvia. Central among these are the dropping of language tests and other exams as conditions for naturalization, and the possibility of using Russian as an official language in areas with a dense concentration of Russian speakers.
The memo also says national minorities in the two Baltic states must be offered the same protection as minorities in other EU countries, and should resemble the guidelines now being implemented in Macedonia according to the Ohrid peace agreement. An EU official yesterday told RFE/RL the bloc firmly holds that its protection standards -- which become compulsory for Estonia and Latvia upon entry -- are "equal if not superior" to the terms of the Ohrid accord.
Finally, the European Commission yesterday reiterated the EU's long-standing view that talks on visa-free travel between the bloc and Russia are a matter for the "long term" -- which may be an indication that meaningful progress on such talks may be as much as a decade away.