This is largely due to the fact it has no real say in shaping the bloc’s foreign policy – a fact which Cecilia Malmstroem readily acknowledges. She told RFE/RL that she has no illusions that the report endorsed by the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday will be “carefully studied” by EU ministers.
Yet, Malmstroem pointed out, the report will play its part in shaping public opinion in Europe and Russia. She also notes Russian diplomats and deputies of the State Duma took an active interest in her work while she was drafting the report.
Malmstroem said the report comes at a “decisive moment” in the EU-Russia relationship – prior to a highly charged summit on 10 May in Moscow. A treaty on strategic partnership will be signed in Moscow but diplomats in Brussels say EU and Russian views diverge on many important issues.
Malmstroem said this has to do with recent “worrisome” trends in Russia. “This report underlines the need for us to cooperate closely and to be very concrete in what we do together, but also underlines the concern this house [the European Parliament] feels about the weakening of democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, the conflict in Chechnya, etc., in Russia,” she said.
The report will be debated by the entire European Parliament on 26 May and changes are likely to be introduced to reflect the outcome of the summit. However, its central conclusions are not expected to change.
Apart from criticizing Russia for moving away from democracy and other European standards, the report deplores Moscow’s assertive behavior towards its neighbors.
EU diplomats say Russia is attempting to insert wording into the strategic-partnership accord suggestive of a mutual carving up of Europe into spheres of influence. Malmstroem said this is unacceptable for the European Parliament.
“We reject the idea of spheres of influence, as the Russians see it," she said. "This is our common neighborhood, it is in our interest and it should be in Russia’s interest that these countries develop into peaceful democratic regimes. We see with great concern that they have still their troops in Moldova, Georgia. [Russian President] Mr. [Vladimir] Putin bet on the wrong horse in Ukraine, he is still supporting [Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka] – the last communist dictator in Europe – and that is not good for our future relations.”
The report condemns what it calls Russia’s “continuing failure to end lawlessness in Chechnya.” It notes that “unlimited violence” permitted to Russian forces “does as much to facilitate terrorism as it does to combat it.” The document also says Russia must without delay sign border treaties with Estonia and Latvia, underlining this is one precondition before the EU can relax its visa regime vis-a-vis Russia.
The report persists, however, in recognizing Russia as an important strategic partner. In an explanatory note accompanying the document, Malmstroem quotes EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana as saying that developing the partnership with Russia is “the most important, the most urgent, and the most challenging task the EU faces in the 21st century.” Russia is said to be an essential partner in fighting terrorism, extremism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russia is also rated as an important trade partner.
Malmstroem’s report takes the EU’s own member states to task for often preferring narrow self-interest to the greater common good in relations with Moscow. She told RFE/RL that this is to blame for some of the difficulties in the relationship.
“There is a fear that the common line towards Russia is constantly undermined by bilateral initiatives, by individual member states, and that sends a very strange message to Russia. That is our fault, not the Russians’ because individual countries have their interests in Russia and that is not always in line with the common [EU] position,” Malmstroem said.
In her accompanying note to the report Malmstroem refers to “energy interests,” which is a usual allusion to Germany. She adds that there is also a “need to arrive at a common understanding regarding the painful history of some member states.“ This is an allusion to the new eastern European member states.
In speaking to RFE/RL, Malmstroem made it clear she does not think Russian accusations of growing “Russophobia” in the European Parliament are justified. “There are several politicians in this [parliament] who have suffered under Soviet occupation personally, they have been in prison or they have been oppressed and so on," she said. "Everybody is not Nelson Mandela, it takes time to forget. I think it is very important that this meeting in Moscow on 9-10 May also makes clear that Russia has to start a process of reconciliation and has to admit that ‘yes wrongdoings have been made.’”
But, Malmstroem added, both parties now need to look to the future.