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Russia: EU Seeks Privileged Relationship

Prague, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian President Boris Yeltsin prepares for his meetings with world leaders in Britain at the weekend (May 15 to 17), the European Union is quietly trying to push ahead with the creation of what it sees as a "privileged" relationship with Russia.

During his trip to Britain, Yeltsin will talk to leaders of the G-7 top industrial democracies, and hold two mini-summits, one with EU leaders, and the other with U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The term "privileged" to describe the ties between Moscow and Brussels came into focus last month, when the European Parliament approved a resolution containing such wording. The resolution, proposed by French Euro-deputy Catherine Lalumiere, recommends that EU executive bodies move to forge links with Russia going beyond the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the two sides.

The resolution, however, is not only the work of the deputies, whose role is largely advisory. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, had some input into the text, and it is known to reflect the Commission's general thinking.

As passed, the resolution sets four broad tasks. The first is that there should be increased support to Russia to overcome negative phenomena, such as corruption and social distress, which could be exploited by anti-democratic elements. The second is the need to stop the Russian brain drain and to prevent the illegal trade in fissile materials. The third is to strengthen security in Europe through developing the weave of links between Russia, NATO and the Western European Union, the defense arm of the EU. The fourth is the intensification of general links beyond the present partnership accord, so as to foster creation of a new European order.

Lalumiere's original text described as unlikely the prospect of Russian accession to the EU in view of Moscow's size and Euro-Asian interests. The final text, as approved, drops that reference.

The Euro-parliament resolution came not long after the three-way summit in March between Yeltsin, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac, at which Yeltsin made overtures towards Western Europe. His move was widely seen as reflecting Russia's chagrin and sense of frustration at losing its place as the global superpower.

Both the EU and Russia are intent upon strengthening their ties. But declarations are one thing, putting them into practice is another. The EU-Russia partnership accord has now been in force for almost six months, and the joint bodies formed under the accord have held their first meetings. The EU expresses itself as content with the seriousness of the Russian side, but not much has concretely been achieved so far as a direct result of the treaty. One of the best developments to date is that both sides are working on a common approach to dealing with crime, in areas like money laundering, fraud, drugs and customs issues.

The EU's chief worry is the uncertainty of the reform course, and the increased danger of instability in Russia. Officials note that after its initial bout of reform, Russia has found it difficult to continue the process in a sustained and systematic way. There has been rapid progress in sectors like financing, but the economy as a whole has not developed coherently. Manufacturing in particular has suffered, and the overall social cost of the reform process has been very high.

The big question preoccupying the minds of the bureaucrats in Brussels is whether the reform process is sustainable, whether over the next few years the leadership in Moscow can get industry moving again, can get investment expanding, and can put into place working civil institutions.

The stakes are high, not only in terms of security in Europe and the world, but also in trade terms. Not least is the strategic consideration that Russia now supplies EU members and eastern candidate members with about 90 per cent of their natural gas. And the overall trade relationship is reaching gigantic proportions, therefore is becoming crucial to both sides. The EU accounted for about 40 percent of Russia's total trade last year. The EU exported goods worth some $25 billion to Russia last year. That makes Russia the EU's third biggest trade partner, not far behind Japan at $30 billion dollars, though well behind the U.S. at over $110 billion.

According to EU sources, Brussels' strategy to help stabilize the situation in Russia is to broaden the base of economic cooperation as much as possible, on the premise that countries with mutual trade interests don't lightly come into conflict. That emphasis, called "economic rapprochement", differs from the traditional preoccupation with security issues in dealing with Moscow. Areas of cooperation being actively pursued include industrial projects, space applications, science and technology projects, and customs and legal matters.