At a time when eastward enlargement is one of the EU's main priorities, the union appears to be neglecting Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports this may change as Russia focuses more closely on what it wants from the EU.
Brussels, 7 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is coming under increasing pressure to define its interests with respect to Europe's other great power: Russia.
Last month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov visited Brussels and raised several concerns his country has over the EU's proposed enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe. The EU has acknowledged the need to consult Russia on enlargement, but so far has not set up any mechanism for this.
According to documents Ivanov was carrying on his visit, Russia is afraid that the EU's enlargement may cost its companies the loss of their traditional export markets.
The delegation also raised the issue of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave wedged between two EU aspirant countries: Lithuania and Poland. Russia says the area should be given special treatment after enlargement, including visa-free movement for Russian citizens through EU territory between Kaliningrad and Russia proper.
He says Kaliningrad should receive additional EU aid in order to avoid the emergence of a "socio-economic gap" between the enclave and its neighbors.
Although the EU in the past has frequently spoken of its "strategic partnership" with Russia, Ivanov's visit appears to have caught the union without a clear Russian strategy.
Russia currently receives only a small portion of the EU's aid to the former Soviet Union, administered through the TACIS program. And the current EU French presidency so far has neglected the EU's "Northern Dimension" proposal for northwestern Russia -- arguably its most ambitious Russian initiative to date.
The Northern Dimension policy, sponsored by Finland and Sweden, covers issues such as nuclear safety, the environment, international crime, and the future of Kaliningrad. The project is now likely to remain in limbo until Sweden takes over the EU presidency next year.
Marius Vahl, a Russian expert at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says the EU's claim to have a strategic partnership with Russia is neither strategic nor a partnership:
"There is a certain lack of confidence [on the part of] the EU in their dealings with Russia. They [the EU] don't really try very hard when there seem to be openings -- the Northern Dimension pilot region [scheme] is one thing. I mean, you don't get the impression that they've actually tried to push to see how far they could go with Russia."
Sweden has already said its presidency is going to pay particular attention to Kaliningrad. Swedish official indicate they will re-examine the idea of making Kaliningrad a Russian "pilot region" within the EU. This idea was first proposed by Moscow a few years ago, but has been largely ignored by the EU.
Vahl says the EU, however, is still ill-prepared to grapple with the most sensitive issues of regional security.
He points out that the Northern Dimension initiative, while far-ranging, makes no mention of the security situation in the region or of neighboring Belarus, a close ally of Russia. Poland is already a member of NATO and Lithuania is pressing to join the alliance.
"To me, those two points [security policy and Belarus] are ... the two main concerns of Northern Europe. That's where things could go bad. The worst case scenario would include one of the two issues, particularly NATO enlargement. Of course, [the] EU isn't a military alliance, but they should at least be able to discuss [these things] relatively openly."
He says eventually the EU will have to address these more difficult types of issues if its relations with Russia are to develop. The situation in Kaliningrad aside, it's clear the concerns of the EU and Russia are not limited to economic matters.