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EU: Swedish Presidency Tries To Revitalize Relations With Russia

European Union foreign ministers are due Monday to approve a working plan for relations with Russia during the next six months. The plan, proposed by Sweden, the EU's new president, shows the EU ready for a radical overhaul of the relationship, although analysts doubt whether Russia itself is equally up to the task.

Brussels, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in nearly 300 years, Sweden is again seeking to shape European policy toward Russia. But instead of its 18th-century expansionist empire, Sweden now leads the European Union.

Until the late 1990s, most EU policy toward Russia was conducted bilaterally by individual member states. But in 1997, the EU's Amsterdam Treaty set up the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy, leading to the adoption two years later of a Common Strategy on Russia.

The implementation of the Common Strategy falls to the EU's six-month rotating presidency, which plays an important role in determining the immediate priorities in the EU's relations with Russia.

Last year's Portuguese and French presidencies largely put Russia on the back burner. Both gave high priority to the EU's relations with the Mediterranean region and internal EU reform, and Russia was kept at arm's length as a result of the war in Chechnya and perceived corruption in the country.

The new Swedish presidency has promised to breathe new life into the relationship. Prime Minister Goeran Persson, addressing the European Parliament this week (Jan 17), presented a detailed list of tasks to give substance to the 1999 Common Strategy.

"In concrete terms, we would like to see a deepened dialogue between the EU and Russia in political as well as economic and legal matters. We will develop cooperation aimed at crisis prevention, handle crises and promote disarmament and non-proliferation. We will promote Russia's integration into the world economy, supporting, among other things, Russia's ambition to join the WTO [World Trade Organization]."

Persson went on to say Sweden particularly wants to revitalize cooperation with Russia in fighting environmental threats and the spread of organized crime -- both important regional concerns for Stockholm.

To achieve these goals, Sweden has prepared a detailed working plan for the next six months, due to be adopted Monday (Jan 22) by EU foreign ministers in Brussels. The plan -- a copy of which was obtained by our correspondent -- reflects a distinctly practical, down-to-earth approach.

To consolidate democracy and the rule of law in Russia, Sweden wants to strengthen the country's civil society through support of independent media, non-governmental organizations, and trade unions.

To integrate Russia into the European economic area, the working plan envisages a series of meetings and international seminars to promote reforms in various sectors of the economy.

Such attention to detail could prove to be a weakness, however. Michael Emerson, an analyst at the Brussels-based Center for Policy Studies, notes that although the EU's rotating presidency plays a crucial role in setting the agenda for the Union's policy toward Russia, the six months at its disposal is a short time. He also says that a number of the more practical, regionally-oriented Swedish projects, such as assisting in the recovery of the sunken "Kursk" submarine, run the risk of being turned down by Russia.

"It may be that the 'Kursk' [submarine] catastrophe will loosen up Russia's willingness to accept assistance. Russia is requesting assistance on the 'Kursk' recovery. But for the Murmansk nuclear submarine hazard in general, there has been over the last years a very serious problem: The Russians have been extremely sticky and difficult [about] Western partners -- not only just the EU, but Norway' and the U.S. -- [getting into Murmansk matters]. I mean, [Russia's] so-called security concerns have made it very difficult to achieve meaningful progress."

Emerson also says Russia has so far not been very responsive to the EU's Northern Dimension program, promoted by countries like Finland and Sweden to provide development aid to northwestern Russia. He points to the fact that Moscow still lacks a coherent strategy for its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea.

Where Russia has shown greater interest is in the more general issues of energy cooperation and the EU's nascent defense policy. Here, the Swedish presidency's policy paper has little to say beyond recommending "wider" or "closer" dialogue. Emerson says that both energy cooperation and defense are areas where the EU itself has yet to work out a coherent policy toward Russia. According to him, energy cooperation is a particularly sensitive example.

"I think the whole question of energy cooperation as a political initiative is at a very immature stage at the moment. The European Union on its side, and [President Romano] Prodi's [European] Commission in particular, have not yet come up with tangible propositions of importance. It's still really rather vague talk."

Emerson says that Russia's approach to energy cooperation has so far been determined by what he calls "primitive national interest," consisting of attempts to carve out a zone of geopolitical influence.

If so, this would seem to leave the EU ill-prepared in the long run to meet Russia on its own ground. In Moscow yesterday (Thursday), visiting EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said the Union has no use for what he called "geopolitical zones of influence."