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Bonhomie All Around At EU-Russia Summit

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) and EU Council President Herman van Rompuy (to his left) with other dignitaries during a cruise on the Don River in Rostov-na-Donu on May 31.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) and EU Council President Herman van Rompuy (to his left) with other dignitaries during a cruise on the Don River in Rostov-na-Donu on May 31.
For the first time in more than a decade, the EU-Russia relationship can now be described as settled.

Emerging from their two-day summit this afternoon, Russian and EU leaders had nothing tangible to show for their efforts. It wasn't the first time. What was different, however, was that both parties are now taking the lack of progress in stride, and focusing instead on keeping the relationship alive.

In a sense, this represents a victory for the EU, whose entire common foreign policy is arguably predicated on the importance of dialogue at all costs. And if the bloc walked away from the summit with no achievements to trumpet, it hadn't given anything away either.

This applies, above all, to visa-free travel. Moscow has been angling since 2003 for a clear road map to eliminating EU visas. But its hopes where quashed yet again in Rostov-na-Donu.

Still, President Dmitry Medvedev was remarkably sanguine at the post-summit press conference, saying the decision had less to do with Russia, and more to do with persistent squabbling among the EU's 27 member states.

"There exist the separate positions held by the governments of the member states of the EU," Medvedev said. "In my view, this for the most part has to do with our history, not with the situation as it is -- because as I see it, the abolition of visas would entail no security threats."

Russia, Medvedev reiterated, would be prepared to drop its own travel-document requirements for EU citizens "tomorrow."

'List Of Common Steps...'

Medvedev's lack of rancor -- unusual in a Russian leader on this issue -- could perhaps be attributed to deft behind-the-scenes footwork by the EU in convincing Moscow it has nothing to gain from confrontation.

Visa-free travel remains, even under the best of circumstances, a long-term goal -- and one that can't be reached before Russia has cleared a long list of technical "benchmarks," ranging from rooting out corruption and crime to ensuring its travel documents are counterfeit-proof.

In a statement, the EU said that "work will now begin on preparing a list of common steps for a visa-free travel regime." In short, Russia may have failed to receive the political signal it expected, but it did receive a commitment from the EU to guide it toward meeting the necessary conditions.

The demand by Poland and other eastern EU member states that the six Eastern Partnership countries -- Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- must be given equal treatment with Russia also seems to have dampened enthusiasm within the EU.

But Russia's main problem seems to be the absence of committed champions within the EU for quick-track visa-free travel. Even Germany, traditionally Russia's closest ally, is wary of opening borders under current conditions to the millions of Russians that would be expected to take advantage of visa-free travel. Concern for domestic security easily trumps the potential political benefits of a better relationship with Russia in most, if not all, member states.

Lots Of Back-Patting

There was another aspect to the Rostov-na-Donu meeting that allowed EU leaders to walk away with their heads held high: an open discussion of Russia's human rights record and democratic standards. Moscow bristles at such sermonizing, but the president of the EU Council, Herman van Rompuy, said the topic could not be avoided.

"The situation for human rights defenders and journalists in Russia is of great concern to the European public at large," van Rompuy said. "Another matter of concern, which I noted was shared by the president [Medvedev], is the climate of impunity, in particular [in] Chechnya and other areas of the North Caucasus."

Asked for further details, van Rompuy said only he had made "exactly the same remarks" in the meeting itself. The ambiguity inherent in the wording of van Rompuy's remarks -- which fall short of direct criticism -- may have been intended to soften the blow for the Russian side.

Overall, there was no shortage of friendly pats on the back at the press conference. Van Rompuy described Russia as a "real strategic partner" for the EU, with no "reset" but a "fast-forward button" required. Medvedev, in turn, said the partnership with the EU was a "basic" relationship for Russia.

Significantly, the sides issued a joint declaration condemning Israel's attack on the Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza. Van Rompuy also spoke of "full agreement" on Iran's nuclear policy.

...And Silence

But on more divisive issues -- like the exchange the two sides had on their shared ex-Soviet neighborhood -- van Rompuy once again used ambiguity to great effect.

"The European Union and Russia share common interest in improving the security, stability, and prosperity in our common neighborhood," van Rompuy said. "History and geography have made us different, but also neighbors. We are dependent on each other, and on the well-being of our neighbors. This has become a common spirit of our continent. In this respect, we would like to see a more constructive role played by Russia, including implementation of all its earlier commitments, especially with regard to Georgia."

Medvedev did not broach the topic at the press conference.

In a characteristic effort to gloss over their differences, the two sides signed a declaration establishing a modernization partnership. Medvedev described it as a drive to boost cooperation in an array of high-tech sectors that includes an element of alignment with technical EU "regulations."

Van Rompuy, on the other hand, said the goal of the partnership is to guide Russia's "modernization ambition" toward becoming a 21st-century country based on democratic values, in possession of a diversified and dynamic economy with the active involvement of civil society.