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EU-Russia Rapprochement Set To Continue

Seeing eye-to-eye? German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the government guest house, Schloss Meseberg, north of Berlin
BRUSSELS -- Although they remain cautious, diplomats in Brussels say last week's EU-Russia summit could be the harbinger of a more positive era in relations between Moscow and Brussels.

EU officials have deemed the summit a success, describing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's demeanor in Rostov-na-Donu as more "constructive" than ever before.

That summit was quickly followed by a meeting between Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this past weekend in the German town of Meseberg. EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels on June 8 are considering the fruits of that meeting -- a joint security-policy initiative that its supporters say will boost cooperation between Brussels and Moscow on foreign policy issues.

The flurry of activity is seen in the EU capital as good news: a signal that Russia, which for years effectively ignored EU attempts to improve bilateral ties, is changing its tactics -- even if it is changing its demands as well.

Pet Project

In Rostov-na-Donu, Medvedev surprised the EU by indicating progress is possible in traditionally controversial areas like trade, energy, and wider reforms.

Medvedev then used the meeting with Merkel to ask the EU to back his European security-reform agenda, a pet project of the Russian president's that bloc leaders -- particularly in the east -- have sidestepped, portraying it as a Moscow salvo against NATO.

EU officials said Medvedev's demeanor in Rostov-na-Donu was more "constructive" than ever.
But in Meseberg, Medvedev appeared newly aware of EU sensitivities and offered to promote his agenda within established EU structures and to focus on EU priorities.

The resulting Medvedev-Merkel memorandum foresees the creation of an EU-Russia political and security committee with the participation of the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (As of now, regular EU-Russia dialogue is held at the ambassadorial level.)

The memorandum says closer EU-Russia collaboration could lead to "joint contributions" in crisis regulation, particularly in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, which has been a long-term headache for the EU.

'Positive Resonance'

Germany's role in the proposal virtually guarantees it will succeed. Merkel on June 6 threw her political weight behind the plan, saying she hoped it could find "positive resonance within the entire European Union," the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported. Higher-level cooperation with Russia would allow "difficult" situations to be handled better in the future, she said.

However, Moscow must first dispel fears among some of the member states that Russia's real aim is to weaken NATO. Recognizing this, Medvedev noted in Rostov-na-Donu that his initiative is not meant to erode NATO's position in Europe. According to EU diplomats, the Russian president said he wants to move "beyond Corfu" -- a reference to an OSCE debate on the issue held on the Greek island in June 2009. To achieve this, Medvedev said direct contacts are needed between Russia, the EU, and the United States.

This, however, is likely to disappoint the EU's eastern member states, many of which suspect Moscow of trying to shut out Ukraine and Georgia from the discussions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
In another sign that Russia's change in tactics does not necessarily reflect a change in underlying aims or views, Lavrov was described by EU diplomats as having adopted an "attacking" stance on Georgia, Kosovo, and Transdniester during the summit with the EU.

Russia 'Vindicated'

The Russian foreign minister was said to have suggested that Romania is refusing to sign a border treaty with Moldova in the hope of annexing the country together with Transdniester. During a brief discussion on Georgia, Lavrov argued that last year's report into the causes of the Russian-Georgia war by the Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini had completely vindicated Russia. He also referred to Kosovo as an EU-backed precedent for secession and accused Tbilisi of remilitarization.

But more significantly for the EU, Moscow has decided to back the West on Iran and its nuclear program -- at least for the time being. At their meeting last weekend, Medvedev agreed with Merkel that the time is ripe for new sanctions against Tehran.

Officials in Brussels also highlight a series of conciliatory gestures made by Medvedev in Rostov-na-Donu. There, the Russian president said he is prepared to take Russia into the World Trade Organization separately from Kazakhstan and Belarus -- with which the country had a customs union. He also suggested Russia could be persuaded to return to the framework of the EU's long-standing Energy Charter if it's modified to equally guarantee the rights of producer, transit, and consumer countries. This, EU officials say, would represent a major breakthrough. Medvedev also said he was "open to EU ideas" on modernizing the country.

Conspicuously, the Russian side also offered only a muted response to human rights concerns raised by the EU. Moscow often counterattacks by pointing to the Baltic states' treatment of their Russian-speaking minorities, but on this occasion remained tellingly silent.

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