BRUSSELS -- The summit on May 31-June 1 between the European Union and Russia is the first of the new decade for Moscow and Brussels.
The gathering, in the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, also appears to mark a turning point in relations between the two sides.
The tensions that characterized the summits of the mid-2000s -- at a time when the EU was taking in 10 former Soviet-bloc nations -- have dissipated. So has the torpor that set in toward the end of the decade, as the EU bogged down in internal constitutional disputes and Russia, riding a global energy boom, lost interest in upgrading its relations with the bloc.
"The mood music is very different this time around," says Andrew Wilson, a senior analyst with the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations. Wilson says the seeds for change were sown at the last EU summit in Stockholm in November 2009.
"The Stockholm summit, the last summit, seemed to mark a lot of the burying of differences," Wilson says. "But now may be the time to set a more positive agenda."'Newly Pragmatic'
Wilson, enumerating the changes, notes that on the EU side, there is the Polish-Russian rapprochement begun by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and which has received further momentum in the wake of the Smolensk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and scores of top Polish officials.
The Baltic countries, too, are now "newly pragmatic," Wilson says, adding that it has also helped having Spain and Belgium -- two relatively Russia-friendly countries -- at the helm of the EU's rotating presidency this year.
Another plus has been the EU's quiet willingness to keep the spotlight off what still divides the two sides. In their pre-summit meetings, EU officials and diplomats have largely avoided topics such as human rights, the situation in the North Caucasus, and Russia's involvement in the so-called "frozen conflicts" near its borders, particularly in Georgia.
In fact, the EU's silence on such issues has been such that Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, last week felt comfortable telling journalists in Brussels he believes "there are no frozen crises left in Georgia."
Wilson also points to the leaked memo, reportedly penned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that appears to herald a less controversial stance by Russia toward the West -- even if its focus is determinedly on the promotion of bilateral alliances rather than with the EU as a whole.Adjust To Multipolar World
Pyotr Kaczynski, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says that the recent EU-Russia rapprochement also reflects a recognition on both sides that they must adjust to an increasingly multipolar world.
"Both the European Union and Russia realize that they need to get together in a closer cooperation in order to be better able to address global issues," Kaczynski says, "because they are individually falling behind the new emerging powers, such as China or India."
With this in mind, the EU and Russia are expected to issue a joint declaration outlining a new modernization partnership at Rostov-na-Donu. However, divergences over what such a partnership might mean expose remaining differences.
The EU expects it to be an avenue for coaxing Russia to accept structural economic reforms, built around market principles. Russia, on the other hand, appears to be keen to tap into Western technology and know-how in highly selected fields in order to advance its own aims.
Chizhov in his remarks suggested that the Partnership for Modernization will not be about "an all-knowing EU descending [on Russia] like a god from the skies." Instead, Moscow expects the two sides to pool resources in fields like space exploration, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and communications technology.'Practical Cooperation'
Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes that bridging the gap between two concepts -- technology transfer and structural reforms -- will be "key to getting it right." In terms of positive experience, he points to Germany, which of all the EU member states has the most advanced industrial partnership with Russia. This stems, he says, from Berlin's success in moving "away from lofty high political talk towards practical cooperation."
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski
In any case, Wilson says, cooperation is only possible if both sides see benefits in it. A lot of it, he says, "will come down to hard commerce."
Kaczynski notes that the main problem in EU-Russia relations so far has been one of trust. He identifies Poland's changing position as a vital element in the rejuvenation of the EU-Russia partnership.
"Poland seems to be, for a couple of years, [coming] closer and closer to understanding that there is a need for a pragmatic relationship between the EU and Russia, and accepts that more and more," he said.Concessions For Solid Returns
Wilson notes that Poland's ability to forge a consensus with Germany will be key in determining its ability to shape the EU's Eastern policy.
But Poland also remains wary. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was the most vocal of his EU colleagues during a May 10 discussion of the summit's prospects, warning that the bloc should only offer concessions in exchange for solid returns.
In particular, he highlighted the EU's decision on whether to offer Russia visa-free travel -- a key Moscow goal -- as "currency" that the bloc should spend wisely.
The visa issue is highly symbolic, given that the bloc has so far refused to grant the same privilege to closer partners like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, despite their membership in the European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership initiative.
Officials in Brussels say that Russia is likely to get a "road map" at the summit laying out specific EU conditions, but no deadline, for a waiver of the visa requirement. A three-page summit preview issued by the Kremlin this weekend makes no mention of the visa issue, suggesting the Russian side may be disappointed the road map does not offer a concrete timeline.
Ukraine is expected to receive a similar plan soon afterwards, and Moldova is believed to be close to an offer as well.
Such a gesture may be seen as placating the Eastern Partnership countries. But, as Wilson notes, handing a privilege to Russia, which has no obligation to institute reforms, before extending it to smaller post-Soviet countries that do could set a risky precedent.
"There is a danger in a kind of quid pro quo approach," Wilson says. "If Russia gets a road map for visa-free [travel] and the same is offered to countries like Ukraine, then that can undermine the basic conditionality principles. But that seems to be the way we're going."
Ultimately, present EU policy means both Russia and the more advanced neighbors will get both visa-free travel and free-trade agreements. But until that happens, the process will be seen as highly competitive by the participants and there will inevitably be losers as well as winners.
Most notable among the losers will be Georgia. Despite Tbilisi's slipping democratic standards, the country prides itself on its record as a prolific reformer. To fall too far behind Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova in the visa stakes would strip Georgia of valuable psychological ammunition in its continuing struggle with Moscow.