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Russia And The EU After Lisbon

Just last month not very many people either in the European Union or anywhere else really seemed to believe the Lisbon treaty would be ratified. And the bloc’s prickliest neighbor, Russia, also seemed in denial about the treaty’s prospects until the very last moment. After all, the situation with the referendum in Ireland seemed to be playing out exactly as it did in 2008, when the “Yes” camp’s slight edge was swamped by a surprising surge of “No” voters on the day of the vote.

A lack of preparation may explain Moscow’s contradictory reaction: the strangely prompt and overly enthusiastic Foreign Ministry statement that impelled Russian analysts to wonder why Moscow was so interested in the EU reform treaty.

The same day, some normally well-informed Russian media reported speculation that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would be replaced before the end of the year. Analysts noted that such rumors had never touched Lavrov before, but they seemed to fit in with the old Soviet tradition of punishing officials for setbacks in the areas they oversee.

Of course, it is unlikely that Lavrov was responsible for the setback, despite persistent speculation that Moscow may have provided hidden financing to the anti-Lisbon campaign in Ireland. Rather it was an emotional reaction to unexpected developments, and the rumors about Lavrov’s purported departure were quickly quashed.

Although experts in the West generally agree that the Lisbon treaty won’t change the dynamic of relations between the EU and Russia, analysts in Moscow differ. The prevailing view in Russia is that the treaty could ultimately thwart Russia’s tactic of dealing with EU countries separately and of playing them against one another to promote its own interests. The biggest fear in Moscow is that EU consolidation will mean that Russia will have to play by the EU’s rules in the future.

The Lisbon treaty is the first EU accord containing a section on an energy policy that sets common ground rules for the functioning of the energy market. This innovation, if it becomes reality, will restrict Russia’s ability to take advantage of conflicting interests among EU members.

Spirit Of Solidarity

Another novelty of the Lisbon treaty is its so-called solidarity clause, stipulating joint action in the spirit of solidarity if any member state is the target of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The clause could be invoked in the event of a Russian gas shutoff that affected EU members.

The solidarity clause also throws up an obstacle to the idea of a pan-European collective-security treaty that has been assertively promoted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The clause virtually replicates NATO’s Article 5, making senseless Medvedev’s appeals to EU countries “as individual countries leaving aside any allegiances to blocs or other groups” and his insistence that “national interests stripped bare of any distorting ideological motivations” must be the starting point for his proposed treaty. It seems that solidarity is exactly what Moscow has in mind when it speaks of “distorting ideologies.”

The solidarity clause would also make further EU enlargement the same kind of “red line” for Moscow that NATO expansion has been. Russia’s harsh reaction in May to the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which is labeled as an attempt to set up a “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet bloc, clearly demonstrates Moscow’s sensitivity in this area.

If the Lisbon treaty had failed, the already fractured EU would have been demoralized and disoriented, unable to accept or even to attract new members. Its “soft-power” attraction as a successful model for post-Soviet countries and the Balkans states has been on the wane in the last year, the Eastern Partnership notwithstanding. This has been accompanied by a proportional strengthening of Russian influence. With the Lisbon treaty in place, the EU at least has a fighting chance to challenge Russia as the regional power in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

After the Lisbon treaty passed last month, Moscow froze its negotiations on an EU Partnership Agreement. The Kremlin had intended for that accord to be largely symbolic -- a short declaration of good intentions, with all the real issues being shifted to the level of bilateral talks with individual member states. The EU insisted that the agreement cover energy cooperation, but Russia prefers to deal on energy issues with each country separately.

Waiting For A President

Another reason to pause the negotiations was to await the announcement of the new EU president. Russia has repeatedly declared its preference for less “ideological” and more “pragmatic” relations. The current Swedish EU presidency -- with its emphasis on democratic values and human rights -- does not fit the Kremlin’s model. Moscow is not just passively hoping for more a compatible presidency under Lisbon, but is acting behind the scenes, using its “soft power” of money and promises in a bid to secure a “pragmatic” EU presidency.

For instance, the name of veteran British diplomat Chris Patten was dropped from the list of potential foreign-minister candidates, in large part because he is seen as “too tough on Russia.” British Foreign Secretary David Milliband, who has withdrawn from contention, is also clearly not “pragmatic” enough for Moscow’s taste.

In recent days, the name of British cabinet secretary Peter Mandelson has increasingly come to the fore. The powerful and mysterious Mandelson has been associated with Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, admitting that he has met with Deripaska repeatedly since 2004 while refusing divulge the content of those meetings.

If the key posts in the reformed EU are filled by people with “pragmatic” approaches to Russia, what can be expected? Russian analysts have already begun pointing to the weaknesses of the Lisbon treaty. They predict that the treaty’s “enhanced cooperation” potentially is a very divisive force for the EU and could lead to a “two-speed” Europe.

While informally lobbying for the position of EU foreign minister this week, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini stated that “post-Lisbon Europe needs a European army.” The treaty’s provision for “reinforced cooperation” provides for this, if at least nine members agree to participate. Frattini said Italy would push for this option. (Italy’s Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi has close personal ties to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.) Such a division would open up the possibility of forming an “energy-based” alliance of the “first-speed” core European countries with Russia, weakening Euro-Atlantic ties and strengthening Russian influence across the continent.

The decisions Europe makes this week could be decisive for the bloc’s future and for the future of its eastern neighbors. If the EU wishes to remain a values-based community, it must choose leaders who are committed to those values rather than to “pragmatic” relations with Russia. The EU’s strength is not in its army, but in its unity and its moral authority. Only a united Europe committed to democratic values and human rights can help Russia overcome its authoritarian complexes and become a modern, European country.

Irina Severin is a journalist and political analyst based in Chisinau. The views expressed in this commentary are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.