What to do about Russia?

What to do about Russia?

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
22 October 2006

Perhaps the most important challenge for EU foreign policy is to develop a more unified approach to Russia. The EU member-states have very similar interests in Russia. We all want Russia to develop a strong and successful economy that welcomes foreign investment. We want Russia to be a reliable supplier of energy. We want the slide towards authoritarianism to be reversed. We want Russia to be an ally in the fight against terrorism and in opposing the proliferation of dangerous weapons. And we want Russia to respect the sovereignty and independence of the countries that are in our common neighbourhood.

At President Vladimir Putin's dinner with EU leaders in Finland yesterday, the latter will have made an effort to appear united in their view of Russia. Yet the reality is that there is no effective common policy. Britain, France, Germany and Italy have run separate policies, each at various times seeking a special relationship with President Vladimir Putin. These bilateral relationships have been competitive - and Putin has played the member-states off against each other skillfully.

In recent years two of Putin's best friends, Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi, have left office. Yet the EU still divides into three distinct groups over dealings with Russia: the "pro- Russian" camp led by France, Germany, Italy and others; the "anti-Russian camp" led by Poland and the Baltic states; and others in the middle, such as Britain. Whenever the EU tries to develop a line on Russia, or react to a specific event - such as the Russian blockade of Georgia in October 2006 - the EU proves unable to agree on anything other than the most anodyne of statements. Some of the EU's most influential member-states simply do not want the EU to do anything that might upset Russia. As a result the EU's special representative for the Caucasus, Peter Semneby, is hamstrung by the council of ministers' inability to give him a meaningful mandate.

The EU does have a working relationship with Russia on technical matters, and will for example open negotiations on a new partnership and co-operation agreement in late 2006. The Commission takes the lead in dealing with Russia on important issues like trade and visas. However, the Kremlin always prefers - if it can - to work through bilateral relationships with the key member-states. The EU as a whole has proved unable to develop a coherent political strategy for dealing with Russia. This is unfortunate, given Russia's importance to the EU - as an energy supplier, as a market, and as a neighbour with a global foreign policy.

Russia is proving an increasingly difficult partner for the EU. It is proud of its new role as an energy super-power but, apparently believing that it does not need help in developing its hydrocarbon resources, seems to be doing its best to push out foreign firms. Its political system is increasingly authoritarian. Stung by the "colour" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia is focused on ensuring that similar events do not unfold in other former Soviet republics. It also seems to be trying to undermine the relatively democratic regimes in Georgia and Ukraine.

The EU must make a serious effort to forge a common approach to Russia. The imminent departure of Chirac should make this easier, since his personal involvement has prevented French policy, and thus EU policy, from being critical of Putin. The emphasis of a new EU policy should be to:

•Always talk to Russia. The EU and Russia have so many interests in common, that we must always be in close contact, whatever happens inside the country.

•Make clear to Russia that the quality of the EU-Russia relationship, and the closeness of the institutional links that the EU is willing to offer Russia, will depends on European perceptions of whether Russia shares European values.

•Recognise that we lack the ability to influence Russia's domestic policy. If the Russian government abuses human rights we should complain, but not expect to change its behaviour. The best hope for changing the internal politics of Russia would be the example of a successful and prosperous democracy in Ukraine.

•Ask Russia to help in sorting out some of the key problems of international politics, such as the Iranian nuclear programme. Russia likes to see itself as a great power and should be treated as such, when it can be helpful.

The most important priority of all for the EU should be to focus on the neighbourhood that we share with Russia. The EU must resist any Russia attempt to reintegrate neighbours such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine into its political system, especially if in doing so it seeks to undermine the relatively pluralistic societies that have emerged in some of them. The EU and its member states must be unrelenting in pointing out to Russia that it has an interest in seeing strong, prosperous, democratic and independent countries on its borders.

We should argue against Russia's tendency to treat the politics of our common neighbourhood as a zero-sum game: senior figures in the Russian government seem to believe that a neighbour which develops strong and independent political institutions is bad for Russia, while one that is weak and authoritarian must be good for it. We should stress that what we care about in these countries is the democratic process: so long as elections are free and fair, it is not important whether the prime minister elected is pro-Russian or prowestern. But we should point out that if Russia persists with its zero sum approach, seeking to undermine the regimes of its neighbours, we will be obliged to respond by supporting those regimes.

The EU cannot feasibly offer membership to its eastern neighbours, for the foreseeable future. Nor should it be in a hurry to extend NATO to the likes of Ukraine and Georgia, which would be a step too far. That would provoke Russia to an unnecessary degree, and - because of the US's involvement in NATO - would complicate the EU's relations with Russia in their common neighbourhood. But the EU does need to take these countries much more seriously than it has done. Too few ministers or prime ministers from EU governments visit them.

The EU should increase aid to the regimes under pressure, and to democracy-building NGOs throughout the region. We should seek to bind the more democratic countries closer to the EU through an enhanced neighbourhood policy, for example by asking them to join the common foreign and security policy.

The long-term destiny of the borderlands between the EU and Russia is unclear. They could move closer to the EU, or become dominated by Russian authoritarianism. To its credit, the US has taken this region rather more seriously than have many EU governments. But the EU should not leave the US to sort out Europe's far east or the southern Caucasus. All the Europeans share an interest in ensuring that political and economic liberalism take root in the EU's eastern periphery. There are few greater challenges for EU foreign policy