This piece was first published in EUObserver on 21 May 2009
For years all observers of EU-Russia relations got used to waiting with angst the next EU-Russia summit (which happens twice a year under each presidency). All recent EU-Russia summits had some spice to them. In May 2007, under the German presidency, Angela Merkel took a principled stance on democracy and played tough with Putin. A few days after that summit, Jose Socrates, the Portuguese PM (and the next EU presidency) was offered the best diplomatic treatment in Moscow – the Kremlin was closed to visitors so that Jose Socrates could jog in the inner sanctum of the Russian state. After that, many expected the EU-Russia summit under the Portuguese presidency to step back from Merkel’s principled stance on Russia. Then there was the first EU-Russia summit with president Medvedev in June 2008 when many hoped it would be the beginning of a post-Putin era; and then the first summit after the Georgia war under the French presidency in November 2008.
But there is little spice in the EU-Russia summit taking place in Khabarovsk on 21 May. It seems like a very quiet event. There is not angst, no media hype, no nerves and little hope around it. Why?
First, the EU accepts Russia as it is. The political regime in Russia is consolidated. There is little hope of changing it in the foreseeable future. There is little desire or hope to try and transform Russia. The EU accepts that Russia’s transformation is Russia’s business, and has little appetite to voice concerns related to Russian domestic developments (which have gone quieter since Chechnya is kind of stabilized and “the Other Russia” does not protest anymore). Germans hope to transform Russia through “interlocking” and modernization, not through diplomacy, while most others want to do business or are demotivated.
Two, the energy tensions have been effectively taken off the EU-Russia agenda. Russia sought to bilateralize its dealings on Nord and South Stream with Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary etc. And wants to see no EU fiddling around these cosy deals. The only Russian energy interest in the EU as an institution is defensive – make sure the EU does not push for its measures to liberalize the energy markets. Berlusconi and Parvanov are nicer energy interlocutors than Barroso and Solana. The EU has also taken the thrust of energy talks from the EU-Russia agenda. Some states have bilateral dealings with Russia, some others push for Nabucco. The European Commission and some EU member states also push for the liberalization of the energy markets. When everyone is trying to achieve their energy objectives through other channels and means, the EU-Russia summits become places to exchange opinions, rather than do “real business” on energy. But the Swedish government should issue a verdict on Nord Stream soon, most probably under the Swedish EU presidency. Expect the next EU-Russia summit in Sweden to be very spicy, if the Swedish answer is “nej”.
Third, the news coming from Russia and EU member states is quieter. Partly it is Medvedev’s style (who doesn’t plan so far to “hang by the balls” post-Soviet presidents, or offer circumcision to EU journalists as Putin did at the EU-Russia summit under the Danish presidency in 2002); partly it is related to changes in approaches to Russia in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and the like; partly, it is the economic crisis that made Russia a little bit less abrasive in public (though the essence of its foreign policy has not changed). In any case there are fewer public disputes between EU member states and Russia.
The relative calm of the EU-Russia relationship today is no indicator of a structurally better partnership. The list of disagreements is long. But some of them are technical, while others are unbridgeable (like Georgia’s conflicts). The hope is to discuss to leave some of these issues for the negotiations on the new EU-Russia agreement, and the others for the talks on a new European security architecture. No one will put them at the centre of the current summit. The quiet summit is perhaps an indicator of mutual disappointment. But also of the fact that the new era of EU-Russia tensions will be increasingly marked not by what Russia is, but by developments in the neighbourhood.
The recent hidden or open tensions in EU-Russia relations had their roots in crises in the neighbourhood: the August 2008 war in Georgia, the January 2009 Ukraine-Russia gas dispute, EU pressure on Belarus not to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Moldovan post-election crisis in April 2009. But then again, there is little to discuss, as both Russia and the EU are pursuing their objectives in the neighbourhood without talking to each other too much about them.
Either way, problems in the neighbourhood will not go away. But what we might witness is a situation where the EU and Russia are reasonably good partners on global issues such as Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, disarmament, energy cooperation; but increasingly tough competitors in the neighbourhood. Such competition could be managed better, but it is difficult to marry EU’s vision of a neighbourhood that becomes increasingly like the EU with Russia’s vision of the neighbourhood as a sphere of its influence.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.