This article was originally published on 20 October on the Russian International Affairs Council website.
Has the crisis in Ukraine completely erased the idea of Greater Europe from the agendas of politicians and analysts in the West and the East of our continent? Pessimism appears to be reigning all over Europe these days. Indeed, with people being killed every day in the very centre of Europe, any talk of a new all-European security system might come off as inappropriate, if not irrelevant. With the EU and Russia exchanging sanctions and trade restrictions, how can we realistically discuss any common economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok?
With people being killed every day in the very centre of Europe, any talk of a new all-European security system might come off as inappropriate.
The current situation looks quite depressing indeed. And those who do not want to give up on Greater Europe should review and revise their approaches in view of the Ukrainian crisis. One of the realistic, albeit ambitious, priorities today might be to promote a common European or even a Euro-Atlantic humanitarian space. Though the security, economic and humanitarian dimensions of European politics are interconnected and interdependent, it is the humanitarian dimension that should receive special attention during times of trouble.
Let’s be honest: the last battle for the Russian soul was lost. All those who have tried to bring Russia closer to Europe since the late 1980s have to share responsibility: politicians and opinion makers, diplomats and educators, civil society leaders and oligarchs. The losers are those who believe that Russia belongs to Europe. The losers are those who think that liberal democracy and market economy are not part of the problem, but part of the solution. The losers are those who are convinced that globalization is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for our nation. Today they see their forces retreating in panic and disorder with their supporters losing faith in them and their former allies taking the side of their opponents.
Let’s be honest: the last battle for the Russian soul was lost.
The question of why it has turned out to be so easy to turn Russian society against the West deserves serious consideration. True, state propaganda during the last couple of months has played an important role in shaping these attitudes, but the cold reality is that the majority of Russians were ready to embrace the slogans and the ideas of state propaganda. It appears evident today that the sheer scale of humanitarian contacts between Russia and the West (the number of Russian tourists traveling to Western countries, the number of Western rock stars coming to Moscow or the number of Russian students studying in Western universities) is not immunizing Russian society from outbursts of xenophobia and anti-Western nationalism. Furthermore, superficial, sporadic and one-sided interactions with the West might even breed resentment of Western values and institutions.
But does this mean that the fight for the Russian soul is over? We do not think so. We do not believe that Russians are a unique nation with traditions, instincts and mentality radically different from other European nations. Our history was complicated and dramatic, but so was the history of many other Europeans. We experienced long periods of dictatorships, but so did others on the European continent. Russians have a deep post-imperial trauma, but what about the British, French, Spaniards or Portuguese? And, finally, is it not the case that we are seeing from time to time some spectacular manifestations of ultranationalist and anti-European moods in many EU countries – not only in new member states like Poland and Hungary, but in ‘old Europe’ as well – in France, UK or even in the Netherlands?
The sheer scale of humanitarian contacts between Russia and the West is not immunizing Russian society from outbursts of xenophobia and anti-Western nationalism.
Of course, being Russians we are doomed to be biased, but, in our opinion, it would be at least premature to write off Russian society on the basis of its current attitudes to the West. History might work in paradoxical ways: the Meiji Restoration in Japan, for instance, started with harsh anti-Western slogans and fierce campaigns against foreigners.
The fight is not over until there is no longer a will or commitment to continue the fight. But we have to learn our lessons; we have to thoroughly analyse the causes of defeat. We have to start building new coalitions, identifying new communities of stakeholders, and elaborating new development roadmaps for Russia. Time is on our side, not on the side of our opponents. The pendulum of public opinion and preferences will sooner or later return. And Russian-European humanitarian cooperation might be an important mechanism to make sure that this will happen sooner rather than later.
A key characteristic of humanitarian cooperation is its multifaceted, extremely diverse and complex nature. This cooperation includes a whole universe of directions and engaged actors, formats and levels, communities and networks. The ‘fabric’ of humanitarian ties might look thin and fragile, but it often proves to be much more ‘crisis-resistant’ than security or even economic interactions.
The fight is not over until there is no longer a will or commitment to continue the fight.
Over the last ten years, humanitarian cooperation has emerged as one of the most successful and least controversial areas of EU-Russia cooperation. Its institutional framework was set out back in 2003, when Moscow and Brussels created the Common Space of research and education, which included cultural cooperation as well. Over last ten years, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of innovative projects uniting students and scholars, civil society leaders and journalists, artists and intellectuals from Russia and Europe. These contacts have gone far beyond Moscow and Brussels, engaging participants from remote regions, small provincial towns and rural areas. Moreover, humanitarian cooperation has proved to be unquestionably beneficial for both sides.
The crisis in and around Ukraine has pushed the issue of humanitarian cooperation to the side-lines of political discussions. Experts and politicians on both sides appear to be preoccupied with other, more urgent and more critical matters. One can conclude that during these hard times, with all the risks and uncertainties involved, it makes sense to put matters of humanitarian cooperation on the shelf, until the moment when the overall political situation becomes more favourable for such cooperation. We believe that such a ‘wait and see’ approach would be a strategic mistake. It is exactly during periods of deep political crisis when interaction in education, culture and civil society should be given top priority
The Ukrainian crisis is not a compelling reason for us to abandon the strategic goal of building a common European and Euro-Atlantic humanitarian space. Of course, the crisis has made this goal much harder to achieve, but it has not changed the fundamentals: Russia is a country of European culture; it belongs to European civilization, and its scientific, education, and civil society institutions gravitate to Europe more than to any other region of the world. A common humanitarian space is not a pipe dream; it remains a natural point of destination for the West and the East of our continent. However, keeping this strategic goal in mind, we should also think about damage limitation, about how to mitigate the negative impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the fabric of the humanitarian cooperation between Russia and Europe. Two urgent tasks appear to be of particular importance in the midst of the crisis.
First, it is necessary to protect the on-going humanitarian cooperation from becoming yet another bargaining chip in the game of sanctions and counter-sanctions. To the greatest extent possible, the humanitarian dimension of the EU – Russia relations should be insulated from negative developments along security, political and economic dimensions.
Russia is a country of European culture; it belongs to European civilization, and its scientific, education, and civil society institutions gravitate to Europe more than to any other region of the world.
Second, humanitarian cooperation should be used to counter inflammatory rhetoric, the projection of oversimplified and false images, and the spread of Manichean black and white views on European politics that we are seeing emerge both in the East and in the West. We should not harbour any illusions: if current trends in public moods in Russia and in EU are not reversed, it will be extremely difficult to restore our relations, even when the Ukrainian crisis is resolved.
There are many specific actions needed to accomplish these tasks. We should try to promote ‘success stories’ in Russia-Europe humanitarian cooperation, which we have accumulated in abundance in various fields. We should oppose any attempts to tighten the visa regime between Russia and EU. We should encourage more contacts between Russian and EU regions, sister-cities and municipalities, including trans-border contacts. We should invest heavily into youth exchanges and schoolchildren and student mobility. We should upgrade cooperation between Russian and European independent think tanks and research centres. We should broaden existing channels for and the range of participants in EU-Russia NGO interactions, making sure that these interactions are not monopolized by any particular group of institutions with their specific political agendas. We should explore ways on how to make cultural diplomacy more efficient between the East and the West of Europe. We should pay special attention to building more contacts between Russia and EU media. We should investigate opportunities associated with cultural tourism.
The list of immediate actions can go on further. These actions might look less spectacular than a highly publicized security agreement or a multi-billion euro energy deal. But we should never forget that, at the end of the day, relations between Russia and the West are not limited to contacts between state leaders, diplomats, uniformed men or even between business tycoons. These relations are mostly about ordinary people – their fears and hopes, frustrations and expectations, day to day lives and plans for the future. Without the human factor, nothing else is likely to work.
Andrei Kortunov is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, and Irina Busygina is a Professor of the Comparative Politics Department at MGIMO University.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.