Europe needs a reality check on Russia

The EU needs to develop a more realistic assessment of Russia. The often knee-jerk reactions to political developments in Moscow and oversimplified readings of Russian foreign policy inhibit a more pragmatic European approach to Russia.

Since Vladimir Putin’s re-election last year there has been growing criticism across the EU about his increasingly authoritarian leadership style. At the same time the EU, afflicted by its internal crises, is no longer seen as a credible model for Russia to emulate. Negative perceptions and stereotypes play a central role in the bilateral relationship. Frustration is generated by the fact that both sides expect very different things from the relationship, and these expectations are not currently being met on either side. In order to rectify the situation, the EU needs to develop a more realistic assessment of the current state of affairs in Russia. The often knee-jerk reactions to political developments in Russia and oversimplified readings of Russian foreign policy inhibit a more pragmatic European approach to Russia.

Indeed, Russia is much more complex and pluralistic than the dominant political discourse in Europe asserts. The near-exclusive focus on Putin’s political regime and ignorance about social processes in Russia lead to a false evaluation of the current situation. Russia does not begin and end with the authoritarian Putin who contravenes democratic norms and human rights standards, but rather consists of a society which is equally critical of its own politicians as it is of western influences. Europeans need to realise, for instance, that it is not the big questions in international politics which activate and mobilise ever more Russians, but rather the breakdown of the public sector in their towns and regions. Stagnating wages, corruption in the education system and the privatisation of the public healthcare sector unsettle Russians more than external threats, despite the claims which come out of the Kremlin.

Although EU member states cannot exert influence over domestic politics in Russia, they can change the direction of EU policy and improve its performance. The economic and social interdependence of both parties offers effective instruments for greater engagement and exchange with Russia. The EU should, therefore, reflect on its strengths and be prepared to assert its own norms and regulations where appropriate, not necessarily accept Russian directives about how the relationship should be conducted. This applies to economic and energy policy as well as issues around visas and freedom of travel.

Take the example of Gazprom, which would like to push through long-term contracts with the EU and maintain its transit monopoly on gas supplies. While this is a legitimate business strategy by no-means exclusive to the post-Soviet region, the EU does not have to accept it. With regard to infrastructure and income streams, Gazprom is much more dependent on the EU (by far its largest and most important market) than the EU is reliant on Gazprom. By reforming the EU’s energy policy with three energy packets and starting an anti-monopoly anti-trust case against Gazprom, the EU has demonstrated its desire to establish clear rules in its energy sector, which should improve both transparency and competition. If Gazprom is unwilling to accept these regulations, it will lose its share of the market. If, on the other hand, Gazprom is prepared to comply with the rules, then – like suppliers from Norway and Qatar – it should enjoy access to the European market without being singled out and demonised.

When it comes to the visa negotiations with their Eastern neighbours, EU governments should make clear to their own electorates that the facilitation of travel will improve not only economic cooperation with and the social transformation of these countries, but also the security of the EU as a whole. At the same time, European acceptance of Russian preferences in any compromise about service passports in particular would undermine the credibility of the EU within Russian society. It is crucially important that the EU controls who – and under which transparent conditions – receives a visa. The visa issue is central, so that the EU can send a message to post-Soviet societies that Europe is interested in a deeper and more meaningful exchange. However, we should not overlook that any European recognition of the post-Soviet elites’ political arrangements is an important source for the legitimisation of this class and strengthen their position domestically. 

Furthermore, the EU should learn from its mistakes in the Arab world. Instead of concentrating its efforts on stabilising authoritarian regimes, it should seek out potential partners both in the elite and society more generally. This is not a question of directing policy solely towards civil society, but rather achieving a better balance between professional relationships to political leaders and other local players in order to encourage change. In Russia, these partners are not so much the small opposition clusters of pro-western liberals, but rather the small and medium sized businesses, social actors who agree to basic universal democratic principles as well as the open and liberal part of the political elite. Establishing channels of communication with these groups is vital for a better understanding of Russia and the post-Soviet states. Communication and change is not a one-way street from Brussels to Moscow, but a reciprocal process in which different societies learn from each other. Better solutions have to be found to achieve this goal.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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