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Friday, April 24, 2009

An EU realpolitik to unravel the riddle of unruly Russia

Russia’s behaviour is neither unfathomable nor about to change for the better, says Tunne Kelam, an Estonian MEP who is part of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. He warns that as Moscow always acts in its own national interest, it’s left to the EU to insist on the international rule of law

Europe’s view of Russia frequently reflects misconceptions. Either people hide behind Winston Churchill’s famous (but often misrepresented) comment that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” or they betray a naïve optimism about Moscow’s understanding of democracy and the rule of law.

Neither of these views reflects the true nature of Russia and neither does the European Union any favours as it tries – and fails – to establish a working relationship with its increasingly assertive neighbour. What Europe needs is a healthy and robust realpolitik, one that is free from illusions about the giant next door. Past experience shows there is nothing mysterious about Russia’s pursuit of its national (even imperialist) interests. The trick for Europe is to counter-balance Russian self-interest, and this means the EU has to agree on – and jointly promote – Europe’s own interests, and to channel relations with Moscow into an international framework that upholds the rule of law.

The danger of taking Churchill’s phrase at face value has been clear enough for some 80 years, especially at times of crisis. Western leaders have used it as an excuse for making ignoble compromises which by-passed western values. Eastern, central and south-eastern Europe suffered the tragic results of these compromises after World War II. The “Russian riddle” mindset is still to be found in the confusion and hesitation of Western policymakers who often desperately try to reconcile their strategic and pragmatic interests with a democratic code of conduct – even though Russia mostly ignores such international standards.

Viewing Russian behaviour as a riddle also reinforces Moscow’s traditional standpoint that it is a country with a unique role in history that places it outside any existing political or national models. Moscow expects people to make an exception in Russia’s case, and its refusal to ratify and implement the Energy Charter (after having signed it without reservations) was just one example of this conduct. When the EU prevaricates in its condemnation of Russia’s broken promises, it just reinforces the Kremlin’s accusations about European double standards.

It would be far better if Europe rigorously applied internationally-recognised standards when judging Moscow’s actions. These standards should include reciprocity based on common democratic values and the rule of law. There was a chance to start implementing such a policy in 1991 when the West had “won” the Cold War. Instead, the West fell for the second great illusion about Russia, that provided it had the opportunity, enough freedom and plenty of Western goodwill it would almost automatically transform itself into a democratic society and respect the rule of law. This optimistic view ignored the question of whether post-Soviet Russia had sufficient good will of its own to make such a transition, even when it refused to make moral or political judgements about its totalitarian past. Such a crucial issue was not considered relevant.

Deluded by its own mistaken views of Russia, Europe has failed to find a coherent and realistic strategy on how to deal with its biggest neighbour. A 2005 European Parliament resolution summed up the problem very well: “Russia is a big neighbour with whom the European Union has every interest to further develop good relations. However, the EU strategy cannot be seen as a success. There is still lack of trust – a situation that became more pronounced after the EU enlargement. The ambiguity in the role of democracy and human rights in the development of Russia complicates the partnership.” More presciently still, in the same year the U.S. civil rights group Freedom House demoted Russia from a “semi-free” country to a “non-free” state. Events since then have shown that the alarm bells were rung with good reason.

Counter-democratic developments in Russia today make it essential to understand where in real terms we stand vis-à-vis Russia. This is all the more urgent as spin doctors are busy creating new illusions around the personality of President Dmitry Medvedev. Depending on who you listen to, Medvedev is either a new John Kennedy or he’s a technocrat with no KGB background, or again he is a more decent and softer version of Vladimir Putin, his predecessor. Western leaders who buy into such illusions and race one another to the gates of the Kremlin demonstrate a classic case of European confusion regarding Russia. They also furnish proof of their own vulnerability to Moscow’s manipulations.

What, then, are the current realities that should inform a more accurate EU analysis of Russia? First, we have to acknowledge that Russia is not a democracy. In fact the policy of building a “normal” society which respects the rule of law has been reversed. Under the guise of "sovereign democracy," Russia openly and defiantly abandons the goal of becoming an advanced open society, marked by political liberty and the rule of law. Russia is an authoritarian centralized state where Soviet-style security services play the key role in politics as well as economics. Kremlin leaders are creating their own Moscow-centred system and reasserting Russia’s status as a great power.

That does not mean that Russia today is the same as the old Soviet Union; Russian society is now based on capitalism, albeit state-controlled. But disturbing comparisons can be drawn with another regime from the past. Aggressive Russian nationalism and officially-inspired bouts of xenophobia seem reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, and look to be designed to recompense Moscow for the humiliation of its Soviet empire. It also compensates for the ignominy of having the terms of its democratic reforms “dictated” by its old adversaries. Blatant harassment of selected foreign diplomats and the loyalist youth movement dubbed “Putinjugend” sometimes appear to echo Hitler's rise to power.

Europe must stop thinking of Russia as a “normal” strategic partner. While the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement declares common values as the basis of a strategic partnership, this is deceptive. We can speak about common interests, certainly, but not common values. Russia no longer aims to integrate with the West under western terms and conditions. As former EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said three years ago, “Europe should clearly work for a comprehensive partnership with Russia, but at the moment it is nonsense to suggest that this will be based on shared values.” He described his first meetings with the Kremlin as follows: "Russian officials – President Putin, prime ministers and foreign ministers – obfuscated and lied. They ignored our letters. They denied that we had raised concerns about specific issues with them ... Naturally, they got away with that.

So the EU should forget any notion that Russia is a friend, ally or reliable partner. Russia’s strategic interests in Europe directly oppose those of the EU. Moscow wants to split the Union apart and is trying to set old and new member states against each other. It is also making systematic efforts to demonstrate that the EU’s 2004 “big bang” enlargement has been at least a partial failure. The former Soviet-occupied Baltic states are the main target and testing ground for these divisive policies. Russia combines political and economic pressure on the three Baltic states with disinformation campaigns and the exploitation of Soviet-era immigrants. Russia has also tried to turn these EU members into bargaining chips in possible future deals with the Union. Such manoeuvring was firmly rejected at the 2007 Samara Summit by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Commission President José Manuel Barroso, so there are grounds for optimism that at least this element of the Russian strategy has failed.

Beyond Europe, Russia is eagerly seeking to deepen the rifts between the U.S. and the EU. The Kremlin concentrates on bilateral deals with the most important EU members and exploits its role as their major energy supplier. Russia is unreliable as a partner in areas of international conflict. The Kremlin supplied modern arms to Saddam Hussein of Iraq until the last moment, and now pragmatically and cynically endeavours to assert its national interests in relations with Iran, Syria and Sudan, while simultaneously weakening the positions of the U.S. and European democracies.

Energy is a sector where the EU needs to get a real grip on today’s realities. Of course Russia’s economic development has been fuelled by its hydrocarbons and the EU is increasingly dependent on Russian oil and on gas especially. The more sober economic analyses show, though, that Russia needs the EU more than the EU needs Russia. Russia’s over-dependence on its energy sector has meant that its recent economic boom was highly vulnerable to the downturn in oil prices. Despite these structural weaknesses, the Kremlin retains the psychological upper hand in EU-Russian discussions.

European companies continue, meanwhile, to do business with Russia, in spite of its flagrant disregard for Western norms, its dramatic lack of reciprocity and a general disdain for legal guarantees. They rush into Russian markets in search of short-term gain and accept the crippling moral price of having to share their profits with the ruling elite. The business practices involved cast aside most EU principles of fairness and transparency. This sort of systematic disregard for the rules of fair play undermines the credibility of our own value-based free market economy.

The EU’s weakness extends beyond economic and commercial relations and into the political sphere. Russia’s Council of Europe membership is a case in point. In 1996, Russia was accepted as a member only after lengthy debate and in return for a long list of democratic commitments which were to be met in the shortest possible time. The decision was purely political: the majority concluded that Russia was “better in than out.” The justification was that membership would speed up Russia’s democratic transformation. Sadly, the opposite is true. Most of Russia’s commitments have been left unrealised and Russia has exerted much more influence on the Council than vice versa. The Kremlin’s influence is increasing, and its ability to block initiatives enhanced. As a result of political pressure and economic carrots, several politicians have apparently lost their objectivity in dealing with Moscow. By playing at democracy, authoritarian Russia has won and the oldest post-war European democratic organisation has lost.

So where do we go to from here? An intriguing analysis by Mexican political scientist Fredo Arias King compares Russia to a person with the psychological condition known as borderline personality disorder. This involves a split cultural identity, unstable self image, black-and-white thinking and difficulties of perceiving one’s own responsibilities. Sufferers often have bursts of anger and aggressiveness, and attempts to appease and indulge them are counter-productive. The way to handle them, it is said, is to be stable, polite and firm, defining non-negotiable rules that are then stuck to.

Applied to Russia-EU relations, this formula could be the best remedy for unruly Russian behaviour. The EU should set clear rules which are not subject to change as a result of whim or exceptional circumstances. They must be based on the international standards for the rule of law. Europe’s working relationship with Moscow should start afresh on the basis of friendly but firm reciprocity.

The mission of a united Europe should be to speak the truth, set boundaries and underline that our principles and values are not up for negotiation. Such a common and unwavering EU policy would help Russia to differentiate between normal national interests and imperial ambitions, eventually resulting in a Russia that is less unpredictable and more cooperative. Russia is not a mystery, the full text of Churchill’s celebrated October 1939 remark is as follows: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”