The European Union and Russia
Divide, rule or waffle
May 1st 2008
From The Economist print edition
The European Union cannot agree over how to deal with Russia. That suits the Kremlin just fine
SEEN from outside, one might imagine that the European Union (population 495m, GDP of $16.8 trillion) was a rather intimidating neighbour for Russia (population 142m, GDP of $1.3 trillion). Yet the reality is the other way round. In recent years Russia has played a canny game of divide and rule against the EU, building cosy bilateral relations with Germany and Italy especially, but also with Austria, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Greece.
That makes other countries, and many Eurocrats, uneasy. They would like the EU to bargain more effectively with Russia, particularly over energy. But how? For now, the relationship is based on an outdated partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA), signed in 1997. Talks on renewing it are long overdue. But they show no sign of starting. Last year the obstacle was a Polish veto, prompted by a Russian embargo on Polish meat exports. But that was resolved after a charm offensive by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, who was once a notable hawk on Russia.
Now talks on a new PCA are stymied again, this time because of a veto by Lithuania. The Lithuanians argue that the previously agreed negotiating position is too soft and too limited, given what they see as Russia's slide towards autocracy at home and aggression abroad. An EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on April 29th ended in deadlock (though it did sign a deal that may clear the way for Serbia, a country wobbling into Russia's orbit, to become a candidate for membership).
Other EU countries are cross with the Lithuanians, accusing them of belated and clumsy diplomacy, and of posturing with an eye to a general election this autumn, in which the ruling coalition is lagging behind pro-Russian parties. The Poles, who agreed to drop their veto of a new PCA in return for a lifting of the meat ban, say they must honour their side of the deal they struck with Russia. Many west European countries also hope that the arrival of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president could be a chance to put their relationship on a friendlier footing. In any case, the previous negotiating mandate has already been adapted to reflect, at least partly, Lithuania's desire for stronger language on energy (Russia has blocked an oil pipeline to Lithuania's refinery since 1996, claiming that it needs “repairs”).
Yet the Lithuanians want more. They demand explicit mention of Russia's relations with such neighbours as Georgia, citing the Kremlin's increasingly strong support for the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This week the Russians claimed Georgia was planning to invade Abkhazia and said they would boost their peacekeeping forces, promising to respond forcefully to any Georgian attack. The Georgians have retaliated by threatening to block Russia's application to join the World Trade Organisation. The Lithuanians see all this as an ominous threat to their own security. “We are in the front line. If Georgia goes, we are next,” argues a Lithuanian official.
The Lithuanians also want the EU to be tougher over justice. In particular, they complain that the Kremlin is not helping track down those responsible for a Soviet-backed attempted putsch in Lithuania in early 1991 that killed 14 people and for the execution of eight border guards shortly afterwards. “We have had 22 Litvinenkos and no co-operation from Russia,” says the official. His irritation may be understandable (Britain is also furious with the Kremlin for refusing to co-operate over the murder of a Russian exile with British citizenship, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006). But an unwillingness from Russia to investigate such crimes is nothing new, and is therefore harder to portray as a sinister new twist.
Diplomats still hope to launch negotiations on a new PCA before the next EU-Russia summit in Siberia in June. Reopening discussion on the negotiating mandate may not help Lithuania: some countries want it to be softer, not tougher, says one foreign minister. And none of this seems to bother the Russians much. Their ambassador in Brussels, Vladimir Chizov, says his country would be delighted to deal with the EU if only it would decide what it actually wants. The impasse also makes it easier for national governments to justify doing bilateral deals with Russia. Italy made a barely veiled threat along these lines this week. Greece chose the same day formally to sign up to South Stream, a Kremlin-backed Black Sea pipeline that many see as a direct rival to the EU's own plans in the region. The outgoing Italian prime minister and former European Commission president, Romano Prodi, also said he had turned down (for now, at least) a Russian offer to head the South Stream consortium.
In practice a new PCA is unlikely to make much difference. Despite the obsolescence of the old one, trade between Russia and the EU has more than tripled since 2000. In negotiating a new one, Russia would, on past form, use its bilateral ties with big countries to get its way in what ought to be multilateral negotiations. And it is not clear that any new agreement will stick. Russia has explicitly said that it will not ratify the energy charter it signed in 1994, which would have required it to give third parties access to its gas pipelines. As Katinka Barysch, of the London-based Centre for European Reform, notes drily, “the Russians have a somewhat different approach to law, so whether you can aim to solve all problems with a legal document is open to doubt.”
Thursday, May 01, 2008
The European Union and Russia