Russia and Europe have seen everything during their thousand years or more of common history, from co-operation to competition, and from fraternal assistance to betrayal, self-deception and cold-hearted calculation. All these will probably continue to be part of our relations, to some degree or other. The European vector will continue to be among Russia’s chief foreign policy priorities, thanks to the cultural affinity and well-established economic ties. Europe is the personal choice of the vast majority of Russia’s citizens.
But the process of creating in Russia a modern state and an advanced economy has yet to be completed. At the same time, European crises like its deepening social-economic difficulties to its long-brewing identity crisis are also further complicating the atmosphere in which EU-Russian relations have to be developed.
Russia’s other potential partners, meaning first and foremost Asia, have their own competitive advantages, but for us will never be as close and predictable as Europe. Regardless of the future course of events, for many years to come we in Russia will never have as strong an economic interdependency as we do with Europe.
“The importance of Asia to Russia should not be underrated, but we also need to recognise that Russia’s economic opportunities there along with its political engagement in the region are limited”
The European Union accounts for two-thirds of the population and 80% of the domestic product of Europe. Many of the countries outside the EU, including our close neighbour Ukraine, are strongly in favour of greater European integration. Some 60% of Russia’s foreign trade is with the EU, and the revenues from this form the lion’s share of Russia’s state budget. Nearly 80% of foreign investment in our economy comes from Europe.
The European choice, for the majority of our people as well as the so-called “elite”, is a fact that Russia’s leadership has always had to pay attention to when formulating its foreign political and economic policy positions. Even with Russia’s rapidly changing domestic political conditions, and the likely repositioning of its foreign policy choices, it would be counterproductive to move away from Europe as a priority. And even though exaggerated expectations of what co-operation between Moscow and our European partners might yield have been disappointed, that cannot overshadow the real needs of society.
The importance of Asia to Russia should not be underrated, but we also need to recognise that Russia’s economic opportunities there along with its political engagement in the region are limited. Asia-Pacific countries are for the time being primarily interested in getting raw materials from Russia, and there has been practically no mention of projects that would contribute to the diversification of our economy and strengthen its technological potential. In contrast, Russia’s dialogue with the European Union has already produced a number of comprehensive projects.
At a key meeting in Rostov-on-Don in mid-2010, the EU and Russia launched their Partnership for Modernisation. Since then, there has been active co-operation on a pan-European level within the EU’s science and technology framework programmes, and also nuclear energy and space among others. This is being complemented by bi-lateral programmes with individual EU member states, for example with the Russian-German modernisation programme that is focused on five areas: healthcare, energy efficiency, material and technical support, equipment and improving the judicial system.
Dmitry Medvedev’s four-year presidency was characterised by a positive trend in Russo-European relations. As well as the Partnership for Modernisation, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), there was the significant “Polish reset” and the normalisation of border relations with both Norway and Latvia. And in the wake of the Georgian crisis in summer 2008, ties with NATO were swiftly rebalanced, with Medvedev’s participation in NATO’s 2010 summit a step forward in our security relations.
“Even with Russia’s rapidly changing domestic political conditions, and the likely repositioning of its foreign policy choices, it would be counterproductive to move away from Europe as a priority”
But things became significantly more difficult after Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-2012. Those elections, and the manner in which they were orchestrated, were received with much scepticism by parts of the Russian population and also abroad. They were widely interpreted as the sign of a stagnating regime and a retrograde step in the development of Russian society, and in its relations with the West.
The Pew Research Centre polled public opinion in the summer of 2012 in the U.S., 12 EU member states and Turkey, and found that everywhere except Slovakia there had been a substantial decline in positive assessments of Russia. Between June 2010 and July 2011, the number of Russia’s well-wishers in Germany rose by 6%, but then dropped by 14% last year, and in France by 17%. Even in Turkey negative views were in the majority.
If in the mid-2000s negative public perceptions of Russia in European countries, most of all in Germany and France, were mitigated by the idea that “first come interests, then come values,” the public mood now has had a noticeable influence on the executive and legislative branches of government in EU countries.
The Obama administration did what it could to delay passage of the so-called “Magnitsky law” through the U.S. Congress. Signed into law by President Obama in mid-December 2012, its focus on human rights has been taken up by the national parliaments of several European countries, as well as the European Parliament. During Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Moscow visit last November, it became apparent that the conflicting values of the EU and Russia have grown more acute. In Russia, liberals are unable to turn a blind eye to the centralisation of power under Vladimir Putin, his suppression of political opposition as well as the coupling of the state with the country’s major financial and industrial groups. The German Chancellor openly referred to this, and it cannot be dismissed as no more than anti-Russian propaganda.
How these differences will be resolved will depend above all on Russian civil society. Active and thinking elements of Russian society still have strong convictions, and are playing an active role in developing a multi-dimensional strategic partnership with Europe. We know there is no real alternative to this, and Russian chairmanship of the G20 in 2013 and of the G8 in 2014 offers a tangible basis for the next phase of active rapprochement. On both sides, this is an opportunity for resolute action.