Russia Sees Key Role for EU Beyond Trade Issues

The new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made a big effort at last week’s summit in the Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiisk to give new impetus to the EU-Russia dialogue.  The president offered each of his EU guests an album of his own photographs and apparently charmed Messrs Solana, Barroso and Jansa in a way his predecessor never did.

The mood music seems to have changed. Let’s not forget that Medvedev practises yoga rather than judo –  although we know the black belt still hovers in the wings.

Many of the issues which sour relations between Russia and the rest of Europe are either historical in origin, such as the position of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, or geopolitical questions such as the recognition of Kosovo, the expansion of NATO or the siting of anti-ballistic missile defences. The Russian leadership has clearly decided that the EU can play a serious role in resolving these issues even when they are bilateral in nature.

The Russians are also keen to distinguish the EU from NATO and to play up the differences.  While fiercely opposed to Ukrainian membership of NATO, for instance, the Russians seem to accept closer Ukrainian links with the EU. They also want to persuade the EU into a new security structure for Europe which would diminish the role of NATO (and thus of the US).

It seems to me that the EU took a rather condescending approach to Russia until recent years, building up a fund of resentment among Russian policy-makers. The so-called neighbourhood policy caused great offence in Moscow, seen as treating Russia as second class citizen.

Let’s hope the accession of Medvedev will mark the end of that phase. Certainly the EU has changed its position as Russia has grown in economic strength and confidence. Talks on a new strategic agreement are due to begin in Brussels on July 4, although Russia appears to seek a more generalised approach where the EU wants to nail down more specifics – especially on energy of course. Human rights remain on the agenda, but in a more nuanced way. Chechnya has gone quiet.

The EU’s negotiating position is often dictated by those member countries which have particular issues with their easterly neighbour and who make their problems into European Union problems. This irritates Moscow no end.

But the Russian leadership must also recognise the sensitivities of others: for many EU members the end of the second world war may have marked the end of one tyranny; it introduced another. Joining the Union gives these countries a more effective voice which they are bound to use. What’s more, bilateral problems are sometimes more easily solved when set in a wider European context.

Apropos of which, the TNK-BP quarrel was raised by the EU during the summit, and in particular the apparent use of the Russian state apparatus to put pressure on BP in support of the oligarch shareholders.  President Medvedev is a lawyer by profession and has spoken recently of the need to root out corruption.  Supremacy of the rule of law must lie at the heart of any long-term agreement between the EU and Russia.