Letter from Europe: EU faltering on a strategy for Putin's Russia

Posted in Europe , Russia | 01-Jun-07 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Vladimir Putin passing by an honor guard in Moscow on Thursday.

BERLIN: When the leaders of the leading industrial democracies invited Russia to join in 1998, there was the grand belief that after 80 years of Communist rule, Russia was finally joining the family of democratic nations. For the Europeans particularly, there was deep longing that Russia should become like them: democratic, stable and sharing the same social and political values.

Few of those hopes will remain Wednesday when President Vladimir Putin joins the other seven leaders in the heavily-fortified northern German resort of Heiligendamm. Russia has not become the democratic country the Europeans yearned for.

Instead, Putin has created political parties and youth movements, trade unions and media outlets which toe the line of his United Russia party. Thanks to the windfalls from high energy prices, Putin has turned Russia into a confident, proud but also very prickly nation. Gone are the years of pleading for assistance by the brave but chaotic Boris Yeltsin during the late 1990s when Russia was on the brink of financial collapse.

But something more fundamental has changed in Putin's Russia, which the Europeans have yet to grasp. Putin does not like the European Union.

"If the EU agrees on anything, it is values such as human rights and democracy. The present leadership in Russia strongly disagrees with these values," said Oksana Antonenko, a Russian analyst at International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The EU cannot deal with this. It has a complex about Russia. It hankers after a Russia that will embrace its values. For Putin, this means hectoring and lecturing. The EU has no strategy over how to deal with this new Russia."

The Putin administration is not alone in its reservations about European values. A recent opinion poll by the Levada Center, a leading Russian research organization, showed that 71 percent of Russians do not regard themselves as Europeans. Almost half think that the EU is a potential threat to Russia and its financial and industrial independence. Only a third sees Europe as a neighbor and partner with whom a long-term relationship should be developed.

This is a major shift in attitude. When Putin was first elected in 1999, he was not bothered by the EU. It was seen as an economic bloc and Russia's most important trading partner. Even when Russia's former Eastern Europe satellites joined the EU in 2004, Russia created little fuss. "It was NATO that was the bad one, not the EU," said Jacques Rupnik, political science professor and director of research at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris.

One of the things that changed the Kremlin's view of the EU was Ukraine's 2005 Orange Revolution when the presidents of two new EU entrants, Poland and Lithuania, flew to Kiev to mediate in the standoff between the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko and his Moscow-backed opponent, Viktor Yanukovich. "Russia saw a new EU that was shaping policy towards the Ukraine," said Rupnik.

Putin also saw how Poland and the Baltic states had become more assertive inside the EU - influencing the bloc's policy toward Russia. "For these countries it's pay back time with Russia," said Antonenko. "However, they are lacking the big strategic agenda and instead are pursuing narrow nationalist issues. The EU cannot yet reconcile a multiplicity of interests because several of the new member states have their own grievances with Russia."

Certainly, Putin has played into the hands of some of the new and old member states that want the EU to become tougher with the Kremlin. His heavy-handed tactics toward Russia's democratic opposition, the recent attack by his supporters on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, his use of energy resources as a political weapon, has given Brussels enough reasons to defend Poland and the Baltic states against Russia. The failure of last month's EU-Russia summit meeting in Samara, where negotiations to begin a new trade and political agreement between both sides were again postponed showed just how wide the gap between both sides has become.

There are other reasons why Putin increasingly dislikes the EU. The EU is trying to develop a Neighborhood Policy for countries including Ukraine and Moldova. Although it is short on incentives for persuading these countries to pursue radical political and economic changes, Russia nevertheless resents the policy.

The Kremlin has made it clear to Germany, which has initiated a new EU policy toward Central Asia, to stop meddling in a region Moscow regards as its legitimate sphere of influence. Gernot Erler, state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry and a Russian specialist, recently said Berlin had tried to explain to Putin that such an initiative posed no threat to Russia. Even so, it is what the EU represents that worries the Kremlin. "The issue is values," said Gienek Smolar, director of the Center for International Affairs in Warsaw. "Putin does not like the spread of the EU's value system, regardless of its minimal impact so far on improving human rights in Central Asia."

Russia's response to these maneuverings by Brussels is to distance itself from the EU as an institution and instead deal with the individual member states. This has yielded big results. Russia has successfully undermined the European Commission's attempts at establishing a common energy policy by signing long-term energy contracts with the big French, German, Italian and Austrian companies. Analysts say the Commission and the member states have been unable to prevent such deals because they have failed to separate their strategic and national interests from their pursuit of common values. Indeed, the Samara summit meeting showed that by linking interests such as trade to values such as human rights, the EU has had little to show from such a muddied strategy toward Russia.

This same kind of muddied strategy could be repeated at Heiligendamm. Smolar said it was time for the EU to stop believing in what he called a commonality of shared values between Europe and Russia. "We should stop believing that the Putin administration shares our values and that the EU can combine interests with values. The longer we delay in separating them, the less likely the EU will be able to deal with Putin's successor," he said.