News Analysis: Russia turns away from the European 'idea'

Posted in Europe , Russia | 04-Jan-04 | Author: Steven Myers| Source: The New York Times

MOSCOW - "By their mentality and culture, the people of Russia are Europeans," President Vladimir Putin said in an interview this fall, addressing the centuries-old choice here between East and West.

The real question, however, is whether Russia is - or even wants to be - part of today's Europe. There is increasing evidence that the answer is "no."

In the last few months, Russia and Europe have found themselves at odds, sometimes pointedly, over a raft of diplomatic, political and economic issues, belying the widely held notion that the collapse of the Soviet Union would herald Russia's ever-deepening integration into all parts of a new world order.

No diplomat likes to say it, but the European Union's expansion next year - along with NATO's - is etching a new frontier across the Continent, enveloping the former Soviet republics of the Baltics and the former satellites of Eastern Europe into the elite clubs of democratic states.

The curtain across Europe may be less ironclad than in the past, but there is no dispute that Russia is on the other side of it, not just politically and economically, but perhaps psychologically as well.

"Russia remains beyond the expanding West," Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote this month in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

In recent negotiations over joining the World Trade Organization and ratifying the Kyoto treaty on climate change, Russia has clashed fundamentally with Europe's vision on free markets and the environment, arguing in both cases that its unique geography merits exclusive consideration.

In its internal affairs, Russia has angrily dismissed European criticism of its bloody war in Chechnya - criticism more strident than any recently from the United States, which is more accepting of Putin's view that Russians in Chechnya are under attack from foreign Islamic militants.

Europe has also criticized the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and parliamentary elections this month that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said had raised doubts about "Russia's willingness to move toward European standards for democratic elections."

These are political - and in some cases purely economic - disputes, but something more profound is happening.

To many Russians, Europe is more than just a geographic place. It is an idea. In Soviet times, it represented democracy and freedom, if also capitalist decadence. It is still the standard by which Russia is measured, almost always unfavorably.

Increasingly, though, Europe is seen as little more than a source of money and goods, which have turned Moscow and other cities into oases of consumption and even luxury in a country still besieged by poverty and despair. After a tumultuous decade of painful economic reforms, more and more Russians seem willing to reject Europe as a democratic idea or model.

In his four years in office, Putin has governed with an authoritarian hand, increasing the role of the security services, consolidating state control over television and business and otherwise rolling back some of democracy's basic, if messy freedoms.

And he is overwhelmingly popular, heading into a re-election campaign next year essentially unchallenged. In this month's elections, the party defined by its fealty to him cruised to victory, crushing not only the Communists, but also two parties with liberal, pro-Western images and ideas, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.

The election's biggest surprise was the success of two nationalist blocs, the Liberal Democratic Party led by the xenophobe Vladimir Zhironovksy and a milder, more respectable version of it, Motherland.

Dmitri Rogozin, a leader of Motherland, said in a postelection interview that Russians have grown disenchanted with a decade of democratic experiment and with what he called the broken promises of Europe.

"When democratic reforms were taking place in our country, people were willing to take on losses, such as the destruction of the Soviet Union," he said. "They took blows against the international prestige of Russia, but everyone thought that tomorrow would come when all of this will pay off."

"Everyone thought that this would lead to very close relations with the West, when everyone would live well, that there would be European standards of living, freedoms," he went on. "However, tomorrow has arrived, and it has turned out to be just as gloomy as yesterday."

What divides Russia and Europe is unlikely to become a chasm or start a new cold war. Russia, like the rest of the world, is susceptible to globalization. After its expansion, the European Union will account for more than half of Russia's foreign trade, making cooperation, if not integration, essential. Sergei Sokolov, head of the Foreign Ministry's department for European relations, called the disputes with Europe - over everything from duties to visas - the inevitable growing pains of closer relations. But he added that Russia drew a distinction between integration "with" Europe and integration "into" it, one meaning cooperation, the other membership.

The Russia he described will be an independent power, a proud nation that expects to be treated as an equal of Europe, not a part of it.

Trenin, in his article, agreed, but warned that Russia was creating the foundations for "a new isolationism," though not necessarily within its own borders.

In recent months, Russia has aggressively wielded its diplomatic and economic influence in its traditional dominion along the arc of the Europe's new frontier.

In Georgia, Russia has provided succor to two separatist enclaves. In Moldova, Putin tried to broker a settlement of another separatist conflict that would ensure the presence of Russian troops indefinitely. In Lithuania, President Rolandas Paksas faces an impeachment battle over accusations that he became susceptible to Russian influence. Russia's actions abroad, like those at home, have raised concerns in Europe, deepening distrust of Putin's commitment to a democratic course. In the near future, Trenin wrote, Europe and the United States "will treat Russia as though the Soviet Union has been replaced by its czarist predecessor."

If Europe is keeping Russia at arm's length, so is Russia doing the same to Europe. "More and more, Russian leaders are viewing the West as a source of resources for modernization and geopolitical challenges - not as a common home where Russia itself may find its proper place," Trenin said.

Putin, in the interview, completed his answer by emphasizing, twice, that Russia had no intention ever to join the European Union. Whatever its cultural ties to Europe, Russia's relations will be limited to what he called the "historic horizon." "It is up to a new generation of decision makers in Russia," he said, "to see to it how the relationship between Russia and the European Union develops."