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Георгий Бовт

EU-Russia Relations: Reset or Stagnation?

24 Ноя 2009 — Георгий Бовт, Независимый журналист
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After the 24th EU- Russia summit, held in Stockholm, Sweden, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev announced that European and Russian leaders had reached agreement on all outstanding issues concerning energy co-operation. “We spoke of the development of big economic projects including energy co-operation, and the development of energy safety,” Medvedev said. By big energy projects he meant the agreement on the “North Stream” project for which Russia is persistently lobbying, awaiting permission from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland for its construction on the floor of the Baltic Sea. The second project is South Stream, competing with Nabucco. Last week Slovenia was the last country to sign the agreement with Moscow to become a partner in the project. Thus, Moscow continues its struggle to remain a strategically important energy supplier for Europe, trying to neutralise all other competitive options. How long could that last, and how economically effective could that strategy be amid the search for alternative sources of energy and the intensifying process of liquid gas technology development? Isn’t this a short-range strategy with no long-range vision?

The discussions in Stockholm on energy security were preceded by an agreement signed in Moscow two days previously; providing for an early warning mechanism that would prompt both sides to join forces to solve any problems, commercial or technical, that might threaten deliveries.

The new system covers oil, natural gas and electricity supplies and requires Russia to notify the EU of any likely interruption; triggering consultations and joint prevention efforts, according to the statement. Third parties, such as transit countries, would be also allowed to take part in the arrangement.

The agreement is “clear evidence of the goodwill of both sides to work together in a trustworthy and mutually beneficial way, building ways to prevent and solve problems, even before they happen,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. The Russian authorities, in their turn, declared that the agreement was not directed against Ukraine or any other transit countries and did not call for any sanctions against them. Although, it seems clear that the agreement was signed in attempt to minimise the influence of Russian-Ukrainian energy disputes over the whole complex area of EU-Russian relations. At the same time as the EU-Russian summit, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held successful talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Youlia Timoshenko which ended with some concessions from Moscow to Kiev, amid severe economic problems in the neighbouring country. Earlier Putin had suggested that the EU help finance secure gas deliveries by lending $1 billion to Ukraine to cover some of its expenses, but European leaders dismissed the idea. So, at this stage Russia has succeeded in effectuating some preemptive measures against Ukraine. But the question is, whether this will be the only solution provided by the Russian ruling elite to challenge “Ukraine’s march to Europe away from Russia”?

As well as energy, leaders of the European Union and Russia discussed climate change, trade and human rights; while a number of documents were signed – mainly agreements on border control.
Many European politicians believed that Russia must curb greenhouse gas emissions through increased energy efficiency, and those expectations were welcomed by Moscow. Russia announced its willingness to cut emissions by 10-15 per cent from 1990 levels; while EU members are committed to 20 per cent reductions by 2020. The Europeans now expect Moscow to go even further. As Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner on External Relations put it, “I must say we saw a very interesting new step forward for Russia. Russia is now ready to go for a reduction of 20-25% compared with 1990 levels of CO2 emissions. I think this is a very important step forward. We are happy about that, because Russia is a very big international player on this scene and of course we are meeting before the Copenhagen Summit.”

Regarding the human rights issue, many human rights organisations have called on the EU to put pressure on Moscow. The presidency of Sweden (humanitarian issues always were paid a lot of attention by Scandinavian politicians) was considered as being quite ready to sustain that sort of pressure. But the summit in Stockholm demonstrated nothing of the kind outside the routine speeches. Presently, Medvedev, who is trying to push forward his modernisation agenda within Russia to promote some liberal measures in political sphere, was not the best possible target for the critics in this area. Therefore, Benita Ferrero-Waldner had nothing to do but to reiterate: “We always ask Russia to prosecute the perpetrators of violations and we want to see Russia improve the situation with regard to the rule of law, democracy, and freedom of speech. And also we want to see, of course, security for human rights defenders.”

Another “permanent issue” is Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. The EU is unanimous on the fact that this accession could speed up talks on a new partnership agreement between Moscow and the EU, and Russian politicians do not disagree on this point. Russia has been attempting to enter the WTO for over 16 years. The country is the only major economically stable country that has not become a member. Early this year Russian counterparts were surprised by the Putin’s statement which suggested that Russia would join WTO as a co-member of the Customs Union alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan. But later, this course was politely reverted as unpractical in favour of a more traditional way of obtaining membership. As Russia’s envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov stated, “We confirmed that accession to the WTO is our goal,” adding that Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus would join the organisation separately, but on a synchronised basis as part of their Customs Union. The three post-Soviet countries had agreed in early June to form a customs bloc whose Customs Code will be presented for approval to the heads of the three states on November 27, while the Union itself will be launched on January 1, 2010. In an interview with The World in 2010, the Economist’s annual printed publication, Dmitry Medvedev said that WTO accession remained on the agenda and that Russia hoped “to conclude talks in 2010.”

From 2010, the format of Russian-EU contacts and negotiations can be modified after the internal reform of the Union takes effect on December 1. To date Moscow has put more emphasis on bilateral relations with more positive partners in Europe, ignoring or downgrading the importance of those countries which it considered being uncomfortable partners. Sometimes Moscow tries to play on inter-EU disagreements to its favour; but now it will have to deal with a more unified Union. And it is not quite clear to Russian diplomats how to deal with this new reality, following EU leaders’ election of the union’s first full-time president and a new foreign policy chief – top positions created by the Lisbon treaty.

The whole Russian vision of its relations with Europe may be reconsidered. Moscow will have to deal with a much more efficient EU than before. That could make the negotiations with the EU tougher and more complicated. Maybe Moscow will eventually consider abandoning its preoccupation with the perceived Western military threat of NATO, especially taking into consideration the liberal voices within Medvedev’s circle who speak about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. Moscow has to prepare itself for the immediate future with the EU, not NATO, as the most effective strategic player on all fields of interaction.

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