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Олена Пристайко

The Post-Soviet Space in EU-Russian Relations

03 Дек 2009 — Олена Пристайко
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The issue of common neighbourhood remains one of the major stumbling blocks in EU-Russian relations. Last week Russia took a number of steps which were intended, either directly or indirectly, to consolidate its near neighbourhood. On Friday 27th November the Presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed a package of documents relating to the creation of the Customs Union. They agreed on the creation of a unified customs tariff starting on 1 January 2010, as well as a unified customs code (effective from 1 July 2010).

On Sunday, 29th November, the draft of the European Security Treaty was published on the Russian President’s website. The document puts forward, “formalising in international law the principle of indivisible security as a legal obligation pursuant to which no nation or international organisation operating in the Euro-Atlantic region is entitled to strengthen its own security at the cost of other nations or organisations”. This means, according to the state-controlled Russian mass media, that the Kremlin is calling on the West “to refrain from spreading its influence in the post-Soviet space”.

These economic and security initiatives are not new in Russian policy towards the post-Soviet states. They have been put forward before in differing forms, but there has been no apparent will to implement them and therefore they have never come to fruition.

There are several suggestions regarding Russia’s intentions with respect to its neighbours. The ones most often mentioned by experts are the following: Russia seeks the restoration of a quasi-USSR; Russia de facto considers those territories its own, viewing the break-up of the Soviet Union as “major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century“ (as per Mr. Putin); Russia plays the post-Soviet space card in its play with main international actors; and Russia views the territories as a buffer zone should there be conflict with the West.

The ultimate goal of Russian policy towards the post-Soviet space remains unclear (if indeed any exists). From its neighbours’ point of view, Russia wants obedience and is ready to pay a high price to get it. As for the rest of the world, it wants recognition of its right to play a serious economic and even political role on those territories.

According to the Nations in Transit 2009 Freedom House study, only two post-Soviet states, Ukraine and Georgia, can be classified as ‘Transitional Governments or Hybrid Regimes’, “typically electoral democracies that meet only minimum standards for the selection of national leaders.” Two others, Armenia and Moldova, are ranked as ‘Semi-consolidated Authoritarian Regimes’, “countries which attempt to mask authoritarianism with limited respect for the institutions and practices of democracy.” The remainder, including Russia, are ’Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes’, “countries which are closed societies in which dictators prevent political competition and pluralism and are responsible for widespread violations of basic political, civil, and human rights.” This list includes Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In its European Neighbourhood Policy Progress Reports 2009 on five Eastern neighbours (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) issued in April, the European Commission also noted the mixed progress of these countries with regard to democratic governance and human rights. Achievement in reforms, if any, had been ambiguous. In each country, large unreformed sectors remain, especially in the judiciary and the rule of law.

Apart from the strained democratic development, most of these countries have one more common feature – they are either economically dependent on Russia, or have weak points which Russia exploits in its own interests. It is in the EU’s power to step in and make more effort to assist these states in removing areas of their dependence on their mighty neighbour.

Interestingly, most of the friction between the EU and Russia surrounds Ukraine and Georgia – countries that can either continue their difficult march towards democracy, or return to authoritarianism should democratically minded leaders in those countries fall. The main obstacle to this would be, of course, resistance from civil society. But these counties will undoubtedly be grateful if the EU uses its soft power mechanisms in order to help protecting their democracy.

The Recommendations of the Eastern Partnership Civil Forum, held on 16th and 17th November 2009 in Brussels, outlined that civil societies in those countries want to see a greater EU presence. Despite the potential tensions, the EU should accept this invitation and increase its involvement in the life and future of the region.

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