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Europe and Russia: Dancing to different tunes

Moscow's traction is on the wane giving Europeans an opportunity to re-think their relationship with Russia.

Last updated: 04 Feb 2014 10:09
Rosa Balfour

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.
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Both the EU and Russia have been stepping up their engagement in Eastern Europe since 2009 [AFP]

EU leaders met their Russian counterparts in Brussels on January 28. Instead of a two-day summitry of handshakes and discussions over the so-called "strategic partnership" and the "partnership for the modernisation", the EU, for the first time, cut the summit short to a couple of hours and a lunch. This summit should have been held in December but had been postponed. 

A few days before the inauguration of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not happy at the EU's snub. Having played king maker, reaching the agreement with the US over dealing with Syria's chemical weapons' arsenal and, more recently, releasing well known dissidents he had put in prison to vamp up his image, Putin has enjoyed displaying the power he and Russia can still muster.

Indeed Brussels did an unusual display of criticism towards Russia. Many European countries are well known for having good relations with Moscow. The EU has notoriously been known for its divisions over its Russia policy - divisions which Moscow has well exploited to promote Russia's own interests in Europe. Now things seem to have taken a different turn.

Displeasure at Russian behaviour

The message Brussels is sending is clear: Displeasure at Russian behaviour in Eastern Europe. This does not call for an interruption of diplomatic relations, but it could call for a reassessment. Both the EU and Russia have been stepping up their engagement in Eastern Europe since 2009, destroying the rhetoric of a common space by presenting integration projects which are widely perceived as competing with each other (regardless of whether they technically are or not). But Russia overstepped the mark, in European eyes, with a catalogue of misdemeanours which tested European patience more than past episodes in which Gazprom halted energy supplies leaving Eastern Europe in the cold.

Russia overstepped the mark, in European eyes, with a catalogue of misdemeanours which tested European patience more than past episodes in which Gazprom halted energy supplies leaving Eastern Europe in the cold.

Moscow managed to persuade Armenia to sign its own Eurasian Customs Union when Armenia had already declared its commitment to sign an Association Agreement and Trade Agreement with the EU. It held menacing military exercises very close to the borders with the countries in Eastern Europe. It blocked Lithuanian dairy exports while Vilnius held the Presidency of the EU. It banned Moldovan wine exports, widely seen as a threat to a small country which decided to endorse the EU's agreements. And it enticed Ukraine out of signing the trade and association agreements with the EU with a $15 billion bailout, provoking the mass mobilisation of thousands of Ukrainians who took to the streets to protest against the government's pro-Russian choice.

This was too much for Brussels. It is still not clear what the EU institutions and capitals will do about the crisis in Ukraine, where the situation is extremely fragile and uncertain. But it looks like they want to take some time to rethink their relations with Russia.

Over the past few years, Europe has been instinctively less pro-Russia than in the past. Germany played a big role in swinging EU opinion. It is frequently said that the Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel dislikes Putin quite intensely. Beyond personal relations (which do count in diplomacy), Germany has been focusing more on China and on Eastern Europe than in the previous decade. In 2004, for example, the then Chancellor Gerard Schroeder gave a speech in the German parliament in the middle of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution candidly asserting its Russia-first policy. Today, that would be unthinkable. The coalition government with a Social-Democratic Foreign Minister may tip the balance inside Germany somewhat, but not significantly so long as Merkel is at the helm of Europe's most powerful country.

Over the past few years, much of EU policy in Eastern Europe has been driven by countries formerly in the sphere of the Soviet Union which, for historical reasons, have not felt particularly friendly towards Moscow. Poland, through a pro-European government, "matured" from being a country which two decades ago did not have a foreign policy to speak of to one which carefully balances its priorities and seeks allies within the EU to pursue them - Sweden and Germany being among them. US disengagement in Eastern Europe allows Europeans to play a bigger role in shaping policy there, to the detriment of the Russia-first policy.

Moscow's leverage

European energy dependence on Russia has been slightly reduced thanks to a degree of diversification of energy sources - which in turn reduces Moscow's leverage many European countries. State-owned Gazprom is being forced to cooperate with Brussels in the context of the European Commission's investigation into the company's anti-competitive behaviour. Russia's economic prospects are no longer favourable. The country's dependence on energy exports make it vulnerable to price volatility, while the lack of internal structural reform hampers the growth of other sectors. And Russia's increasing repression of dissent regardless of international criticism has alienated many in the West. In short, Moscow's traction is on the wane giving Europeans an opportunity to re-think how they want their relationship with Russia to become in the near future.

All this being said, Europe and Russia are tied by geography and history like an arranged marriage. The option of not engaging with Russia quite simply does not exist. Pipelines, commerce, capital, global security and stability, the United Nations Security Council, all make this marriage indissoluble. The number of Russian tourists to Europe nearly doubled to 6 million in the past three years. Mutual trade reached record levels in 2012, with Russia being the EU's third largest trade partner and the EU Russia's most important one. It is estimated that 75 percent of investments in Russia come from European Union member states.

So there are plenty of reasons to continue holding summits with Russia (though perhaps fewer than twice yearly). The grandly-named "strategic partnership" and "partnership for modernisation" may make little sense in light of the current politics of the relationship, but the cross-cutting common interests will make their way back onto the agenda sooner or later.

One long lasting consequence may be a change in the balance of the relationship. Europe has always muted its criticism of the Kremlin in the shadow of its energy dependence on Russia and of its role in global politics. But Russia, too, depends on Europe to buy its gas and oil, and has few friends elsewhere. Putin's hard-nosed politics may have given Europeans a few tips on how to treat its long-standing partner.

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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