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RIA Novosti
May 27, 2008
EU to forge new strategic partnership with Russia

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - On May 26, EU foreign ministers approved plans to begin discussing a new strategic partnership and cooperation agreement (PCA) with Russia.

The talks are to start at the Russia-EU summit in Khanty-Mansiysk, the capital of Yugra in Western Siberia, on June 26-27.

Yugra, an exotic place for many Russians, let alone Europeans, held its presentation in Brussels three days before the EU ministers approved the mandate for the talks.

The talks may last several years and the new agreement must be ratified by all 27 members of the European Union. Most experts in Brussels believe that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was too optimistic when he said coordination and ratification would take only 12-18 months.

EU newcomers - the Central and Eastern European countries - will most likely try to hinder the process. If not for their actions aimed at halting all initiatives to promote EU-Russia relations, the PCA would have been drafted long ago and possibly even signed.

Poland blocked the agreement approximately 18 months ago, after Russia refused to buy contraband pork delivered from Poland.

Until mid-May, Lithuania demanded that Russia should be punished for the "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and Moldova and the drawn-out repairs of the Druzhba pipeline leading to its oil refinery in Mazeikiai.

Brussels even had to add an appendix to the mandate covering Lithuania's dissenting view on the "frozen conflicts." It actually allows Lithuania to demand that the problem be reconsidered again and again.

Old Europe's attitude toward the vetoing stance of the post-Communist Eastern European countries has become ambivalent. Old Europe is not always pleased with the "new Europeans," but is not averse to using their anti-Russian vigor to increase pressure on the partner during difficult talks.

But Russia has changed, and Brussels, the Baltic countries and its other partners must know that it will no longer tolerate endless criticism of its democracy and doubts about its "European identity," especially from those who have yet to acquire the said identity.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in Brussels: "There will inevitably be problems" at the talks, which are expected to be lengthy. "We believe that Russia should be like us and that many Russians would like to be a normal Northern Hemisphere part of the broader West."

At the summit in Yugra, a new partnership and cooperation agreement to replace the one that came into force in 1997 will be discussed. Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed it on Corfu in 1994, but its ratification was put off by the war in Chechnya.

It was a different EU that signed the PCA with Russia that was still groggy from the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is why it signed documents then that it would reject now.

The agreement was prolonged for another 12 months before it expired in December 2007. In fact, it could be prolonged every year, or be left to die peacefully. Russia can trade with each EU member separately without the PCA, which Europe needs more than Russia.

Europe wants to regulate all aspects of relations with Russia, including business, security, culture, policy, legal aspects and civil rights, as well as respect for the rule of law. In short, it wants an agreement that would strictly delineate what the partners can and cannot do.

This is logical since Russia has become the world's only energy superpower.

Professor Margot Light of the London School of Economics said: "Russian officials believe these values are determined exclusively in the EU and are simply proclaimed by EU officials for Russia to adopt." Now Russia prefers the concept of sharing interests, which entails a new level of partnership.

Interestingly, it is now not only Old Europe, but also the countries that had not been suspected of pro-Russian sentiments before that are advocating new relations with Russia.

Shortly before the EU decision was made public in Brussels, several former British ambassadors in Moscow rejected the idea of "neo-containment" in a report for the House of Lords' European Union committee. They argued against "the emotional and ideological tone of the "new" Europeans from Central and Eastern Europe as well as of the Bush administration toward Russia."

Gunnar Wiegand, head of the Russia section in the European commission, said that dialogue over human rights should not become a lecture. Well put.