May 7, 2008
Too Alien for Europe
The Relationship Between Russia and the EU Has Reached a Stalemate
Comment by Georgy Bovt
In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin signed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union on the Greek island of Corfu. If he could foresee the difficulties his successors would confront ten years after the agreement took effect in 1997, when the time would come for making a new treaty, he would be very upset. At that time, only 15 states were members of the EU, and it took just a few months of the experts’ “pure work time” to draw up the agreement.
The agreement expired in December 2007. Negotiations on a new one, however, have not even begun. Both sides keep pretending that nothing serious is really going on after all, the old agreement is automatically renewed. However, in practice everyone understands that the relationship between the EU and Russia has reached a dead end, and so far nobody knows how to get out of it.
For over a year now, Moscow and the EU have been unable to start negotiating a new agreement because one of the EU member states was blocking the way forward. For a long time, it was Poland. The reason behind the impediment was a commercial argument with Russia concerning Polish meat imports: Moscow accused Warsaw of importing “God knows what” from third countries into Russia as Polish meat. Russia banned all Polish meat imports because they did not comply with the sanitary code. At the time, the interference of the European Commission representatives did not bring the sides any closer to reaching a compromise: either the European commissioners were not too insistent, or the Polish were too stubborn. As a result, Moscow and Warsaw were left one-on-one, and finally reached an agreement after a new government came into power in Poland that was less hostile toward Russia. And Moscow simply lifted the embargo on Polish meat imports.
Both sides understand that the Polish veto can be imposed again under a new pretense anytime. There are enough other irritating issues between Poland and Russia. In particular, Poland is not happy with the construction plans for the “North Stream” gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline will bypass Poland, and thus deprive it of a significant amount of gas transit payments. Ecological arguments are also added: according to the Polish side, the pipeline potentially threatens the entire Baltic Sea, while there is already German chemical ammunition that has been buried on the bottom after World War II.
Some political forces in Poland also demand repentance from Russia for Joseph Stalin’s repressions, and in particular for the mass execution of Polish officers outside of Katyn. This demand alone is unlikely to be brought forth as a formal reason for vetoing Russia-EU negations; however, it reflects the sad state of the Russian-Polish relationship, when almost anything can be used as a pretense for a veto. For example, a number of Polish politicians have already demanded that Russia not stand in the way of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. Others relate the start of the negotiations to Moscow’s ceasing to support Abkhazian separatists.
Other Eastern European EU members are no less “creative” when it comes to demanding various things of Russia. As soon as Poland removed its objections, Lithuania expressed its own, concerning a number of controversial points. In particular, the Lithuanian “ultimatum” mentions the oil pipeline “Druzhba” (Friendship), built during the Soviet era. After yet another accident with the rather worn pipeline, Russia completely stopped using it to pump oil to Lithuania, and then began using it again for transporting very limited amounts. Lithuania demands that the oil supply is resumed in full, but that is not all. The list of demands, presented by a number of Lithuanian politicians, also mentions Abkhazia: they insist that Russia observe Georgia’s territorial integrity and stop supporting Sukhumi’s separatist aspirations.
And, finally, the most painful fact: Latvia, as well as Lithuania, is preparing a multi-billion dollar bill for Moscow as compensation for the losses incurred during the period of “Soviet occupation,” beginning in 1940 and on to the consequences of the Chernobyl power plant accident. This includes ecological damages (for example, damages caused by the Soviet Army in all the years of its presence in the republic), and compensations for victims of Stalin’s repressions and deportations, as well as many other items.
The potential list of complaints that can be used against Moscow by a number of other Eastern European countries can be practically endless. The list is so long that in the eyes of Russian diplomats, that there is not that much motivation left to take the path of literally fulfilling all the new requirements. As soon as some requirements get fulfilled, new ones are bound to appear immediately. So far, it is hard to imagine practical negotiations between Moscow and Riga, for example, about the monetary “compensations.”
So where is the way out? It clearly lies outside the context of a formal complaint discussion. It lies in the context of much wider interaction based on the search for common values. As soon as there is a mutual value platform for dialogue the “damned past,” as well as the monetary compensations, will be forgotten. Otherwise, Russia and the EU will not take one step forward on the path of framing their relationship with an agreement--it will still be blocked by those who consider Russia to be “too alien” for Europe.