#8 - JRL 7207
June 3, 2003
Europe Comes together in St. Petersburg
The EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg lasted two hours. It had angered many people even before it began, and it left a bitter taste in many other people's mouths after it ended. Nevertheless, the summit has already gone down in history - in the new history that is taking shape before our eyes.
Even before May 31, 2003, analysts had been following what was being written about the summit in Russia and around the world. A few key nuances were picked up.
The English-language press, particularly in the US and Britain, wrote very little about the forthcoming meeting between European leaders. When they did write about it, they wrote about its main participants: an article in the Christian Science Monitor (US) was called 'St. Putinburg'. However, for some reason the political establishment chose to alert Europeans to the fact that the CIS would be strengthened in St. Petersburg.
In this light, it is worth mentioning the intriguing interview given to the strana.ru website by Bruce Bueno de Mesquite, Professor Emeritus at New York University. The professor suggested that the EU's concern could provoke discussion of more active economic and military cooperation between CIS countries. He particularly stressed that the fight against terrorism was a weak argument for strengthening CIS cooperation, as terrorism had already 'had its back broken':
We won't try to decide how convinced Europeans were by this, although at the summit's opening President Putin expressed his sympathy to the Spanish Prime Minister after a new terrorist strike in Spain:
The largest number of articles devoted to the summit was to be found in the German press. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper wrote that 'Russia is putting on a spectacle about its dreams of greatness.' It added that 'St. Petersburg will not just be hosting the EU-Russia summit. Putin has organised a summit for the whole world.' The newspaper predicted that Europe's dialogue with Russia would lose all its content: 'Preparations for the summit have shown that neither side is ready to discuss any practical issues. The EU had planned to include the issue of Chechnya in the communiqu?. The EU once again didn't want to discuss the question of visa-free travel for Russian citizens visiting Western Europe':
In the end, the summit did discuss Chechnya, but the tone was set by Vladimir Putin, who spoke about the referendum and amnesty. Those Europeans who did mention Chechnya simply expressed their support for the Russian leadership's attempts to create a legal channel for resolving the Chechen problem.
The topic of a visa-free future for Russian citizens also cropped up. However, despite the predictions of German newspapers, it also entered the communiqu? in a much more insistent form than expected. The joint statement includes a section called 'A united Europe for all Europeans', which, as Vladimir Putin stressed, agrees to examine the conditions for visa-free travel in the long-term future.
The new level of partnership between the EU and Russia was confirmed by the creation of a Permanent Partnership Council. The European press had been very skeptical about Russia's ability to achieve this goal.
All in all, in those two much maligned hours, which the press had suggested would barely be enough to exchange pleasantries, the summit in St. Petersburg managed to achieve a great deal.
This was, of course, a major success for Russia. A commentary published in Le Figaro on May 29 said that 'Vladimir Putin is preparing to use St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary to loudly announce to the world: 'Russia is back'.' This prediction has now been shown to be right. European commentators will probably write angrily about this, too. However, Russia's success shouldn't be seen as a victory just for Russia.
In one of his last interviews before the summit, Vladimir Putin said that 'if Europe wants to become an independent and self-reliant world power, the easiest and quickest way to this is to build a good relationship with Russia.' This sentence did not go unnoticed: all the major European media outlets gave an opinion, usually critical, of it. Nevertheless, despite all the disagreements within the EU and with regard to Russia, all of Europe's leaders came to St. Petersburg. They came because they have to grasp strategic problems and tasks. And these tasks need to be resolved, however much this runs against traditional views of civilised Europe and barbarian Russia.
On the eve of the summit, Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, declared that 'Russia is too big for Europe.' At the summit, Vladimir Putin publicly rebuked Prodi, saying that ''we have still not managed to implement our agreement with Romano Prodi on a special expert group to examine the question of a visa-free regime for Russian citizens travelling to the EU.' As a result, the 'visa-free topic' was dealt with and Romano Prodi told the concluding press conference that 'the participants in the EU-Russia summit have taken a big step forward in raising the level of cooperation' and 'it is currently necessary to develop a joint strategy for building a constructive partnership between the two countries.'
The gala concert at the Mariinsky Theatre on May 30 provided an intriguing scene. In the stalls, sitting in adjacent seats, were leaders of widely differing countries, including those with a long history of disagreement and more modern squabbles. Jacques Chirac found himself next to Tony Blair, while Romano Prodi just couldn't avoid Silvio Berlusconi:
Events in St. Petersburg had an element of historical d?j? vu about them: they brought to mind Europe's former ruling dynasties, which were all linked by blood. Even when warring with each other or simply hating each other, in their official letters they couldn't help but mention their ties: As with relatives, you can't choose your neighbours. And it was with this small piece of wisdom that St. Petersburg congratulated Europe during the city's 300th anniversary celebrations.
Natalia Starichkova, Rosbalt News Agency Translated by Robin Jones