June 6, 2003
Patching Things Up at Putin's Picnic
By Grigory Yavlinsky
Grigory Yavlinsky is leader of the Yabloko party. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.
The top-level meetings held in St. Petersburg last weekend produced positive results for Russia, Europe and the entire world. Common Russian and European interests were spelled out, and some progress was made toward the creation of a greater Europe. Russian cooperation with the European Union took a step forward, and Russian-U.S. relations, strained by the crisis in Iraq, were mended. While their meetings had a certain theatrical flair, President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders demonstrated a sound understanding of military and geopolitical developments around the globe.
The 300th anniversary of Russia's northern capital provided a fitting backdrop for the talks, as the participants came to realize that the standoff over Iraq had gone too far, and that the way forward involved restoring relations without losing face. The celebrations gave the leaders a reason to put on a smile and adopt a positive outlook, to offer words of praise rather than criticism. The bonhomie in St. Petersburg undoubtedly eased tensions and paved the way for more productive talks at the G-8 summit in Evian earlier this week.
The meetings in St. Petersburg were more than pomp and circumstance. During the tricentennial of Russia's "window to Europe," Putin used the occasion to point out major obstacles in the way of Russian integration into Europe. One of the biggest is the "new Schengen wall" which divides Europe today as the Berlin Wall did in the Soviet era. Putin's forceful call for visa-free travel between Russia and Europe, removing the visa barrier that most Russians cannot overcome, was almost unprecedented in talks at this level.
After the Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg, the removal of the visa barrier can no longer be left on the back burner. It is a pressing problem that must be tackled immediately, first by creating a working group, and then by drafting concrete proposals for the next Russia-EU summit meeting in Rome this November.
It would have been more productive, and more logical, to discuss the nuts and bolts of visa-free travel during the meetings at the Konstantin Palace west of St. Petersburg. More progress could have been made if the issue had been raised a year or so ago, during the negotiations on Kaliningrad. It was not raised, however, and for obvious reasons. Russian and European officials simply don't take the issue seriously because at bottom they don't believe that Russia can become part of Europe not only in the cultural, historical and political sense, but also in practical terms.
In St. Petersburg, the eurocrats responded to Putin's call with resounding silence. Then again, discussion of Chechnya at the Russia-EU summit was restricted to the war on terrorism. From the European point of view, the lack of criticism of human rights violations in Chechnya could be seen as compensation for the EU's unwillingness even to consider opening its borders to Russians.
So long as Russia runs roughshod over human rights in Chechnya and authoritarianism continues to raise its ugly head in domestic politics, the Europeans will feel justified in maintaining a defensive wall and refusing to talk about a "greater Europe." It is much easier for European officials to punish all Russian citizens for the actions of the Kremlin (while making nice with the Kremlin at every opportunity) than it would be to roll up their sleeves and help settle the conflict in Chechnya, or to sweat the details of a visa-free regime with Russia. At this point all the Europeans have to do is to admit the possibility of open borders and to present a list of their conditions. This is precisely what they won't do, and their refusal has turned this into an increasingly political issue -- hence the analogy with the Berlin Wall.
Much will depend on the future political and economic evolution of the EU as well. A number of fundamental transformations in the EU are still needed, but its member states have been unable to establish common priorities. The role of the euro in the world economy, as well as in Russia's economy, remains an open question.
And yet there can be no question that the overwhelming majority of obstacles to visa-free travel lie on the Russian side of the border. We must begin today to demand action from the Interior Ministry, law enforcement agencies and lawmakers to tackle the problems of illegal migration and the drug trade, as well as passage of a law on readmission.
The meetings in St. Petersburg last weekend have also freed us of illusions about triangular alliances, or alliances of any other configuration, pitting Russia and Europe against the United States. All of the erstwhile Frondeurs demonstrated their desire to patch up relations with the U.S. in advance of the G-8 summit in Evian. U.S. President George W. Bush came to France graciously to accept their surrender, which they had previously declared by backing a UN resolution establishing the postwar order in Iraq as dictated from Washington.
The most important result of Putin's meeting with Bush was the return to the principles of the Declaration on Strategic Partnership, signed one year ago during the summit in Moscow. Politicians and journalists paid scant attention to the declaration at the time, focusing instead on the treaty on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals, a topic more in line with stereotypical political thinking. Today it is clear, however, that the Declaration on Strategic Partnership is the founding document in U.S.-Russian relations, the "road map" of future development, and the only legal basis now in place for such development.
Another key issue of both the Russian-EU summit and Putin's meeting with Bush was the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As Putin remarked, Russia and the U.S. are closer than they seem even on the thorny issue of Iran's nuclear program. Another important result was the joint Russian-American declaration on the North Korean nuclear program, which once again assigns Russia an active role in defusing the situation after it was sidelined for its opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq.
It was very heartening to see world leaders in St. Petersburg recognize that bickering over approaches to our common problems, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, gets us nowhere. Concerted action is what is needed.
The reaction of the Russian public to the meetings in St. Petersburg is another issue. I think it was positive on the whole. But we must understand that public opinion is fractured, and focuses more on who's talking than what they're talking about. When Putin talks about strategic partnership with the United States and intergration with Europe, the public supports him. Yet his anti-American statements and his appeals to rely on no one but ourselves garner just as much support.
There was a sense in St. Petersburg that Russia's leaders were taking care of their business while the people were taking care of theirs. That the only way politics affects everyday life is by blocking off the streets and creating other assorted inconveniences. My point here is not about security measures, but about the lack of a feedback mechanism between the rulers and the ruled. There is no point talking about stable development in one direction or another in a country where the rulers set the agenda for society, rather than the other way around. This point should be factored into the assessment of any top-level meeting involving Russian politicians.