Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#19 - JRL 8446 - JRL Home

PARIS (by columnist Angela Charlton for RIA Novosti) - The storm over who will serve on the next European Commission gave Moscow a tidy excuse for scrapping an EU-Russia summit that both sides had been dreading.

The Russian request to postpone the summit, scheduled for this Thursday in The Hague, surprised a few EU officials but was quickly accepted. The Europeans seem as frustrated with the Russians lately as vice versa, and the meeting promised to be thorny and probably fruitless. Delaying a summit for a few weeks, however, is unlikely to solve anything.

The old conflicts between Moscow and Brussels still fester: Chechnya, human rights, energy prices, Kaliningrad, Russian speakers in the Baltics. And new ones are emerging: the reality of shared borders, President Vladimir Putin's latest political reforms, and his embrace of George W. Bush's re-election and his anti-terrorism tactics.

EU leaders rejoiced last month at Putin's swift push for ratification of the Kyoto protocol, apparently in exchange for European support for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. But that didn't provide enough momentum to get Russia-EU relations out of their slump. Moscow's political elite quickly got over the significance of Kyoto and turned their attention to the U.S. presidential race.

More and more, Putin seems to prefer alliances with single-minded leaders like Bush to alliances with eternally debating European institutions. Russia's era of America-bashing has passed, at least among its foreign policy designers. They now insist that Russia's values are closer to America's than Europe's. The claim may go no deeper than a shared intransigence in response to terrorism, but in today's world a nation's response to terrorists is its defining feature.

Still, Russia needs the EU. They share a continent, an enormous amount of trade, and now, borders. The question is whether both sides will be willing to cooperate and compromise enough to reach abroad agreement worthy of a new summit, or whether they will stick to small, specific accords and remain at odds over the bigger picture.

So far, Russia shows no signs of softening. The EU inclusion of the Baltic states this spring still makes Russian leaders cringe. Europe's anger over Putin's decision to ban elections for governors and independent legislators only angered the Kremlin more, and Europeans failed to provoke opposition among Russians to the move.

Moscow is also insulted at being lumped together with the EU's other new neighbors, such as Ukraine. "This suit is a bit small," is how Kremlin EU envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky described it Tuesday. Instead he wants a special partnership with Europe that reflects Russia's "massive" status.

It is Russia's massiveness that many Europeans still fear, especially those new EU members with memories of Soviet rule. EU legislators and commissioners from the Baltics, Poland and Hungary will resist any pandering to Russian demands. The other EU countries may find themselves as mediators between Eastern Europe and its eastern neighbor.

Meanwhile, the EU is too absorbed in its unusually impassioned debate over the makeup of the next European Commission to focus on Russia. Even once the new EC is in place, the staffing debate itself indicates that its members will be eager to prove their mettle and independence. They could use that opportunity to press Russia more vigorously on military abuses in Chechnya or the conflicts in Moldova and Georgia.

Putin's personal relationships with Silvio Berlusconi, Gerhard Schroeder and other European leaders have suffered little as overall Russian-European ties have frayed. The Russian president will likely continue to reach agreements with individual countries but resist signing EU-wide documents that he deems unfair or insulting to Russia's global status.

When this summit was scheduled, both sides hoped to sign an accord on four spheres of partnership. They're close to agreement on the science and legal spheres; the other two, on civil rights and security, need work, as French President Jacques Chirac admitted last week.

The problem for European negotiators is that they no longer hold the economic and moral advantage over Russia that they did in the 1990s. Russia's economy is booming, while Europe's is stagnating. Russia has the oil and gas Europe wants, and Moscow is no longer looking for foreign aid - or advice. Russians tried privatization and democratic elections, and they're deeply disappointed.

Putin and his advisers want to carve their own course that European negotiators may be hard pressed to decipher or satisfy. Russian negotiators, meanwhile, must be careful not to offend Europe's investors and anti-terrorism agencies, and not to anger European partners so deeply that ties can't be mended by the time the Putin-Bush era expires in 2008.