Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 99

A summit meeting between Russia and the European Union, which took place in Moscow on May 17, produced new proclamations of support for an evolving Russian-EU “strategic partnership,” but appeared to yield little in the way of concrete agreements on important issues. The meeting was the seventh of its kind between Russia and the EU, and brought to Moscow a European delegation led by Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson (whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency), EU Commission President Romano Prodi and EU security chief Javier Solana. The Russian delegation to the talks was led by President Vladimir Putin, and included both Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The meeting took place against a background of intensifying Russian efforts to improve ties with the EU as a counterbalance to what had been increasingly tense relations between Moscow and the Bush administration in Washington. Russian-American ties have taken a recent upturn, however, as evidenced by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to Washington on May 17, and it remains to be seen what sort of impact this development will have on Russia’s EU relations.

Both Russian and EU officials expressed their satisfaction with the May 17 talks, with Prodi telling reporters in Moscow that “we have managed to bring closer the settlement of many issues, which even a month ago seemed unreal.” Putin too spoke glowingly of Russian-EU ties, telling the European leaders that Russia could serve as a “reliable and promising” EU partner. He also said that “the significant role the EU is playing in Europe and global policy is pushing us toward closer cooperation,” and assured his guests that “Russia is ready for a joint search with the EU for responses to global threats and challenges, as well as to solve regional conflicts.” Those last remarks suggested that the Kremlin does indeed still see improved ties to Europe as a possible hedge against shaky relations with Washington, and that it also believes a more independent European role in world affairs would operate to Moscow’s advantage.

The chief product of the May 17 Russian-EU summit was a joint statement that reiterated the “particular importance of strengthening the long-term strategic partnership” between Russia and the EU and which called for the two sides to “facilitate economic growth and prosperity, social development, protection of the environment and strengthening of security and stability in Europe.” More specifically, EU leaders pledged to back Russia’s bid for World Trade Organization membership and said that they would strive to boost Russian-EU economic cooperation by forming a “unified economic space.” While little explanation was provided as to what exactly that last formulation meant, the Europeans did appear to attach considerable importance to discussions aimed at increasing the euro holding of Russia’s Central Bank reserves, which are currently made up mostly of dollars. That would be a “clear sign of commitment to closer relations between the EU and Russia,” Prodi said at a Kremlin press conference.

But despite such positive developments, there were also indications of tensions and lingering disagreements during the May 17 summit. Despite a clear disinclination on Moscow’s part to discuss the subjects, for example, EU leaders continued to criticize Russian policy in Chechnya and to express concerns over the state of media freedom in Russia. They also insisted that references to these difficult issues be included in the final joint statement (Reuters, AP, AFP, Russian agencies, May 17).

Reports published in the leadup to the May 17 talks suggested that the two sides had failed to resolve differences on a host of other topics. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, had suggested that Moscow would press for new talks with the Europeans on U.S. missile defense plans and their possible impact on strategic stability. But those topics do not appear to have been a major subject of discussion on May 17. Ivanov also suggested that Russia expected to hear from the Europeans concrete proposals for increasing defense cooperation between Russia and the EU. But the May 17 joint statement appeared to speak more in generalities. It indicated that the two sides would aim for a “closer dialogue and cooperation in political questions as well as questions of security in Europe,” and also spoke of exchanging information regarding security-related developments in both Russia and the EU. But there appeared to be no formal mention of the subject that is of perhaps greatest interest to Moscow in this area: Russian-EU discussions on the role of Europe’s future 60,000-strong rapid reaction force (Russian agencies, May 16; Izvestia, May 17).

The EU and Russian delegations apparently also failed to finalize an agreement under which hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money would be released to Russia from the EU, the United States and Norway for the clean up of nuclear waste materials in Russia’s northern regions. The program, which would target reactors in decommissioned nuclear submarines and spent fuel rods in northern Russia and on the Kola Peninsula, has been held up over disagreements regarding Russia’s liability for any accident that might occur during the cleanup (Reuters, May 14, 17). The two sides likewise failed to finalize agreements aimed at boosting Russian energy exports to Europe. Under the proposed deal, the EU would be prepared to invest hundreds of billions of euros in Russia’s energy sector. European leaders are reportedly hesitating because of continuing uncertainties in Russia’s business environment (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 18).