The only undisputable fact about the Russia-EU summit in Samara on May 18 was that it actually took place; whether that constitutes a positive result is open to interpretation. Even Russia’s demonstratively self-confident President Vladimir Putin hardly finds much satisfaction in the mutual understanding that the gap between the parties to this “mature dialogue” is deepening and widening. For the Europeans, the pleasure is even more dubious, so Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, found a conflict in his schedule that prevented him from traveling to the Volga (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 18). The final decision to keep the summit on track fell to Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating EU presidency (Vedomosti, May 15). After dispatching to Moscow Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, she concluded that canceling the summit would be a scandal too far (Vremya novostei, May 15). Russian commentators, however, described the summit as either “fruitless” or “scandalously fruitless.”
There was no question about launching the discussions on the new Cooperation and Partnership Agreement, so the plan now is to extend the one that expires in a few months for another year. Putin has emphasized on many occasions his desire to upgrade this legal framework — and he expressed sympathy for the EU leadership, which had to overcome “internal problems” that stood in the way. His mild scorn of “economic egoism,” demonstrated by a few unnamed states, betrayed hopes that Russia’s major partners, like Germany, would find a way to discipline the pesky “new Europeans” (Gazeta.ru, May 18). There is, however, more to the irritating problems with meat imports from Poland or exports of round wood to Finland or indeed the multifaceted quarrel with Estonia triggered by the removal of the Bronze Soldier memorial than just petty squabbling and stubbornness. In the European political mainstream, the disapproval of Russia’s political trajectory is gaining momentum, and against this background every “technical” disagreement acquires a disproportional impact power.
Energy had been expected to be at the center of in-depth deliberations, but the Europeans raised only the transparency aspect of this dominant issue, and Putin generously agreed to “continue working on establishing a mechanism for mutual information and notification in the energy sector.” He arrived in Samara after a triumphant visit to Central Asia and informed Merkel and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, that the newly done deal on transporting all natural gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan through Russia would be quite beneficial for Europe, providing that it abandons the Energy Charter (Expert, May 18). The Europeans, however, want to take some more time assessing the prospects for the Nabucco pipeline, since they are aware that the distance from a handshake to a binding contract and to the real work of laying pipes across the Turkmen deserts could be quite long (Kommersant, May 14).
Instead of energy, a menu of security problems — from finding a settlement formula for Kosovo to clarifying the meaning of the Russian “moratorium” on the CFE Treaty to finding a rationale for deploying elements of a U.S. strategic defense system in Central Europe — was picked by the three parties to the dialogue. Nobody expected any breakthrough, and so everybody was content with the lack of results from the “frank and honest” exchanges (RBC Daily, May 18). The Europeans received another confirmation that Putin does not see any need to soften his stance or to advance meaningful proposals under the smokescreen of harsh rhetoric; U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had a meeting with Putin on May 15, also returned home empty-handed except for a mutual promise to tone down criticism (Vremya novostei, May 16).
This sort of restraint is pretty much all that Putin needs now from his personal networking in the West and, to all appearances, he took more heat from the journalists at the brief press-conference than from Barroso and Merkel during the long sessions and lavish meals. The questions focused on the “march of the discontented” that was planned in Samara on the day of the summit but effectively derailed by “preventive” measures ranging from assaults and arrests to detaining opposition leader Garry Kasparov in the Moscow airport to triple-check his ticket (Polit.ru, Novaya gazeta, May 17; Lenta.ru, May 18). Merkel did express concern about the blatant abuse of power, but Putin merely shrugged it off, asserting that he was not afraid of “marginal groups” and shifting the emphasis to the alleged violations of human rights in Estonia (Kommersant, May 19). The question that really irked him was about whether he considered himself to be a “pure democrat,” so an emotional diatribe against “purity” of any kind was offered for an answer (Ezhednevny zhurnal, May 19).
The issue is indeed not about how close Putin is to — or how far away from — a democratic “ideal,” but about whether the democratic standards are applicable at all to his regime. It is for the moment rather convenient for Western leaders to pretend that they are, so the EU could cling to the empty shell of the “four spaces,” while Russia could keep its place in the G-8 and apply for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Every act in this self-perpetuating pretense, however, encourages Moscow to bend these standards further and squeeze tighter the courageous but hopelessly isolated dissidents. The gang that rules the bureaucratic petro-state likes to describe its anti-Western escapades as “rising from the knees,” but this recycling of Cold War clichés and “weaponization” of energy instruments rather resembles sinking in the putrid Soviet bog.
Stretching the analogy with the marches that have caused so much wrath in the Kremlin, the Russian media called the Samara event the “summit of the discontented” (Vedomosti, May 18). There is hardly much hope in Brussels that the scale of disagreements would go down by the next EU-Russia summit in Lisbon this October. Talking with Moscow appears to make very little practical sense; maybe, it is time for the EU to give the “no-talking” policy a try.