The Russia-EU summit held in Helsinki, Finland, on November 24 was by no means loaded with expectations, thus it was hardly a disappointment. The central point of its pre-planned agenda was the formal opening of negotiations on a new framework Partnership and Cooperation agreement, since the current one expires in 2007. For two weeks prior to the meeting, the talk in Brussels and Moscow had been about Polish objections to starting these negotiations, which proved to be a hurdle too high, so the agenda was hastily re-worked (Kommersant, November 24). Russian President Vladimir Putin and his three European counterparts – José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy; and Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen – concentrated instead on the “Northern Dimension” program and reviewed the usual “wide range” of issues. The one success came with hammering out a compromise on the long-debated issue of payments for flights over Siberia (Lenta.ru, November 24).
The Russian media discussed the problem of a Polish “veto” from every possible angle, showing the prevailing disbelief among the political elite that a minor question of banning imports of meat from Poland could derail the “strategic” cooperation (Rossiiskaya gazeta, Vremya novostei, November 24). Most experts agreed that Poland sought primarily to strengthen its positions in the vast EU bureaucracy but overplayed its hand, and predicted that Warsaw would gracefully withdraw its objections on the very eve of the summit (Gazeta.ru, November 15). The slightly embarrassed leaders tried to downplay this stumbling block, with Putin clarifying that there were no problems with the quality of Polish meat, but the “technical” issue was the transit of questionable Asian meat through Poland, and Barroso expressing the hope to taste a Polish steak at the next summit (Newsru.com, November 24). This diplomatic dance might help in resolving this particular question, but it cannot hide the fact that Warsaw’s stubbornness is cheered by many in Europe – and not because of any anti-Russian sentiments but due to widespread resentment against Moscow’s political experiments with sanctions, from the threat to slam Shell with multi-billion dollar penalties for polluting the Sakhalin environment to the ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water.
The Polish “intrigue” reduced the summit to a protocol get-together, but in fact it had been designated as the culmination of a Russian offensive in Europe that should have triumphantly wrapped up its year as G-8 chairman. Putin carefully planned a series of visits and high-profile acquisitions, from acquiring a blocking package of shares in the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Corporation (EADS) to the German football club Schalke 04, that should have underpinned his proposal to upgrade the new framework document with the EU to a Strategic Partnership Agreement (see EDM, October 19). He was confident in achieving success because the main instrument for this offensive – Russian gas exports to Europe – appeared infallible. Nevertheless, triumph has remained elusive, and it was not the Polish meat that denied it. Interested as the EU is in securing the uninterrupted deliveries of Russian gas, it cannot ignore the fact that the inflow of European money strengthens the anti-democratic tendencies of Putin’s regime.
A gradual but deep-reaching shift in European public opinion regarding these tendencies occurred this autumn, and no amount of generously funded PR could check it. Many different factors have contributed to the growing indignation against Putin’s policies, from Moscow’s bullying of Georgia to the rising xenophobia, rampant corruption, and the murder of courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya (Kommersant, November 14). The EU leaders felt obliged to raise questions about Politkovskaya in Helsinki, but a new tragedy cast an even deeper shadow over the troubled summit. Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko lost his struggle against an unknown poison but before his death put the blame squarely on Putin’s shoulders. The Russian president found no better way out than pointing out that Litvinenko was “not a Lazarus” and calling his farewell letter a “political provocation.” While the Biblical reference remains somewhat puzzling, the speculations from Putin’s team about a conspiracy aimed at compromising Russia’s image are simply disturbing (Ezhednevny zhurnal, November 26).
Putin made a last attempt to rescue his credentials by writing an article for the Financial Times (November 21) in which he claimed that “Russia is a natural member of the European family” and so the partners should not “succumb to a fear of growing interdependence.” He is right about the family relations – but wrong asserting that irrational fears and old phobias stand in the way of further rapprochement. The EU now shares a perfect understanding based on a broad consensus that Putin’s non-democratic and illiberal regime cannot be a reliable partner whatever promises the Kremlin might see expedient to solemnly declare. Russia, nevertheless, has to be engaged in cooperative relations meaningful for its people in order to help it in making choices that would reinvigorate its European aspirations.
Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin has chosen as a personal enemy and condemned to imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp, argued in an article published on the eve of the Helsinki summit that the time for this choice may come as soon as next year (Economist, November 21). He remains astonishingly optimistic about the readiness of the Russians, who rejoiced when he was thrown behind bars, to shake off the sticky lies of Putin’s propaganda and recognize the ugly nationalist content of the official “patriotism.” It might take more time and more effort, but the EU, rightly denying trust to Putin and his fidgeting courtiers, should not give up on Russia.