In the mid-1980s then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made the building of a “common European home” the central plank in a radical new foreign policy initiative aimed at drawing Western European governments closer to Moscow while simultaneously undermining the NATO alliance and broader ties between Europe and North America. Now, nearly twenty years later, and following the formalization this past weekend of the European Union’s historic enlargement, the construction of a “common European home” has in many ways become a reality. But a chagrined Russia finds itself not the architect of this new creation, or even a member, but an outcast relegated to a sideline role. The EU’s enlargement, moreover, comes only weeks after NATO finalized an historic expansion of its own. The two developments together mark a major setback for Russian foreign policy, one that seems sure to diminish Moscow’s influence in areas it has long seen as vital to its interests and that could likewise lead to a hardening in its attitudes toward the West.
To militate against any such sharpening of tensions between Russia and the EU, diplomats and government officials from the two sides worked intensively in the weeks that preceded the May 1 EU enlargement ceremonies to amend the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (CPA), the 1994 document that is one of the cornerstones of current EU-Russia relations. And despite earlier Russian threats not to do so, the two sides did reach agreement in Luxembourg on April 27 on the conditions under which the CPA’s provisions would be extended to the ten new EU member states. An EU-Russian joint statement “acknowledged” what the two sides described as “the opportunities to further strengthen their strategic partnership offered by the enlargement of the EU.”
Though some Russian commentators depicted the April 27 agreement as a retreat by Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the joint statement, and some Russian media went so far as to treat it as a diplomatic victory for Moscow. And the agreement does focus on what had been a major Russian concern regarding the looming EU enlargement – the prospect that Russia would suffer serious economic losses resulting from the extension of EU quotas and tariffs to the new member states, many of whom already had separate trade agreements with Russia. Among other things, the joint statement lowers some EU trade tariffs, raises overall quotas on the importation of Russian steel and honors existing contracts on the supply of nuclear materials by Russia to acceding countries. The joint statement likewise spelled out in some detail measures aimed at ensuring the free transit of goods from Russia to Kaliningrad, another issue of importance to Moscow.
But the joint statement appeared to be less amenable to Russia on the issue that had proven the most difficult to resolve and that had come closest to nixing an agreement: the alleged ill treatment of Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia (see article that follows). Moscow had reportedly pressed for inclusion in the joint statement of an EU pledge to encourage “social integration” of ethnic minorities in the new member states. But the statement made no specific mention of Estonia and Latvia and merely stated that “the EU and the Russian Federation welcome EU membership as a firm guarantee for the protection of human rights and the protection of persons belonging to minorities.”
More generally, the limited nature of the April 27 agreement and the difficulties reached in concluding it are reflective of broader, more deep-seated, and potentially more intractable problems now afflicting Russia’s relations with the EU. Several factors lie at the root of these problems. One is a growing divergence in the core values that, in the more optimistic 1990s, were seen as the basis for the emerging Russia-EU partnership. Europe has watched with concern the resurgence of authoritarianism in Russia, and has caused irritation there by criticizing both the erosion of civil liberties under President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s continued heavy hand in Chechnya.
The Russian-EU relationship seems also to be suffering the effects of the EU’s own internal developments. Brussels’ energies have of necessity been directed toward managing a host of issues related to enlargement and European political and economic integration. Such concerns, plus the EU’s longstanding difficulty in executing coherent foreign policies in any area, have tended to frustrate Moscow. This last problem is one that could grow more pronounced in the months to come. The EU’s expansion from fifteen to twenty-five members could make foreign policy decision-making an even more complex problem. Moreover, eight of the ten new EU member states are former Soviet bloc countries, and many continue to harbor suspicions of Russia’s goals and motivations in the region.
Indeed, a largely unspoken but fundamental difference between the EU and Russia at present lies in their differing views of European integration. That is, the EU’s successful expansion may run directly counter to what appears to be Moscow’s own hopes of “reintegrating” the former Soviet space under its own influence.
A host of related factors are also now in play. For example, the long term viability of the new expanded EU remains in question, and Moscow could try, if it so chooses, to use its friendly bilateral relations with various member states to undermine EU cohesion and pursue its own interests. Tensions are likewise sharpening between some European governments and the United States, driven in part by differences over the war in Iraq and international efforts to combat terrorism. The new EU member states are generally more desirous of friendly relations with the United States, but whether this will result in an EU that is more pro-American – or anti-Russian – remains to be seen.
The trajectory of current Russian-EU relations should become a bit clearer on May 21, when the two sides are scheduled to meet in Moscow for the next of their biannual summit meetings. Those talks will reportedly address issues of cooperation in the economy, security, justice, research and education (BBC, April 26; Europa.eu.int, AFP, April 27; Strana.ru, April 26-27; Izvestia.ru, New York Times, April 28; Moscow Times, April 27-29; Daily News Bulletin, www.mid.ru, April 28-29; “Der kalte Frieden: Putins Russland und der Westen,” Internationale Politik, March, 2004; “The EU-Russia Relationship: What is Missing?” www.sipri.org).