European Affairs

While European concerns are mainly about political trends in Russia, the economic links between Russia and the European Union have never been stronger. Europe is Russia’s most important trading partner. The historical ties between Moscow and most of the new EU member states, and widespread knowledge of the Russian language in the region, will facilitate further exchanges. Russia and the European Union are natural partners in the energy sector. The European Union has a vital interest in securing its energy supplies and diversifying its sources. Russia has vast natural energy resources and is seeking new markets.

Geopolitically, Russia is also important as a link between Europe and Asia. Russia leads the Commonwealth of Independent States, composed of former members of the Soviet Union, and maintains close ties with the countries of Central Asia. Several nuclear facilities in the region remain from the Soviet era. We share a common interest in the non-proliferation of nuclear material and support Russian efforts to prevent it.

In the improving climate after the Cold War ended, the European Union and Russia entered into a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1997, designed to promote closer political, commercial, economic and cultural cooperation. During the accession negotiations with the ten new member states, relations with Moscow moved into higher gear. Negotiations have recently started to create even tighter bonds - so-called “common spaces” - in economic matters, internal and external security, research, education and culture. The relationship with Russia will also have to take into account the closer links that the European Union plans to forge with the three countries that now lie between its borders and Russia - Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine - under the European Neighborhood Policy launched in 2003.

Thus while in many ways the prospects for harmonious coexistence are excellent, there are flaws in the relationship, starting with different perceptions of democracy, that worry many Europeans. While Europeans see democracy as the right of a people to determine its own future, President Vladimir Putin has introduced the concept of  “managed democracy.” The world got an idea of what that means when the Russian people went to the polls in 2003.

The Russian media almost unanimously favored the candidates that Mr. Putin had chosen. Not surprisingly, the President’s political friends won most of the seats in the Duma, the Russian Parliament. Newspapers and television channels that challenged the new political arrangements risked being banned or losing their financial resources. Again unsurprisingly, few dared to challenge the Kremlin leadership.

Another example of “managed democracy” has been Moscow’s interference in the running of the Yukos oil company and the jailing of its former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovski on tax evasion charges, apparently at least partly for political reasons. The European Parliament has formally expressed its concern that “moves by the Russian authorities against Yukos ... were such as to arouse strong suspicion of political interference in the judicial process.” Mr. Khodorkovski, said to be Russia’s richest man, had announced his interest in political issues and was suspected of working against Mr. Putin. The European Union, however, believes that the judicial process must be independent from political authorities.

The European Union does not intend to impose its values on Russia, as we feel such an approach would be inappropriate between partners. The Union is, however, determined to proceed on the basis of its own common values. This is why all EU cooperation agreements with other countries, including the pact with Russia, now contain human rights clauses allowing the agreement to be suspended in the event of human rights abuses by the partner country.

This instrument, however, has to be used cautiously. While we do not want the clause to become meaningless, it would be wrong to suspend cooperation with Russia at the present moment. That would mean losing all our influence in Moscow, and it would become much more difficult to win further diplomatic advantages, such as the European Union’s recent success in persuading Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

We were all horrified by the terrible bloodshed caused by Chechen terrorists at a school in Beslan in September 2004. But we must also try to understand the origin of the hatred and grief that reign in Chechnya. The European Union was founded on the ruins of World War II, because former enemies reached out to each other in a desire to live together in peace and to cooperate for the benefit of all. In this spirit, the European Union has grown into a peaceful and prosperous entity of 450 million citizens.

Because of our own past, we deeply believe in reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. And we feel that the Russian government is dealing with the Chechen people in an inappropriate manner. In expressing its concern, the European Parliament stated that “the ongoing conflict in Chechnya and the massive human rights violations taking place there are an insurmountable obstacle to the development of a genuine partnership between the EU and Russia.”

Moscow’s conduct in Chechnya has held up progress in the EU-Russian talks on strengthening cooperation in the areas of freedom, security and the rule of law, which cover issues such as homeland defense, police cooperation and measures to fight international organized crime and illegal migration. The Chechen problem, as well as state control of the media and abuses of human rights in Russia, has prevented agreement on a road map for closer cooperation in this area, which also includes the crucially important requirement of respect for common European values. Recently, however, prospects for continuing the negotiations have brightened, following high-level talks between EU and Russian officials in Luxembourg at the end of February.

We have also differed over Ukraine. Europeans were concerned about irregularities in the first presidential elections in November 2004 that were subsequently invalidated. But while many EU politicians felt sympathy for the Orange Revolution that eventually swept President Viktor Yushchenko to power in December, none ever interfered in the election campaign in the way that Mr. Putin did.

The most important outcome of the second vote was not that Mr. Yushchenko won, but that the Ukrainian people had their say in an open and fair election. Obviously we were pleased to hear that Mr. Yushchenko wants to work closely with the European Union. It remains to be seen whether his desire for future Ukrainian EU membership is a realistic option. In any case, however, we will cooperate closely with Ukraine in the framework of the European Neighborhood policy.

The European Union’s improving relations with Ukraine should not harm the EU-Russian partnership. The European Parliament will ask the European Commission to act carefully, and with foresight, in bilateral negotiations with Moscow. Both Russia and Ukraine are important partners and the European Union will not try to play them off against each other.

Negotiations on closer economic cooperation are still continuing, with the aim of establishing a Common Economic Space, in which obstacles to trade and investment will be eliminated. The European Union will help Russia develop a market economy by establishing a stable legal framework similar to EU law, and by harmonizing technical standards. In the future the European Union would like to achieve further economic integration by increasing and diversifying trade, creating new investment opportunities and establishing common transport, telecommunications and energy networks. The delicate question of the future economic status of Kaliningrad is one of the many difficult issues that remain to be settled.

Brussels and Moscow are also due to start negotiations on the details of Russia’s long-standing bid for membership of the World Trade Organization, which the European Union is supporting. The high-level talks in February also led to progress in this direction.

One reason why the European Union agreed to back Russia’s WTO application was an undertaking by Moscow that Russia would in return ratify the Kyoto Protocol - a promise that it has now fulfilled. Russian ratification, allowing the Protocol to enter into force in February 2004, caused great satisfaction in the European Union, and has certainly helped to improve Moscow’s standing in Brussels.

The European Union also aims to help Russia solve the environmental problems that it inherited from the Soviet era. Brussels is offering technical and financial support for the disposal of toxic waste, particularly the most dangerous type, nuclear waste. The European Union is united in its efforts to keep nuclear material out of reach of terrorists and to pursue a strict non-proliferation policy. That is one of the many foreign policy aims in which we agree with our Russian partners. Others are the fight against international terrorism, cooperation against drug trafficking and arms reduction and control. The European and Union and Russia have taken joint action to destroy chemical and nuclear weapons.

In the field of foreign relations, however, European policy toward Russia has not always been very consistent. Problems have ranged from minor bilateral issues such as visa regulations to the blatant breach of the common EU position on Chechnya by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister. Mr. Berlusconi played down human rights abuses at an EU-Russia summit in 2004, after the European Council had previously condemned the abuses. France and Germany also sought to form a common front with Russia against U.S. policy in Iraq without consulting their EU partners.

All these are clearly areas in which the European Union should take a more coherent stance, and eventually speak with a single voice. That ambition will be more easily fulfilled if the new constitutional treaty signed by governments in October 2004 is ratified by all 25 EU member states.

Nevertheless, relations between Russia and the European Union have steadily improved, and cooperation has increased, over the past decade. While there have been setbacks in some areas, the partnership has been successful in others. Some analysts have noted broader concerns. There are fears in some quarters that increasing European dependence on Soviet energy supplies will allow Moscow to exert growing influence over EU decision-making. And while Mr. Putin sees Europe as Russia’s prime economic partner, he still regards the United States and China as his main strategic interlocutors.

The European Union, however, will continue to practice constructive engagement with Russia, as called for by the European Parliament. That means that we shall proceed with closer cooperation in areas where both partners agree on the general guidelines and make our positions clear in areas where we do not.

Our new member states will be a big asset. It is true that some of them have bitter memories of the time when they were controlled by the Soviet Union and struggled for independence. But they also have strong economic ties with Russia, and we shall profit from their long experience of dealing with Moscow, which Western Europeans often find more difficult to understand.

We shall insist on key points such as the safeguarding of human rights in Chechnya, conformity with international standards for the treatment of prisoners, guarantees of press freedom and the further development of democracy and the rule of law in Russian society. A true and sustainable partnership between Russia and the European Union will be possible only if these principles are respected. We certainly hope that they will be.


Jo Leinen is serving his second term as a Member of the European Parliament, where he is President of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs and a member of the Socialist Group.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2005.