The idea of the European destiny for Russia has apparently given way to the idea of cooperation, collaboration, cohabitation, but not integration, as was stated before, said Fedor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, at the session of Eurasian Online Seminar and China Seminar, which was organized the Department of International Relations and International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism of National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE University) on November 27.
Speech by Fyodor Lukyanov:
“Many of us remember the remarkable statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made about a month ago. It made the headlines of almost all Russian and many foreign media. Sergei Lavrov said that since the efficiency of the dialogue between Russia and the EU is, to put it mildly, very low, the Russian side considers it reasonable to stop it and wait until the situation becomes more favorable for a constructive dialogue to emerge. This statement was only part of a longer conversation he had had, but this particular phrase, which was pretty harsh, provoked a lot of response. By “harsh” statement I mean that I can’t remember anything like that said before, although the conceptual systemic crisis in Russia-EU relations has long been a reality.
That was the first time when Russian Foreign Minister clearly stated that the dialogue can be stopped completely because there is no point in it. The uproar in the media was largely, as it often happens, misleading, because if one looks at the context of what was discussed in that conversation with Mr. Lavrov it would be quite clear that he did not mean complete termination of contacts with Europe, as was interpreted by some commentators. Lavrov referred not to Europe as a conglomerate of European states, he spoke about the European Union as an international institution and explained quite explicitly that the dialogue with the European Union as an institution was essentially upset ever since by the Ukraine crisis of 2014.
The last summit between Russia and the EU was held in Brussels in late January 2014, that is, three weeks before the Maidan events overthrew Kiev’s regime. Although Russia-EU bilateral relations at that point were very far from good, all mantras and formulas usually stated (four common spaces, partnership for modernization, etc.), were in place, at least during the official part of the summit. In general, the summit illustrated the essence of the model of Russia-EU relations that was created in the early 1990s and had been in effect despite many challenges, setbacks, and gradual and very significant erosion that started in the mid-2000s. That model was in a way very logical and holistic. It was based on the assumption that Russia, like all post-communist European countries, would sooner or later join or become part of the European political space. But it has never been clarified what exactly Russia’s membership or participation in the EU project would be like.
But despite the fact, and even maybe because of the fact, that Russia was not perceived as a hypothetical EU member, it was never seen as something that deserves special treatment by Europeans. In the 1990s, after USSR had collapsed, Russia was too weak and fragile, while its development trajectory was hardly predictable. Therefore, with the European Union going up in all dimensions (political, economic, cultural, ideological and moral) and Russia going down, Brussels simply had no reason to look for some special place or role for Russia in the future of the European constellation.
Deep in unprecedented domestic troubles, Russia could not aspire to anything different from what was offered to it by the EU as a stronger partner. And what the European Union offered was only a kind of affiliation with the EU, not full membership with the corresponding voting right. That was basically the precondition of how relations started to develop in the early 1990s.
The main idea was that Russia should become part of the European world and should do away with the Soviet legacy as the basis for its culture and history. That was a period of perestroika and “new political thinking” when Secretary General and later President Mikhail Gorbachev started to change the whole ideological pattern in a bid to get rid of the burden of the Cold War. This moment is crucial for our current discussion as it was the first time when the idea about European Russia was transformed into a political philosophy stating that Russia can become part of Europe built on the principles of mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence under conditions that would exclude ideological and military confrontation.
But then the USSR fell apart and the idea of equality simply disappeared. So why I believe it is important to focus on that particular period of our mutual relations? Because what Lavrov said, from my point of view, is the conceptual end of the model of Russia’s relations with the EU that was launched precisely at this period of time. In this model Russia was supposed to follow, in some way, those countries which wanted to join the European Union as full-fledged members but without even having the prospects of this membership.
Many may remember the famous phrase said by former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi: “Europe is ready to share with Russia anything but institutions” in which he referred to the prospects of its integration with the EU. At that time this statement was perceived as an extremely generous gesture. But if we look at with more insight, we would realize that this allegation illustrates the essence of the European approach: even if Russia takes on all responsibilities and commitments, it would still have no right to vote and get no membership in European institutions, which is, in fact, the essence of any integration.
Anyway, the political and diplomatic development in the 1990s was very fruitful, and operating in this logic Russia achieved quite a lot – after all, the 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ratified in 1997) still remains the only framework for Russia-EU relations.
Hence the paradox of the Russian case is that, unlike many East European countries, it did not want to join the EU and it has never been considered as a potential EU candidate, while it was assumed that in its behavior it should stick to most of EU norms and commitments. For quite a long time, at least until the mid-2010s, that is, even during the first part of Putin’s presidency, Russia tried to follow this path. Despite growing mutual rejection both bureaucratic and political machines kept going in the direction that was envisaged in the early 1990s. The international events that followed, including in Iraq, Georgia, and Ukraine, have changed the basic approaches of both Russia and the EU. Seen from this perspective, Russia of 2005 and Russia of 2015 are two different countries. As for the current state of bilateral relations, I would call it absurd, as there is actually no common agenda. Cases like that with Alexei Navalny – whatever happened to him – which basically replaced all essential issues, have nothing to do with long-term interests of either side.
Russia maintains relations with many European countries, but they cannot substitute its relations with the EU as an independent entity, because those countries’ capacities to pursue their own policies are limited. While Russia’s expectations that Russia-friendly EU members would influence the European Union’s approach towards improving its relations with Russia have failed completely. So, I think Sergei Lavrov’ statement, which I referred to at the beginning, actually meant to draw a line under the period which started in the early 1990s. Of course, it doesn’t mean that Russia is ready, able or willing to break its relations with Europe altogether, but the uniqueness of this moment is that the idea of the European destiny for Russia has apparently given way to the idea of cooperation, collaboration, cohabitation, but not integration, as was stated before.”