As the Eastern Partnership Summit is approaching, discussions about the foreign political course of Ukraine and its relations with Russia and the European Union are intensifying. How will Kiev’s choice affect relations within the Russia – Ukraine – EU triangle? What is the future of the Eastern Partnership? We discussed these questions during the presentation of “Four Scenarios for Russia-Germany Relations” with Permanent Representative of Russia to the European Union and member of RIAC, Vladimir Chizhov.
Vladimir Alekseevich, how would you characterize the current evolution of relations between Russia and the EU?
I would say that relations between Russia and the EU are in general much more positive than the picture often presented in the EU media and, unfortunately, in some Russian media as well. Our relations are part of a huge multidimensional network, which is only natural since we are key partners. Even if we are discussing trade, the European Union is our largest partner – it accounts for approximately one half of Russian foreign trade turnover. For its part, Russia is the third largest partner for the European Union after the U.S. and China, with China only slightly leading us.
Do you think that there are conflicts of interest between Russia and the EU in the post-Soviet space?
I cannot say that this is an area of fully converging interests, just as there is no such convergence in Asia and North America. The European Union has certain interests in the post-Soviet space, some of which are quite legitimate. For example, we could cite interest in fuel and energy produced in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, investment, the role of Central Asia as a bridge to Asia toward China and so forth. Indeed the interests of Russia and the EU do not always coincide, but our task is primarily to prevent them from developing into conflict, and, secondly, to engage in a dialogue, which we are actively maintaining.
A lot has been said recently about Ukraine in this context. This issue has been often portrayed in the press in such a way that Ukraine must make a choice either in favor of the European Union or the Customs Union. In other words, notionally European and notionally Russian integration associations are being placed in opposition against each other. Do you believe that such trade-off is justified?
This is not an issue of a choice between the EU and Russia. As it is well-known, one does not choose his parents or neighbors and I think that both factors are related to the situation in Ukraine. Besides, it is important to understand that it is not a matter of a historical choice. And, naturally Ukraine will not cease to be our neighbor, a country close to us, and the Ukrainian people – our closely related people.
However, there is another question. Both Moscow and Brussels are sending a certain signal not only to Kiev, but also to some other so-called focus states of the Eastern Partnership, that in practical terms the time of comfortably sitting between the two chairs is coming to an end. And, this is not because these «chairs» are rapidly moving apart – in principle they move in one direction although with different speeds. However, there are certain landmarks on the trek of association with the EU that will have legal consequences for Ukraine. It is important to understand what the «free trade area» is and what the «Customs union» is. Every country can have a free trade area with the entire world if you would like, both collectively or individually, or on a bilateral basis. However, one cannot be a member of two customs unions at the same time since any customs union is based on a single customs tariff. One cannot have one customs tariff for some partners and a different tariff for others. Thus the «moment of truth» arrives, in practical terms – the moment of making certain decisions. These decisions must be taken thoughtfully. Everything that we are telling Ukraine now is necessary in order to let it understand the situations that will emerge in either case. The haste, if not the fuss, about the Vilnius Summit is dictated primarily by the political interests of the European Union, because the «Eastern Partnership» project depends to a greater degree on the signing of an Association agreement with Ukraine.
In case of Moldavia, the majority of work is yet to be finished. As it is known, Azerbaijan initially did not show any interest in this project. Armenia made its historical choice and in my view it was the right one. No association agreement at all was offered by anyone to Belarus.
The Third «Eastern Partnership» Summit will be held in Vilnius (let me note that only very few people remember the two previous ones). I once said (and even the Financial Times quoted me later) that any EU project without a separate budget line under it is doomed to a difficult destiny. This has been the case of the «Eastern Partnership». I can add that there has not been yet any mention of the «Eastern Partnership» either in the 2014 budget or in the seven-year framework. Therefore, it is not to be expected that «golden rain» will be pouring from the Brussels’ «horn of plenty» as manna from heaven on the Ukrainian steppes.
It turns out that the future of Ukraine depends not only on the choice of Ukraine itself but also on whether it will be profitable to the EU at a certain moment. What in your view is the likelihood that Ukraine will sign the Association agreement? Will it be followed by any movement forward?
I do not think I will be divulging any secret information if I state that consensus on this issue is taking some effort to be achieved.
Does it mean that further progress along these lines is still unclear?
It is not unclear – the trajectory can be seen quite clearly, but its pace and concrete content are yet to be defined. I think that the signing of an agreement is quite probable, but it is still unknown when it will be ratified. Besides, even its provisional application will not begin the day after it is signed, because the EU has incorporated internal procedures that require approval by the European Parliament. So, much more is yet to be seen.