Is the Europeanization of Russia Over?

13 april 2004

Timofei Bordachev is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University-Higher School of Economics (HSE), Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS).

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Arkady Moshes is Program Director of the EU Eastern Neighborhood and Russia Research Program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Resume: Russia and the European Union have recently experienced a cooling-off in their relations. The partnership model, which the parties adopted ten years ago to achieve their gradual integration, is now obviously in conflict with reality. The reality is that Russia and the EU represent different political and economic systems that are not integrable in principle.

Relations between Russia and the European Union have reached the point when the developments of the recent years should be critically reassessed. Both Russia and the European Union are dissatisfied with the general state of their relationship, as well as with each other’s actions in specific situations.

The first signs of this discontent became apparent during discussions over Russia’s Kaliningrad Region following the EU’s enlargement. The controversy centered around the ability of Russian citizens to freely travel between the region and the Russian mainland. Russia and Europe realized for the first time that, despite the ambitious integration agenda, they not only spoke different languages but also failed to accept the intrinsic logic of each other’s actions. Later, President Vladimir Putin sharply criticized the European Commission for its unyielding position at the talks on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. He accused the Brussels bureaucracy of “attempting to arm-twist Russia.” Following this scandal, there arose the diplomatic conflict over the settlement of the Transdniestria problem. That was the first time the Europeans clearly demonstrated to Moscow that it could no longer consider itself absolutely free in taking independent actions within the post-Soviet space.

It became absolutely clear that Russia-EU relations entered a most complicated period when Russia took a tough stance on the extension of the 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to the new EU member states, and the European Commission and European Parliament made highly critical statements against Moscow.


Who is to blame for the emerging problems? It is obvious that each side has its share of responsibility. Russia appears not to be ready to fulfill the obligations it assumed under the PCA. Moscow has failed to establish a system of interaction with its neighbor that corresponds with the EU’s magnitude. Likewise, the European Union has proven itself incapable of building a relationship with Russia as an equal strategic partner that consistently seeks solutions to its own foreign policy tasks and observance of its national interests. The new Russia that emerged in the last four years does not conform with the existing Europeanization concept, according to which Moscow should gradually adopt the principles suggested by the EU as regards a nation’s domestic and foreign policy. Russia is not willing to adjust its policies to the EU requirements. In some fields (for example, with regard to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol), Russia’s goals for its modernization run counter to the terms of cooperation put forward by the EU.

At present, there are several serious knots of discord between Russia and the European Union.

First, the parties differ in their approaches to the energy issue. In the second half of 2003, it became obvious that the Russian government intended to maintain its strategic control over that sphere of the economy. Last year the Russian government upset the EU by making it obvious that it realized the extent of its mineral resources and that it was ready to use the energy lever in its foreign policy. Meanwhile, over the last few years the problem of energy safety has evolved into one of the most vital issues for the European Union. However, the promising project of establishing an energy dialog with Russia has stalled; nothing is yet clear about European plans for investing in gas and oil production.

Second, Russia and Europe have been increasingly divided by problems associated with the post-Soviet space. Moscow’s projects for economic integration between the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and its own strategy of settling local conflicts, did not receive a positive response from the EU. On the other hand, the European Union has to intensify its policy toward countries in the western part of the CIS and in the South Caucasus, since following EU enlargement these regions will become the Union’s immediate neighbors. Simultaneously, the European project attracts the attention of the elites in a majority of post-Soviet states – a factor that greatly increases the rivalry between Russia and the European Union.

Just one example: the EU is intensifying its pressure on the Moldovan leadership in order to enforce its own plan for settling the conflict in Transdniestria without the active participation of Russia. This conflict is regarded by Brussels as a good way to field-test the instruments of its general foreign and security policy.

Third, the accession of Central and East European countries to the EU may also bring their traditionally strong anti-Russian sentiments to the European Union policy. Some new members of the EU will probably attempt to get financial and political dividends due to their status of ‘pseudo-frontline’ territories; they will predictably embellish their concerns about bordering on the allegedly unfriendly state. Furthermore, the new EU members may attempt to act as the ‘lawyers’ of the CIS countries in Wider Europe – naturally, to Russia’s discontent.

Fourth, the shortage of diplomacy has become a problem. On the one hand, Moscow’s seeking to minimize its economic losses as a result of the EU expansion has come as a surprise to Brussels. (It should be admitted, though, that it is rather odd that Russia’s 14-point list of concerns emerged only in January 2004, not a year or a year and a half earlier.) On the other hand, bureaucratic Brussels does not regard Russia’s negotiating course as adequate. The EU is annoyed at Moscow’s constant attempts to interconnect problems that are not directly related to each other. As a result, even relatively simple questions remain unresolved, thereby increasing the potential for a major conflict. What is more, the West knows from experience that after Moscow’s stern statements about the inadmissibility of the EU conditions and threats to take countermeasures (which are usually not realized), it eventually gives in and presents a limited and ‘realistic’ list of demands. In any case, Brussels is prepared to consider the 14-point list as merely a “technical list” because it does not really think that the European Union should compensate an outside state (especially a non-member of the WTO) for any negative consequences that may result from the Union’s purely internal decisions. Besides, Russia already has set a precedent by giving its consent to the automatic extension of the PCA to the new EU member countries (as happened in 1995, when Austria, Finland and Sweden became EU members).

Fifth, primary integration projects, such as establishing an energy dialog or creating four common spaces, are at a standstill (at the Russia-EU summit in Rome on November 6, 2003, the parties agreed to start forming a common economic space; a space of cooperation in the field of external security; a common space of freedom, security and justice; and a space of research and education, including cultural aspects).

The negotiations on Russia’s accession to the WTO have been difficult. This is partly due to the extremely high initial expectations, and partly because Russia has proven to be unprepared to fulfill its obligations. A glaring example is Moscow’s stated intention for unilaterally bringing its domestic laws into accordance with the European ones, which was agreed upon in Article 55 of the PCA in 1994. However, in practice there has been no progress in this direction for ten years, which has naturally aroused the irritation of the law-abiding Europeans. It can be questioned whether Russia was right in assuming those obligations, but refusing to fulfill them without an official denouncement, in the EU’s opinion, cannot be justified by any circumstances. The same is true with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, opening of the banking and insurance services market, and other questions, on which Russia’s positions were essentially perceived as obligations, if not formal ones.

From the EU’s point of view, Russia has no desire to take into account its interests or the interests of its member countries and economic agents. For example, Moscow is in no hurry to alleviate the Europeans of their worries over environmental issues or maritime safety. It does not provide its regions with sufficient freedom in foreign economic activity – and that is precisely what European businesses are pressing for, since they do not want to operate exclusively via Moscow. Furthermore, Russia has been toughening its visa procedures for EU citizens.

And, finally, EU relations with Russia are influenced by the squabbles inside the EU. The Iraqi war has demonstrated the inability of the European Union to draw up a uniform policy toward the U.S., while the November 2003 Russia-EU summit has brought to light the same problem with respect to Moscow. But if the EU, which, following its enlargement, it will control over 50 percent of foreign trade with Russia, fails to shape its relations with Russia in a preferable or, at least, an acceptable way, will be nothing but an economic community with a limited list of police functions. If this is the case, then all arguments about the EU’s global role will be just idle talk.

Attempts by the Europeans to overcome their internal crisis make them seek ways to show their efficiency, for example, in their relations with Russia. The incomplete settlement of the situation in Chechnya, and Russia’s thorny political processes provide the European intellectuals and politicians with an excellent opportunity to show their worth in defending democratic norms and human rights. The Old World does not seem to get tired of criticizing Russia. It incessantly calls for taking a harder position – and even adopting sanctions – against Russia.


Against this background, attempts are being made in the European Union to revise the basic parameters of its relations with Russia. In December 2003, the European Council instructed the Commission of the European Communities to assess the state of the EU’s Russia policy and offer recommendations on how to improve it. The EU Council of Ministers was asked to consider the Commission’s proposals and make its conclusions. The European Parliament decided to formulate its own position as well.

These efforts resulted in three documents approved by the EU official bodies: a report of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defense Policy, Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on Relations with Russia, and Conclusions of the European Council on Relations with Russia.

These documents clearly differ from each other by their tone. The European parliamentarians gave an unambiguously negative assessment on the lead up to, and the results, of Russia’s State Duma elections, the settlement process in the Chechen Republic and the question of human rights there, the status of mass media and law enforcement practices in Russia, and Moscow’s role in Transcaucasia and Moldova. The report points out that “Chechnya is not only an ‘internal affair’ to Russia because violations of human rights are self-evidently threats to international security.” The report draws special attention to Russia’s reluctance to extend the 1994 Agreement with the EU to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that are to join the European Union, and to Russia’s delay in ratifying border treaties with Latvia and Estonia. Finally, the parliamentarians called for a better coordination of actions by individual states and pan-European institutions with respect to Russia.

The Communication document contains much less emotional assessments of Russia’s internal developments and relations with the EU. In particular, the Commission stressed the need to continue with the dialog on the creation of four common spaces. At the same time, the document drew attention to the latest elections to the State Duma and an assessment by the OSCE and the  Council of Europe. It restated concern over the human rights situation in the Chechen Republic.

The Commission proposed a more efficient policy for protecting the basic interests of the European Union. These are the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, maritime and nuclear safety, readmission negotiations, the facilitation of humanitarian aid delivery, the ratification of border agreements with Latvia and Estonia, the extension of the PCA to the countries that are to join the EU, Siberian overflight payments, cooperation in the exploration of outer space, energy sector reform, and Russian safeguard measures. The Commission intends to improve the coordination of the EU members’ policy vis-a-vis Russia.

The Commission recommended the EU Council to “move away from grand political declarations and establish an issues-based strategy and agenda.” The Euro-bureaucrats pointed out that “Russian practices run counter to universal and European values,” as well as to the basic goals of cooperation. The Communication proposed “drawing up an objectives paper for Summits, which should clearly draw ‘red lines’ for the EU, positions, beyond which the EU will not go,” and presenting a “draft joint Action Plan to Russia covering all four [common] spaces.”

However, the final word belonged to the EU Council which met in Brussels on February 23 in the foreign ministers format. The Council’s conclusions expressed the EU’s resolve to build “a genuine strategic partnership with Russia based on equal rights and obligations, mutual trust and an open and frank dialog.” It also stated that the EU “has a strong and genuine interest in an open, stable and democratic Russia.”

The Council said the European Union is “open to discuss any of Russia’s legitimate concerns over the impact of [EU] enlargement,” but added that “this shall remain entirely separate from PCA extension.” The Council pointed to the need to identify and formulate EU interests, objectives and priorities in its dialog with Russia.

All the three official documents expressed dissatisfaction with the state of EU-Russia relations, criticized the EU’s ability to conduct a single and well-coordinated policy vis-a-vis Russia, and recognized the need to continue the course toward Russia’s integration through joint long-term projects, such as the creation of four common spaces.

In contrast with the EU’s previous official statements, the documents call on the European Union to build relations with Russia on the basis of an increased rationalism, proceeding primarily from its own interests. Until recently, the EU official bodies did not mention EU interests as the basis for their negotiating positions. On the contrary, the EU always emphasized a community of interests between the European Union and Russia.

In other words, this new approach of the EU is of a dual nature. On the one hand, the dissatisfaction is accompanied by the desire to improve and develop, rather than freeze, its relations with Russia. On the other hand, the EU has already shown signs of a readiness for decreasing the significance of this mutual relationship; a diplomatic conflict is not out of the question should events not develop in accordance with the EU’s scenario.

The resolute tone of the EU’s latest official documents is, to a certain extent, part of its negotiating strategy. The discussion of vital issues, such as the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, Russia’s accession to the WTO, and PCA extension, provokes excessive emotion on both sides. However, the number of the adopted documents and their content suggest that the EU may adopt a new policy vis-a-vis Russia.

What conceptual fundamentals may underlie this policy?

The EU still holds to the model where Russia accepts basic European norms and values, that is, its Europeanization. Therefore the European parliamentarians dismiss the idea of building relations with Russia according to the ‘Chinese model,’ i.e. exclusively in the economic field.

At the same time, this approach is already coming into obvious conflict with the new policy of upholding Europe’s own interests.  The idea that Russia’s integration into Europe is possible in principle, and that Russia could become a member of the community of nations sharing similar values, has been circulating throughout Europe, although it has never prevailed. Now it is becoming increasingly weaker. The edifice of common interests has been built on the basis of common values, but if values differ, then the community of interests weakens. This is the scenario we are now witnessing. There is a growing sentiment that Russia is unintegrable in principle and that it remains a natural partner (and rival at the same time) outside the European space.

In part, Russia itself feeds this sentiment by demanding a free hand in its foreign and domestic policies, by stipulating its special interests in Central Asia and in the Caucasus, and by defining the EU solely as its security partner in Europe in the context of Russia’s mid-term strategy. This approach paves the way for the principles of traditional Realpolitik, as opposed to the integration euphoria that was popular ten years ago.

In the opinion of many people in Europe, the dividing line between integrable and unintegrable spaces lies along Russia’s western border. This factor causes the European Union to initiate the development of an alternative project in the western part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and decrease Russia’s influence in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The EU ceases to take into consideration Russia’s interests in this region. In the next few years, the EU may deliberately torpedo Russian integration projects in the western part of the CIS.

The interpretation of a common border function is changing, too. The course toward developing transborder cooperation with Russia is gradually giving way to a border management policy. Whereas earlier the EU emphasized the effect of its ongoing integration on relations between people living on different sides of the border, today the border is again viewed as a dividing line, which will remain so for an indefinite period of time.

The idea of establishing a visa-free regime between Russia and the EU – without which a common economic space will remain just a declaration – has been shelved. Instead, visa procedures have been simplified for certain groups of citizens. The Europeans have repeatedly initiated discussions about the demarcation of the Ukrainian-Russian border and the establishment of a tougher border regime there. This would build an additional symbolic wall between Russia and Europe.


The EU’s ‘new’ model for Russian-European relations features the same dual nature between the parties, which they have had in the last decade. On the one hand, the EU declares its wish to create, together with Moscow, something really common. In order to achieve this goal, Russia must adopt European values. In reality, however, when it comes to practical issues that are of importance to the Europeans, the official EU bodies treat Russia as an outside partner, whose interests often do not coincide with those of Europe. The bargaining between the parties would be more appropriate for EU relations with non-European China, or perhaps Japan, than for its relations with a country which ten years ago proclaimed its fundamental choice in favor of Europe.

Yet, the EU keeps insisting that the PCA is the cornerstone of its relations with Russia, and that its objectives are still relevant. This agreement has a pronounced integrationist nature based on the need for Russia to adopt European values. And it is Moscow’s regular failures in this respect that arouse the main criticism on the part of the EU.

A ‘partnership’ of this kind is simply doomed to the cyclic reproduction of crises. In 2002, it was the transit of Russian citizens to Kaliningrad; in 2003, it was Russia’s future accession to the WTO; in 2004, it is PCA extension. In the future, conflicts may emerge over the fate of Belarus and Transdniestria, for example.

There is something schizophrenic about the Russian-European relations, because neither party wishes to openly admit that they represent absolutely different political and economic systems. Therefore, their integration is unfeasible, at least in the mid-term. And if there is no chance for Russia’s membership in the EU, why should Moscow adopt its political and legal standards?


An unbiased analysis of present Russia-EU relations shows that both sides lack a strategic vision of the future. The new cooperative initiatives of the parties, whether it is a free trade zone, an energy dialog or a common economic space, remain stuck within the framework of the formal integration model of the early 1990s, which has repeatedly demonstrated its ineffectiveness.

Perhaps, it is time to switch to a more pragmatic model and to revise the very ideology underlying Russia-EU cooperation. Russia could waive its repeatedly declared argument about its European identity since it cannot be formalized by the country’s accession to the EU. In turn, the European Union would give up its doctrine of Russia’s Europeanization, the backbone of its policy in recent years. (The U.S. record, for example, shows that democracy and a market economy can get along fine with, say, the death penalty.)

A change of the paradigm – from integration to cooperation in a specific field – would help clear the relations of excessive political rhetoric and make them more oriented toward practical results. There is a very big danger here, though, namely with a potentially negative interpretation of pragmatism. Some view pragmatism as purely utilitarian relations based on the ‘scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours’ principle. Such a model bears a strong resemblance to the former relations between the European countries and the Soviet Union. The import of Soviet oil and gas did not prevent the Europeans, together with the U.S., from fighting the Kremlin on the Cold War fronts.

Superimposing that discarded model onto the 21st century situation will produce a dismal picture. Today’s interaction, despite all of the complications, is aimed at strengthening a constructive interdependence; nevertheless, this relationship will give way to cooperation out of despair. Europe is unable to quickly replace Russian resources with any other source. However, the EU will undoubtedly seek to reduce its dependence on Russia through developing alternative sources of hydrocarbons. In practice, this will mean not investing in the construction of new facilities in the Russian energy infrastructure, such as the North European gas pipeline, which was signed into life in 2003.

In the political realm, the European Union will try to increase its influence in Central Asia and the Caspian region, and bring local resources into the world market. The U.S., which generally is suspicious of European activity in strategic regions beyond the Old World, will nevertheless support them in this case since the maximum diversification of natural resources meets its own interests. Moscow will be hard-pressed to find other ‘general partners’: its territorial dispute with Japan will hardly be settled in the mid-term, while the ability and, more importantly, the desire of China to participate in major modernization projects in Russia raise big doubts.

The policy of pushing Russia to the periphery of international politics will make its enclosure in the god-forsaken region of northeast Eurasia a reality. This will give Russians the impression that they are living in a besieged fortress – with all of the ensuing political and economic consequences.

There is another scenario: the parties will give up the idea of their political and legal integration and preserve close and constructive interaction. A necessary prerequisite for that is Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Many of the deadlocks that cloud Brussels-Moscow relations could be broken if the parties were guided by WTO principles. These principles help Europeans reach compromises with Japan and the U.S., for example, although their disputes occasionally develop into trade wars.

The situation has turned into a vicious circle, though. The uncompromising position of the Europeans hinders the conclusion of the talks on Russia’s accession to the WTO. An agreement on this issue would pave the way for the further development of relations. In any case, Russia will have to actively conduct liberal reforms, open up some of its economic sectors (banking and insurance), and harmonize its legislation with that of Europe, at least in certain aspects.

The idea to create four common spaces, even though it was born within the framework of a defective model of relations, has an immense practical potential. But it should be completed and implemented not by bureaucrats. Oftentimes they are not qualified to handle such a task, and only address this issue because it is their official duty. The initiative must come from the business community, whose interest is obvious, as well as from the intellectual communities of Russia and Europe. Otherwise, this issue, of strategic importance to both Russia and the EU, may get bogged down in idle rhetoric and never be resolved.

Russia and the EU may pattern their relations, in the long term, after the ‘Norwegian model.’ Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are not EU members, build their relations with the EU on the Agreement for the European Economic Area. Russia would be rewarded for its reforms with an ability to share with the EU the European four main freedoms of movement – the movement of goods, services, capital and people. The ‘Norwegian model’ also provides for a limited participation of an EU partner in preparing EU legislative acts at the pre-drafting stage.

The above, however, is not an issue of our immediate future. Presently, the most pressing issue is a mutual discussion concerning the entire range of accumulated problems, as well as the prospects for future Russian-European relations.

Administrative bodies of Russia and the European Union must be relieved of the duties they are not supposed to be performing, that is, drafting a strategic agenda. A strategy for mutual relations should be worked out by a non-governmental forum, which would start open, impartial, sometimes undiplomatic discussions. The discussions will help to identify potential sources of crises and reach mutual consensus on the future of Russia-EU relations. Step by step, the parties must create a mechanism for the civilized lobbying of interests, which would replace the existing model, which only succeeds at reproducing crises.

Nobody will benefit from the end of Russia’s Europeanization. For Russia, it would mean finding itself on the sidelines of international politics and having little chance for successful modernization. For the EU, it would imply the collapse of a major European project, which will always remain incomplete without Russia’s natural and stable participation.

Last updated 13 april 2004, 18:30

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