Reaffirming the Benefits of Russia’s European Choice

30 july 2005

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

Resume: The most important objective for Russia in its relations with the EU is to make a strategic choice. Integration with the EU must be considered the main strategic goal. This can be achieved through a gradual horizontal (sectoral) integration and through increasing its role in the EU political decision-making process.


Today, few members of Russia’s expert community would argue that the country’s social and economic revitalization will be an easy process, if at all possible, without close contacts with the European Union. Most experts agree that Europe is the best natural partner for Russia due to the shared cultural traditions between the countries, as well as the tendency of the Russian people to embrace a European self-identification. In this sense, Russia’s policy has two imperatives: a civilizational one that compels it to integrate into the processes of globalization, and a modernization imperative. Both fit fairly well into the format of Russia’s so-called ‘European choice.’

The logic of Europeanization for Russia, however, loses its shine once it becomes understandable that practical implementation of the European choice course means accepting some long-established rules that will remain in place despite Russian influence; moreover, accepting these rules will actually damage Russia’s interests. It appears that Russia faces unjustified, biased, or simply humiliatingly stringent requirements; such claims are not groundless. Thus, some people tend to conclude that integration into Europe will strip Russia of its influence in the immediate region, not to mention around the world, and turn it into a second-rate power even on the continental scale.

The concept of Russia’s policy toward Europe aims to maintain relations of equitable partnership lest the country should lose its status. Since this goal is unattainable due to the imbalance of economic powers, as well as the attractiveness of social models (many Russians would welcome European living standards, for example, but not vice versa), its practical implementation boils down to Russia keeping its options open, renouncing obligations to bridge the gap between Russian and EU norms, and staking at selective cooperation in a handful of spheres where our resources are still comparable (in the energy and security sectors, for example).

Since the end of 2002, mutual expectations between Russia and the EU have witnessed a certain slide. This was partially due to Moscow’s conscientious rejection to integrate its political, legal and economic policies into the European system, which was the underlying idea of “harmonization of norms and rules.” The EU-Russia Common Strategy, although obviously declaratory in nature, originally contained visions of Russia as being an element of a United Europe. In the summer of 2004, however, this possibility became devoid of force de jure, but its actual demise occurred a year earlier. In 2007, the 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) will expire, and since its provisions will not be fulfilled before the expiration date it is highly doubtful that it will be replaced by a document of equal status. The sides will certainly have problems in deciding on the binding legal obligations of the new agreement and in specifying sanctions for their non-commitment. It seems quite possible that the Road Maps on Russia-EU Common Spaces (involving economics, external security, freedom/security/justice, and science/education/culture) endorsed in Moscow in May 2005 will take the PCA’s place indefinitely. It should be noted that such arrangements do not always go beyond dialog  and are quite indistinct.

Russia-EU interaction process has taken the form of the Mobius Strip. After formally fulfilling the requirements of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which certainly contained strong integration potential, Russia has gone back to cooperation in individual projects, albeit big ones, i.e. in the same manner with which the Soviet Union made headway into the Gorbachev era. Russia has failed to design a strategic vision of future bilateral relations, and common sense prompts that stagnation and regress are inevitable in such a situation.

Against this background, Moscow’s unwillingness to follow the path of integration with Europe is not accompanied by a build-up of its own influence, contrary to the logic of those who support its independence from institutional restrictions. Russia is losing its positions in the former Soviet republics and will most likely see a further loss of its international power resource unless it turns its policy toward Europe. Russia would be wise to reject its position as an external player toward the EU and attempt to influence the system from the inside the way leading European powers do. Russia should seriously consider the creation of an integration paradigm of relations with the EU.


Russia is losing its positions in Europe, systemically and qualitatively, along two relatively new fronts. First, it is acquiring the image of a weak and undemocratic country that is unwilling to reform itself efficiently. The hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, demonstrations against social benefits reform, the YUKOS affair, a critical economic dependence on oil exports and sweeping corruption – all these factors have revived the image of Russia as alien to Europe (Europe’s Other) which faded in the 1990s.

The spread of that image will have a direct political impact on Russia. If it remains an alien body for the Europeans – a Nigeria or Algeria, for example, in the Siberian style – it is natural to expect that Europe will resort to an egoistic policy toward it, aimed only at winning access to Russia’s sources of natural wealth and transit routes, as well as stripping it of natural competitive advantages. Simultaneously, the Europeans will seal themselves off from the associated risks of cooperating with Moscow and resort to a “soft security” policy. Later, they will cover up everything with diplomatic niceties at summit conferences.

At the same time, Russia could hope for a more balanced response from the Europeans if it were ready to build rapport with Europe on a more systemic basis. Russia’s adherence to the model of selective interaction, however, leads to a situation where the Europeans also begin subscribing to the so-called “cherry picking tactics.” And it cannot be denied that they are quite efficient in doing so. In the past several years, the majority of disputes between Moscow and Brussels have been settled on the terms of the latter. This conclusion is readily seen by the creation of a transit route between the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia via Lithuanian territory, the proliferation of Partnership and Cooperation Agreements onto the new EU members, and Moscow’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Incidentally, there is no certainty that the signing of a re-admission agreement with Europe will eventually exempt Russian nationals from the Schengen visa rules. Most likely, this agreement will be substituted for by the liberalization of visa issuance, which in practical terms, however, means little for most people.

Another detrimental effect associated with Russia’s image of a country alien to Europe is that this negative representation is used by countries having problematic relations with Russia to consolidate their own positions inside the Union. In 1995, relations between Russia and the Baltic countries were as troubled as in 2005; the Europeans were as much sensitive toward the war in Chechnya as they are now, while NATO’s eastward expansion was already on the agenda. Despite these issues, the topic of “Soviet occupation” of the Baltic countries had an incomparably smaller place in the Western mass media in comparison with today. The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have irreversibly become the “friends” of the Europeans over the past ten years, that is, they are a priori the nations to be trusted and supported, while Russia has lost the opportunity for a common future or has blatantly rejected it. Russia can demonstrate righteous indignation over the question of double standards, and offer strong reactions to the overtly provocative gestures and statements on the part of some Baltic leaders, but that will hardly help eliminate the disadvantages of being categorized as “a foe” in their eyes.


Another sphere where Russia has lost its influence pertains to those European CIS countries which have become reoriented toward the EU (although to variable degrees) and have adopted a new system of guidelines. The post-Soviet space, where Russia was once a powerful player by virtue of history, ceased to exist and has turned into an “intermediate Europe;” in other words, the shape of the present EU at a much earlier date. Russia started losing its attractiveness for socially and politically active sections of the population for a number of reasons, including the folding up of democracy, loss of its leading position in the CIS in terms of the rate and quality of economic growth, scale of terrorist activity, etc. Meanwhile, Europe acquired attractiveness as a zone of stability and economic prosperity, and a considerable part of the people in the CIS countries began to realize they had a choice.

Ukraine has advanced the farthest among the former CIS countries along the path of reorientation toward the EU (this is specially italicized since the NATO option has minor support there). The Ukrainians have something bigger than abstract notions on the benefits of the European choice. They have developed the assuredness that it is achievable. According to polls, in the past few years 50 to 60 percent of Ukrainians spoke in favor of joining the EU and only 10 percent were against the idea. A poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in April 2005 indicated that 48.6 percent of the respondents were confident that the EU would accept their country while 23.1 percent believed their country would be rejected. According to the Kiev-based Razumkov Center of Economic and Political Studies, Ukraine has nearly equal numbers of supporters of the Russian and EU options as foreign policy priorities. The spring 2005 poll revealed more supporters of the EU, but this opinion has changed many times over the years. The situation looks quite different, however, if you consider the age of the respondents. Supporters of the Russian option are mostly older than 50, while those between the ages of 18 and 39 give preference to the EU (44 to 46 percent versus 30 to 33 percent, respectively, in February 2005).

There are two factors of critical importance for the rise of such sentiments. First, a large number of people with close contacts in Central Europe, or with a record of immigrant work in the old European countries, have formed favorable opinions about life in Europe. Owing to their high rate of personal, employment and social mobility, these people are confident that Ukraine will be able to adapt to the EU accession requirements. Second, the EU had become a leading importer of Ukrainian products even before its eastward expansion. Ukrainian corporations have developed a taste for doing business in Europe and have begun praising their stable rules of the game.

That is why the Yushchenko administration’s goal of attaining EU membership is absolutely logical. Of course, its attempt may flop – largely due to internal political problems – and the country may slide into a period of irregular development, but it is doubtful that the European option will retreat from its present positions there.

Similar processes are taking place in other countries, as well. Moldova, for example, experienced a dramatic change recently as President Voronin, a pro-Russian politician just four years ago, decided he could use turbulent relations with Moscow as a platform for his re-election campaign, regardless of Brussels’ ability – or inability – to settle the dragged-out conflict in the secessionist Dniester region.

The situation looks far from ordinary even in Belarus, a country distanced much farther away from Europe in terms of information. Polls conducted by the Minsk-based Institute for Social, Economic and Political Research suggest that the share of proponents of the country’s accession to the EU never dropped below 50 percent since 2002. In spring 2005, 52.8 percent spoke in favor of accession while 44.4 percent were against the idea. Meanwhile, the amorphous integration with Russia – that is, the maintenance of its current model – got support from less than one half of the respondents, and only 14 to 15 percent spoke in favor of a unified state. Almost one half of Belarusians do not support the introduction of the Russian ruble as a single monetary unit, while the percentage of its supporters stands between 30 and 35 percent. The popularity of the European choice is likely to grow in the next few years under the impact of developments in Ukraine and – to a greater degree – in Poland. Belarus will follow in Ukraine’s footsteps after Alexander Lukashenko leaves the presidential office.

The issue of accepting European influence has also sprung up in the South-Caucasian countries, although to a far smaller degree and in somewhat different forms. The EU has included Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the European Neighborhood Policy. The inclusion of these countries will unlikely have any major effects in the short term, but things may change in the future if one considers the possibility of Turkey’s accession to the EU at the end of next decade.


One should seriously question those conspiracy theories that suggest the EU is intentionally pushing Russia out of the western parts of the post-Soviet space. Most EU member-nations have small economic interests in that region, at least for now. Nor do they have illusions as to the huge cost of integrating the regional countries into the EU. That is why they continue giving priority to Russia and would like to avert unnecessary conflicts with it (this was evidenced by the telephone call Germany’s Federal Chancellor Schroeder made to President Putin at the peak of the Orange Revolution in Kiev). It also explains why Brussels officials are pondering an intermediary status of some kind for Ukraine, and are not especially willing to offer it the prospect of membership. And yet the EU continues to enlarge eastwards due to pressure by the new member-states which have their own interests and ability to shape the EU’s line of conduct – a power that should not be underrated. The new neighbors have realized they can be actors too, and not merely objects in policy-making.

Russia is trying to prevent the emergence of new division lines in Europe, for example, along Ukraine’s eastern border, while maintaining, at the same time, the old borders along Ukraine’s western border. It was one of the reasons why Moscow interfered actively in the election campaigns in Ukraine in 2004 and Moldova in 2005. Interference in the Ukrainian parliamentary election in 2006 is also a possibility. But its real capability for an efficient policy arouses grave doubts. Unlike the Soviet Union with its ideology of world Communism or imperial Russia with security guarantees, as well as Pan-Slavism and Orthodoxy, the Russian Federation does not have an attractive project to offer these days. The “carrot” it can offer does not look appealing enough, while Russia’s “stick” can definitely make the political regimes and people of neighboring countries more problematic. No one can guarantee, however, that economic sanctions will prove efficacious: The blockade of the Abkhazian border in December 2004 failed to bring the pro-Moscow candidate Raul Khadzhimba to presidency in that breakaway region of Georgia. Furthermore, sanctions may turn out to be altogether impossible (suffice it to recall who controls Russia’s transit pipelines). On the face of it, hitting the wallets of ordinary people may provoke a harsh reaction toward Russia as opposed to any anticipated affections, as well as alienate it.

There seems to be a different solution to Russia’s quandary: the division line along the “friend or foe” principle must be moved to Russia’s eastern border. If this is not accomplished, Russia will not be able to avoid the erosion of the common civilizational and cultural space in Ukraine and Belarus, to say nothing of the dangers of ending up isolated against a destabilizing South and growing China.

The acceptance of the slogan “Together with Ukraine into Europe!” seems to be quite a feasible choice for Russia. The Ukrainians are not interested in a tough choice that will subject them to any sort of a breaking point. Unlike the Baltic countries, anti-Russian sentiments are marginal in Ukraine and pragmatism dominates everywhere. Surprising as it may seem, only 18.4 percent of people in the traditionally nationalistic western regions of Ukraine spoke in favor of a complete pull out of the CIS Common Economic Area that unites Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. At the same time, Ukraine has identified its foreign policy priorities: it will integrate into Europe and cooperate with Russia and not vice versa. Thus, Russia will never win a zero-sum game from Ukraine.


There is a prevalent conviction in Russia that Europe is unprepared to build an integration relationship with it. This belief is justified in many ways, yet it does not reflect the whole truth since the Europeans have had no need to formulate a clear-cut position on the issue at this time. Paradoxically, European discussions concerning Russia’s possible membership mostly boil down to the conclusion that Russia is not seeking it. There will be no serious answers from the European side until Russia loudly proclaims it is willing to integrate and proves its ability to move along that path.

Along these lines, the European policy has several imperatives that integration with Russia agrees with. First, Russia’s integration is the only method of rounding out the so-called European project, since all other methods can only move the EU’s border eastwards. The prospect for Turkey’s accession, for example, has invalidated the argument about the impossibility of integrating countries with predominantly Asiatic territories (and “huge populations” like Russia – in a few years, Turkey will have a greater population than Russia). Russia is a European country in all other respects. Slavs who are brought up in the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity make up the majority of its population, while the share of its Moslem population does not exceed that of France. Russia’s ‘European self-identification’ differs from the accepted version in the EU, but redefining itself as ‘Asiatic’ would be totally out of place. Considering existing European legislation, Russia has every right to apply for membership.

Second, history has taught Europe that integration on the basis of systemic transformation provides much stronger guarantees of predictable and friendly conduct on the part of countries, and big countries in particular, than any economic inter-dependence. Third, the EU is gradually turning into a global force in spheres that go beyond the economy; and by pooling their potentialities in cooperation with Russia, the Europeans could raise their presence on the Asian and Atlantic flanks to a fundamentally new level. Lastly, integration would provide the Europeans with much better access to Russia’s energy resources.

The likelihood that Russia will receive a negative response to its application (only Morocco’s application has been rejected thus far, since its non-European identity did not require strong proofs) is reduced by the fact that it may first integrate with Europe according to some special format. And that is different from becoming an EU member. In that case, Russia would have to fully adopt the European understanding of democracy and supremacy of law (the conspicuous ‘values’), as well as partially adopt the acquis communautaire (of course, not in the first phases of the process). The above would help Russia to mitigate the nervous disdain among the ‘old European countries’ over the EU’s further spread, which seems to be quite rampant following its largest enlargement in 2004.


The most important objective for Russia in its relations with the EU is to make a strategic choice. Integration with the EU must be considered the main strategic goal. This can be achieved through a gradual horizontal (sectoral) integration and through increasing its role in the EU political decision-making process.

There are no insurmountable barriers on the road to integration, and to make it achievable we must realize that political democracy, supremacy of law and human rights are more than simply words. Moreover, these concepts are not merely instruments in the hands of European negotiators used for squeezing concessions out of Russia. They are the building blocks of success in the contemporary world.

In the next 10 to 15 years Russia should give priority to projects that will expedite the integration process and facilitate the formation of communities of economic or social entities. This is really the only way to eliminate the friend-or-foe division line between the two powers. Infrastructure projects – in all spheres, ranging from transportation and customs offices to telecommunications and tourism – are critical means for reaching that end. It is also important to encourage education exchange programs between the states. The Road Maps of four common spaces possess a real potential and should not remain mere declarations.

One of the priorities in Russia’s relations with the EU is the lifting of travel visas. This would make it possible for nationals from both parties to make short-term trips on either side without special permits. The elimination of visa formalities for average citizens would be the best way of forging a Russian-European identity. The Europeans, however, tend to misrepresent the problem which gives the impression that Russia is included in the Schengen zone. In reality, however, we are referring to the transfer of all travel checks from the consulates to the border-crossing stations (up-to-date border control procedures are much more efficacious). Many Europeans fear a possible inflow of cheap labor and criminals from Russia, and yet the chances of coming to an agreement still exist. Europe has an interest in readmission agreements and tighter control over Russia’s southern and eastern borders. If the Russian authorities improve the quality of its passport regime, and initiate the eradication of corruption in the interior agencies, visa-free travel will become more realistic. Incidentally, Ukraine may become the trailblazer in visa-free travel as it is working to conclude an agreement on travel regulations.

One short-term goal is to decide on the legal format of integration and to start negotiations to that end. Russia and the EU can build relations on the basis of a legally binding document that would be organically linked to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This could take the form of a new agreement on Russia-EU Strategic Partnership that has been proposed by some experts. Its preamble, however, must acknowledge the intention of achieving an integration relationship in the future. Later, Russia and the EU could sign an agreement on association, or, as an alternative, Russia could join the European Economic Area (EEA).

The Russians do not view the latter option as acceptable since it does not provide the EEA countries with opportunities to draft laws that they have to abide by; Switzerland and Norway are good examples of such countries. Yet counter-arguments do exist. First, the formula for participation in the EEA is individual, and Norway did get some levers of influence when it joined. Depending on the parameters, importance and potential of the Russian economy for Europe at a particular moment, Russia can naturally hope to receive more controls. Second, the EU may select precisely that formula of integration and be ready to expand the field of compromise. Third, the EEA itself may experience enlargement and evolution by that time – if Ukraine joins it, for example – and consolidate its positions with regard to Brussels.

The date of Russia’s membership in the EU is beyond the powers of prediction at the present time. On the one hand, if Russia attains a large degree of integration with the EU and gets access to the decision-making process, then the need for seeking formal membership will diminish. On the other hand, transition to membership under those conditions will not require strenuous efforts.

Presently, Russia’s situation brings to mind the tale of the knight from the famous Russian fairytale who is standing at a crossroads and pondering which path to take. And just like the inscription on the signpost in the story, analysts predict harsh consequences for moving forward. Of course this is possible, yet equally possible is the situation where Russia will receive something in return for its efforts. The history of European integration provides numerous instances of win-win situations, without which that very integration would have failed. If a traveler continues to stare at the inscription on the signpost along the road, however, he will never succeed.

Last updated 30 july 2005, 16:26

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