Bindi: The Russian Elections - Bad News for the EU

The Russian Presidential elections have once again revealed the EU’s many contradictions and exposed its dwarf-size political mass.

The relation has always been peculiar: geographically, Europe and Russia are overlapping entities: half of Europe is Russia; half of Russia is in Europe. However, politics do not necessarily take this axiomatically – either in Europe or in Russia - and the relation between the two has witnessed an alternation of attraction and cooperation, with competition and mistrust.

Vladamir Putin
Bulent Kilic | AFP | Getty Images
Vladamir Putin

Moscow is promoting an equal and strategic relationship with Brussels (similarly to the NATO-Russia Council) that excludes the long-term objective of full-fledged integration but allows Russia to claim its great power status. Vladimir Putin put re-integration of the post-Soviet space high on the political agenda: interactions with the EU thus became instrumental to Russia’s economic prosperity and growing international power and prestige.

The EU is split between two approaches: some of the EU member States consider Russia as a potential partner that can be drawn into the EU’s orbit through a process of Europeanization that might end in more integration. They favor involving Russia in as many institutions as possible and encourage Russian investment in the EU’s energy sector. Other members - whose perceptions remain influenced by the burden of the Cold War - still see Russia as a threat.

These divisions within the EU delayed the re-negotiation of the new EU-Russia Agreement, only launched in June 2008 after Poland and Lithuania finally withdrawn their veto. The negotiations were then interrupted because of the Russian military intervention in Georgia. The negotiations for the renovations of the PCA still suffer from some hindrances such as the question of energy supplies, Russian reticence to ratify the EU Energy Charter Treaty and the European opposition to liberalization of the visa regime for Russians. The launch in 2009 of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) did not help either, leading Russia to suspect that it is a less-than-neutral stabilization policy.

As a result of the increased presence of the EU in its neighbourhood, Moscow started offering to its neighbors an interest-driven and pragmatic integration (for example lower gas prices in exchange for political elite’s loyalty to the Kremlin) that offsets the EU value-based approach. The current economic and euro crisis have also significantly weakened the EU ability for political manoeuvres and regional re-design. Furthermore, Europe is no longer at the center of the international relations system due to the rapid shift of global influence towards other regions such as the Asian-Pacific. Thus Russia – just like the US – continues in dealing directly with the EU member states in a bilateral setting - or even directly with companies - rather than negotiating with collectively-bargained multilateral positions.

Then, Putin’s Eurasian Union (Izvestia, 4 October 2011) – aimed at integrating of as many as possible states of the former USSR – and his offer to Ukraine to join the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, implied the dropping of Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU that is awaiting signature. (The Association failed to be initialed in December largely due to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, defined by Brussels as politically motivated). The EU is therefore understandably concerned about the so-called Post-Soviet space and has following with apprehension the electoral process.

On the other hand, the EU, just like the US, has found out that lecturing Russia on the need to reform is not fruitful; better to speak to Russia’s own interest by offering help with what has become its national priority – that is, in the case of the EU, expertise and knowledge.

Critical on the so-called ‘managed democracy’, before the elections the EU therefore took an ecumenical approach, expressing its wish that Russia would respect the OSCE parameters for fair elections and will not recur to repression. However, it was clear that it would be ready to recognize Putin’s renewed leadership. In a fluid international system and in the middle of a profound economic crisis, another country in trouble would in fact create a serious concern.

The statements pronounced right after the results of the elections became known confirmed that the EU does not seem to have political capacity to influence its clumsy neighbor. While the EU leaders (aka Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU President Herman Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton the EU External Representative), simply ‘acknowledged” the result to express their polite disdain, the bigger member states’ leaders - French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron - all rushed to congrats him in a way or the other: raison d’état oblige.

However, with their contradictory messages, the EU leaders have signaled Vladimir Putin just what he wanted to hear: forget the Union, forget its shaky foreign policy and its weak value statements: we are open for business as usual. EU values and foreign policy requiesquem in pacem.

Dr. Federiga Bindi is a Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and Sr. Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Sais Johns Hopkins. She is author of The Foreign Policy of the European Union, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2010. This chapter in parts draws from “The EU and Russia: engaged in building a strategic partnership” by Serena Giusti and Tomislava Penkova that will appear in the second edition of the book (with Irina Angelescu), forthcoming in 2012.