European Issues and Interviews

Open panel Open panel
European Interviews
The European Union and the world
European Interview n°17

EU-Russian Relations : what issues are at stake?

EU-Russian Relations : what issues are at stake?

1.According to you, what can be expected of Russia's political and economic situation?

Russia is back in global politics and the effect of its return is that commentators shift from underestimating to overestimating Russia's power and influence. In 1990s Russia was never as weak as the Western triumphalists tended to think and now it is not as powerful as Western alarmists tend to believe. What we witness in the case of Russia is the rise of declining power. Russian society is in demographic collapse. The institutions are weak and corruption is pervasive and the rise of Russia in the last years can be explained predominantly through one factor-the new prices of oil and gas.
In other words Putin's Russia is less democratic, much more prosperous and equally unpredictable as Yeltsin's Russia. Putin's Russia wants to be treated in the way China is treated by the West-as another civilization.
What is much more difficult to estimate is how stable will be the post-Putin regime. At present Putin's regime is as stable as it is because it manages to offer consumer choices instead of respect for human rights and it succeeded to marginalize any alternatives and to silence any dissent. But how stable is this status quo? The Presidential elections can easily take the form of crisis not because anybody can threaten the Kremlin's favored candidate but because after the elections there will be two centers of power-Putin and the new President. We do not know how a centralized political regime like the Russian one can survive the emergence of competing centers of power. So, probably Russia is less stable than it looks, but at the same time it is fair to say that despite what will happen after the Presidential elections the new Russia will remain a great energy power suspicious and distant from the West. The truth is that similar to people, nations have feelings and in the 1990s the West succeeded to hurt the feelings of Russia.
Another element of the Russian puzzle is that - in the words of Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin - people who run Russia are the same people who own it, so any power struggle in the regime will affect directly Russian economy.

2.Is the fact that Russia could use energy as a "geostrategic weapon" against member states of the European Union or against its former republics a legitimate concern?

It is more than legitimate concern. Russia's use of energy as a strategic weapon will affect the European Union in the next decade in more than one aspect. Gazprom is not just a company - it is the key instrument of Russian foreign policy. The role of Gazprom in present Russian foreign policy resembles the role played by the Red Army and international communist movement in the Soviet foreign policy. Russia's energy sector is a guarantee of Moscow's influence in Europe. So, European Union is threatened by Gazprom policies at least in three major ways. Gazprom's attempt to buy the pipeline system of its neighbors leads to underinvestment in its production capacities, so the EU is threatened by the shortages in gas supply. Gazprom is also a threat to the EU because in a manner similar to former US secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, it is using its leverage for dividing the EU member states and influencing their domestic and foreign policies. But the third and the most important aspect of the Gazprom threat is that in order to reduce the security risks coming from Moscow European member states should re-negotiate the relations between state and the market in their societies.

3.How can the former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia...) impact the relations between Russia and the European Union?

Former Soviet republics are Russia's near abroad and EU's neighborhood at the same time. It is fair to recognize that the current Moscow's policies towards the EU are shaped to a great extent by the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space. Prior to the color revolution Putin's Kremlin was much more seeking an adjustment with the West and the EU was viewed as a natural counter balance to the American influence in Europe. The color revolutions convinced Moscow that in reality the EU is a revisionist power and its soft power is threatening what Russia perceives as its legitimate interests. In this context Russia will do its best to re-define the post-Soviet space as its own sphere of influence and EU's attempt to negotiate a common neighborhood with Russia is doomed to fail. The current crisis in Kiev is just one of the manifestations of the fact that the post-Soviet space will be marked by fierce competition between the European Union and Russia.

4.How do you explain the current state of relations between some new member states of the European Union and Russia?

There was never much love lost between Russia and its former Warsaw allies /with the notable exception of Bulgaria/. But the truth is that when in 1990 Poles were asked which of their neighbors they feared most, they put Germany first and Russia last. Now the situation is reversed. Poles fear Russia and are totally relaxed if not totally friendly towards Germany. At present there are three major sources of the deteriorating relations between Russia and countries like Poland and the Baltic states. The first is Moscow's policy aimed at hurting the economic and political interests of these countries. When it comes to Poland or the Baltic states, Russia is less interested in issues and more interested to discredit these countries as trouble makers in the field of EU-Russia relations. The second is growing fear in capitals like Warsaw and Tallinn that some of the major EU member states are ready to develop bi-lateral relations with Russia at the cost of neglecting the interests and concerns of countries like Poland or Estonia. The paradox is that these countries are losing most of the constitutional paralysis of the Union and at the same time Poland and the Czech Republic are among the obstacles for the institutional reform of the Union. The third source of tensions is the domestic politics in both Central Europe and Russia. Kremlin is using Poland and the Baltic countries in order to mobilize nationalistic support for the regime and to demonstrate that the decade of humiliation is over. The rise of populism in Central and Eastern Europe on the other hand put symbolic issues at the center of domestic politics and this combined with the new paranoid style in Central European politics makes some of the Central European governments irrational and provocative when it comes to Russia.

5.What do you think of the current political situation in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia?

The good news is that Serbia has a government and that the government was formed by the democratic and pro-European political forces. The bad news is that the government in Belgrade is a hostage of the unresolved crisis with the status of Kosovo and it is unrealistic to expect that Belgrade is ready for major breakthrough in its reform efforts. The Western Balkans is the victims of the crisis of the European Union. At present the EU periodically confirms its commitment to the integration of the region but in reality the region is left in uncertainty and we can already observe an alarming signs of de-stabilization.

6.Does Russia play a key role in the negotiations on the status of Kosovo? According to you what could be the outcome of these negotiations?

The latest signals coming from Moscow are that Russia is ready to veto a Security Council resolution that is based on the Ahtissari plan for Kosovo. Such a veto will cause a major crisis in the relations between Moscow and the West. Russia's tough line on Kosovo is more part of its new policy with respect to the EU than a result of Moscow's special interest in the Balkans. Russia's veto aims to open a new rift between the US and the EU and within the EU. If in a response to the Russian veto US and the EU member states move to the unilateral recognition of Kosovo, this will hurt EU's image as a major advocate of the rule of law and will signal re-introducing the return of the sphere of influence politics in Europe. So, Russia is in a win-win situation when it comes to its role as a spoiler in the Balkans. Russia's veto will create problems for the West in the Balkans and at the same time will strengthen Russia's positions in the Caucuses.

7.How do you consider the evolution of the relations between the EU and Russia?

Russia and the West are not back to the Cold war. The metaphor of the "new cold war" is in my view misleading. Cold war was the age of the clash of ideologies, but the problem with the present Russia is not its ideology but its total lack of any ideology. For Putin's Kremlin the end of the Cold war means not a new post-cold war world order based on growing interdependence and cooperation but a return to the pre-Cold war policy centered on classical geopolitics, balance of powers and spheres of influence.
In the view of Russia the European Union and the post-modern state that it embodies are transitory phenomenon that cannot be sustainable in the medium and long term. In this respect Russia is the ultimate challenge that the EU is facing today.
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
Available versions
The Guest
Ivan Krastev
Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Director of the Opensociety Centre of the University of Central Europe in Budapest.
Support us
Today, Europe needs us !
By supporting the Robert Schuman Foundation you are helping Europe to move forward, find the strength and ideas it requires to overcome the challenges ahead.
This is why we need your support !
Subscribe to our Letter
A unique document with 200,000 subscribers in five languages (French, English, German, Spanish and Polish), for the last 12 years our weekly Letter provides you with a summary of the latest European news, more necessary now than ever before.
I subscribe to the Letter free of charge: