Interview with Petr Mares, Special Envoy for Eastern Partnership, MFA of the Czech Republic and Eugeniusz Smolar, Foreign Policy Analysts, Warsaw, Poland before the Vilnius summit.
After the fall of the so-called Communist camp, we can periodically observe the same phenomenon. Former Soviet satellites that regained freedom in the ‘80s and ‘90s have tried to join Euro-Atlantic integration structures and Russia has very often protested loudly throughout the process. In some cases, Moscow has even tried to prevent the process, as we can see today when Ukraine is ahead of signing the Association Agreement with the EU. The EU has tried to have a very correct and cooperative relationship with Russia and has also signed various agreements with integration elements. Moreover, the EU´s main goal is to broaden belt of democracy, stability and prosperity in Europe. Why has Russia struggled against strengthening the influence of the EU in its neighbourhood? The EU hardly can be taken as a hostile organisation: rather the opposite is true.
Petr Mareš: More than two decades after the end of the cold war Russian elites are still prisoners to the old-fashioned geopolitics. They reacted to the rapid expansion of Western security and economic structures eastward during the nineties with panic, frustration and anger. The enlargement of the NATO, first of all, was understood by many and publicly interpreted by almost all in Russia as a dirty trick by the West, applied at the moment when Russia was at the same time extremely willing and extremely weak.
The fact that with the NATO and later with the EU the area of stability, predictability and comparative prosperity has reached the borders of former Soviet Union was largely ignored then as it is in current discussions about the Eastern Partnership. An attempt to interpret a new situation with an intention to develop it in order to find a win-win solution has never been seriously made.
Instead, the Russian political elite based its interpretation on some discussions and negotiations which took place when the Berlin Wall was falling down and Vaclav Havel was for the first time addressing the crowds on the Wenceslas Square and nobody could imagine how soon and with what determination would new democracies decide to join the Western defense and integration organizations. The narrative of Russia cheated and betrayed by western politicians was born and the position of “never more” was adopted by a new generation of Russian leaders and became one of the pillars of the policy of Putin era.
Being aware of these developments we could be hardly surprised by the reaction of Russian establishment to the fact that four Eastern Partners successfully finalized their negotiations about association with the EU. Politicians in Moscow demonstrated again that in their understanding international relations are competition which can have only one winner and that they agree with the famous remark of the foreign minister Lavrov that Russia doesn`t have any friends. For them, evidently, the acceptance of EU economic, human rights, legislative and other standards in any place close to Russian borders applies automatically an increase of European political influence and the increase of EU influence means automatically a threat for Russia.
Of cause, by saying this we only repeat that Russian politicians are not able to cross the limits of zero-sum games. We do not explain why. An attempt to do so, I am afraid, would take the whole issue of Russkii Vopros.
Eugeniusz Smolar: Since its recovery under President–Prime Minister–President Putin, Russia has been negotiating its position in the world, mainly towards the US and Europe. Its officially stated policy objectives were to take its rightful place among the decision-making powers.
The EU has been treated by Moscow as weak, chaotic, and difficult to understand and to deal with, as it often had been using its normative powers of rules and regulations (and too often referring to its values).
Such an approach is alien to the ways Moscow that has been doing business with the outside world (and within Russia itself). As much as possible, Russia had preferred to deal with the capitals of the individual EU Member States rather than with Brussels, and particularly with Berlin, Paris or Rome, using economic incentives or threats that it would not co-operate. The EU (and NATO) went along, trying to gain Russia’s co-operation and rejecting its zero-sum-game approach, trying to explain that the Eastern Partnership is not aimed at Russia. Moscow did not agree, treating all attempts to integrate the post-Soviet states as hostile and incompatible with its interests.
Such a state of affairs could continue if not for:
a) a worsening internal situation, corruption, absence of the rule of law, repressive measures against practically all independent actors, etc.;
b) the transactional and occasionally antagonistic character of its relations with the West;
c) the aggressive policies towards its neighbours (now independent states), using various pressures, such as energy supplies.
It took many European elites several years to realise that they have been dealing with a ‘new normal’. But when it happened, particularly following the war with Georgia in 2008, it led to a certain policy reorientation within the EU, based on a lack of illusions as well as the promotion of its own, mainly economic, interests.
Going through records of EU-Russia negotiations or the signed agreements, Ukraine – a main target of Moscow´s current disfavour – has not done anything differently than has Russia itself. Is in this case, Russia is acting according to the old saying Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or are there deeper and more serious reasons why the Russian establishment has so strongly refused Ukraine’s integration ambitions?
Petr Mareš: I cannot agree with the first part of the question. Ukraine has already done much more than Russia did in its negotiations with the EU. If the AA/DCFTA agreements are signed and implemented, Ukraine would get very close to the Union. On the other hand, for Russia all the opportunities are also opened and none of them would be closed by signing of agreements with Ukraine. But obviously it is not the case, Russia doesn`t intent to go as far neither in its political and economic reforms nor in its acceptance of the EU technical standards.
The main reason for Russian neurotic reaction to European aspirations of some of the former Soviet Republics was indicated in my answer to the previous question. Nevertheless, in the case of Ukraine we detect also some specifics. Russian relation to Ukraine is very emotional and is heavily influenced by the Russian of feeling of superiority. At the same time, the feeling of common origin, history and destiny is deeply rooted in Russian consciousness. To imagine that “Khokhli” decided to follow different historical trajectory is very difficult to swallow for Russians.
I will always remember Russian high ranking diplomat who informed me with very serious expression on his face: “We and Ukrainians have had the same religion, history and language.” I am afraid he might have meant it.
Eugeniusz Smolar: The EU has been engaging the Eastern Partnership countries with varying success. But since there were successes, like in Georgia and Moldova, and to some extent in Ukraine, Moscow took a more assertive posture.
Nothing is decided; the situation in Kyiv might change overnight. The economy is in shambles, corruption is apparently even worse than in Russia, and the political situation is unstable. But at the moment, Ukraine has decided to go down the European road much further than Russia has been considering for itself. The Ukrainian elite, for various reasons, but also because of pressure from the Kremlin, have embarked on the European integration process. Russia refuses to do so, seeing itself as an independent pole in the European and world politics. Both sides will lose as a result – but mainly the Russians themselves, as they will continue to live under a semi-authoritarian regime which will not be able to satisfy their needs.
We need to recognise that not just the Kremlin but the majority of Russians, including the majority of liberals/democrats, do not accept Ukraine as an independent state. Also, would Ukraine integrate itself with the EU, this would considerably weaken Russia’s influence in its neighbourhood. And that cannot be permitted.
If the Association Agreement with Ukraine is signed, will this step seriously affect the future of the EU-Russia relationship, or will mutual interests and challenges prevail and business as usual be conducted?
Petr Mareš: At the moment when I am answering these questions, the likelihood of signing the AA/DCFTA agreements with Ukraine seems to be rather doubtful. Nevertheless, if Ukraine succeeds to comply with the EU requirements and the agreements are signed at the Vilnius Summit, Russia would still have enough opportunities to torpedo the process of implementation. It has many powerful tools for it – energy supplies, export-import contracts, Ukrainian workers in Russia etc.
In a short run, reforms required by the EU will bring no visible improvements and advantages for the population. Financial crises will continue to threaten the foundation of Ukrainian economy. In this situation, with the presidential election just behind the horizon, it would be extremely difficult for Ukrainian leadership to resist Russian pressure accompanied by offers of Russian assistance.
The EU is aware of these dangers and is prepared to look for available sources for support of Ukraine, but the decisive role will have to be played by Ukraine. If it finds enough will and determination to behave according to the declarations about its European future it would have a fair chance to succeed. And for Russia – may be it could convince it to start to think more seriously about win-win solutions.
Eugeniusz Smolar: It will very much depend on Russia. At the moment, its policies have led the EU, and even former Russia’s partners in Berlin or Paris, to support Ukraine and disregard Moscow’s objections to the extent that many had rediscovered good old geo-politics in view of Kremlin’s non-cooperation and aggressive posture. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated publicly in Warsaw only a few days ago that Washington will support Ukraine’s European integration in so much as it assisted West Berlin in 1948 to break the Soviet Union’s blockade – a quite extraordinary and far-reaching statement, which would have been quite impossible only a year ago. It shows the West’s lack of any illusions, and its resolve. Goodbye ‘re-set,’ it seems.
As for the Kremlin, it is a matter of principle; we may expect that it will resort to various types of pressure, including for example supporting the Crimean Russians in their quest to re-join Mother Russia, something which Moscow has refrained from doing publicly until now.
Such moves will undoubtedly worsen relations with the European Union, with NATO, with the U.S., and with individual Member States. The EU members need Russian oil, gas and other raw materials; Russia needs to sell them. Therefore, there will be trade, and some major European companies will continue investing in Russia, but both sides will be angry and wary of each other. We will see a purely transactional type of relations with not much good will on either side.
We, in Poland, are truly pleased with the better relationship with Russia and hope this will not happen, but it probably will, should Russia continue with its policies.
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