The Kremlin’s blanket ban on European vegetable imports over the cucumber ‘stink’ has, some have said, threatened to poison EU-Russia relations at today’s meeting between President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman van Rompuy in Nizhny Novgorod. The Economist has refreshingly turned its attention to the meat and bones of the Europe-Russia rapport, pinpointing some of the other, deeply-rooted concerns which, it suggests, are bound to crop up:
The Russians see Europe as a source of useful technology and a holiday destination; their elites spend time and own property there. But Russia prefers to be judged against other fast-growing BRIC economies rather than an ageing, sclerotic Europe. “Europe is no longer the sole source of inspiration for modernisation in Russia,” says Mr Lukyanov. Russia depends on the EU for half its trade. But trade with China doubled last year.
There should be plenty for the Europeans and Russians to discuss. Withseveral EU countries, including Germany, going wobbly on nuclear power,Russian gas may be needed to make up the shortfall, if only temporarily.Systemic corruption in Russia and anti-graft laws in the West aredeterring European investors. Another issue is the “neighbourhood”,particularly Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. Having made much fuss overthe Kremlin’s claim to have a “special sphere of interests” in theformer Soviet Union, the EU has done little to stop Russian meddling.The post-cold-war trend of spreading European institutions and valueseastward has given way to a westward expansion of Russia’s corrupt andautocratic model.
With the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia fading, European integration could be the best way to offer long-term security to the region. Instead, Ukraine–a country of 46m people–seems only to cause fatigue in Brussels. Georgia is seen as America’s problem. Belarus has moved further from the EU after its dictatorial president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, stepped up repression following December’s stolen election.
Few in the EU any longer see membership for any of these countries as a strategic goal. Russia exploits this. Ukraine seems to be emulating it. Georgia is subject to harassment by Russian security services; the Georgians say they now have clear evidence of Russian involvement in a recent spate of bombings. Nor does Russian influence stop at the old Soviet borders. The Kremlin has strong ties with certain European politicians, including Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, and Gerhard Schröder, a former German chancellor who chairs the Nord Stream pipeline consortium.
In the early 1990s Russia longed to be a “normal” European country. Today, that goal looks further off than ever. Paradoxically, the Kremlin believes convergence has taken place–not because Russia has embraced European values, but because those values turn out to be so flexible.