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From “Selective Engagement” to “Enlightened Realism”?

Photo: kremlin.ru
Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the “five Mogherini principles.” These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.

“Selective Engagement” as the Foundation of the “New Normal”

It was, of course, through compromise that the European External Action Service was able to prevent a split from forming within the European Union on a crucial issue, which turned out to be a historic moment for the organization. We should note in passing that Brussels has thus far been unable to reach a similar consensus on other issues that are of fundamental importance to the European Union, such as the issue of Kosovo, the Israeli–Palestinian settlement, the civil conflict in Venezuela and the expansion of the European Union itself.

In terms of a specific policy, the most significant strategy of the European Union is the fourth of its five guiding principles – “Selective Engagement with Russia.” On the whole, “selective engagement” appeared to be a reasonably logical approach given the “post-Ukrainian reality.” Europe could not conceivably go back to cooperating with Russia the way it had done in the past, turning a blind eye to the dramatic events in Crimea and Donbass, as this would mean it was somehow condoning the “aggressive behaviour of the Kremlin.” Nor was it inclined shut itself off from Moscow completely with another cordon sanitaire, as the latter was key to solving numerous issues of European politics.

The judicious decision was thus made to work with Russia only when and where it would serve the specific interests of the European Union. Mogherini’s statement touched upon potential points of contact with the Russian side, including Iran, Syria, the Middle East as a whole, migration, the fight against terrorism and climate change. “Selective engagement” can be compared to a “buffet” in a restaurant, where patrons serve themselves from a wide selection of dishes instead of being offered a set meal from the menu.

As far as we can tell, the principle of “selective engagement” was mostly supported in Moscow, albeit with little enthusiasm. Generally speaking, cooperation between Russia and the European Union was primarily selective before 2014 anyway, and the prospect of creating a unified “Greater Europe” had more or less fizzled out by the end of the 2000s. This is why, three months after the “five guiding principles” had been announced, the Russian side presented President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of proposals regarding possible areas of “selective engagement” during his visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Of course, the proposals that had been prepared for Juncker primarily reflected the interests and priorities of the Russian side. Thus, there was already friction about who would put on the spread for the “buffet” and who would fill their plates. Nevertheless, cautious hopes were expressed in 2016 that the new approach could indeed work, at least for a transitional period.

Four years down the line and we have no option but to conclude that the principle of “selective engagement” has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.

It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians or public officials or even single out individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure, of “selective engagement.” These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.

Why Mogherini’s Fourth Principle Failed

First of all, there is nothing close to a consensus on either side as to what degree of “selectivity” would be optimal for engagement. There are two distinct camps in the European Union. The first is made up of those who advocate the “historical reconciliation” of Russia and Europe, while the second consists of those who want to stand up to the “Putin regime.” This division remains. Little has happened in the past six years to convince either camp to change its tune or alter the balance of powers between Europe’s “hawks” and “pigeons.” Neither Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, nor the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, nor the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2020 managed to shift the equilibrium in Brussels.

This is why the European Union merely continues to renew the 2014 sanctions, each time announcing a victory for “European unity.” Agreeing on such an important and very specific issue as the feasibility of building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has proved impossible. Perhaps this is why the substantive content of the “selective engagement” with Moscow has never been brought up as a topic for serious political discussion in Brussels. After all, any discussion in this vein would inevitably jeopardize the much-vaunted “European unity,” laying bare the fundamental incompatibility of opinions within the European Union regarding the state of and prospects for relations with Moscow.

While a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle has raged among individual EU member states for the last four years in Brussels regarding the limits and possibilities of “selective engagement” with Russia, in Moscow, the concept of “selective engagement” continues to be a field of an equally fierce confrontation of influential institutional and group interests. Europe does not have a consistent long-term strategy with regard to Moscow, but Russia does have such a strategy with regard to Brussels.

In some cases, the confrontation between Moscow’s “Europhobes” and its “Europhiles” even spills over into the public space. For example, existing official and semi-official assessments of the impact of the EU sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions on the Russian economy, as well as estimates regarding the success of the import substitution strategy vary greatly, from the clearly alarmist to the unabashedly triumphant. If the parties cannot work out their own positions on the matter, then how can we expect them to find common ground in negotiations with one another?

What is more, Russia and the European Union are very different players on the international stage, with different comparative advantages and different sets of instruments of power and influence. Significant asymmetries of both interests and opportunities between the “Russian elephant” and the “European whale” are inevitable. And this makes it extremely difficult to find a “fair” balance of interests in each specific case. For example, Mogherini talked about the desirability of working with Moscow on the issue of North Korea, but what exactly can Brussels offer Moscow in this area? Moscow, for its part, is trying to get the European Union to recognize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an equal partner; however, the economic potential of the EAEU is minuscule compared to that of the EU.

Moreover, while Moscow takes pride in its sovereignty and the fact that it can make independent decisions, the sovereignty of the European Union is limited one way or another by the one-sided nature of its relations with the United States. And this means that attempts to create a balance between the European Union and Russia will ultimately turn into a far more complicated game involving the decidedly scalene Brussels–Moscow–Washington triangle. Even if there is still some hope for the “Russian elephant” and “European whale” to come to an agreement, the “American tyrannosaurus” will do its best to make sure that does not happen.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues in the here and now. For example, offering mutual concessions on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal or resolving issues related to the de-escalation of the Libyan Civil War are acceptable solutions. These areas can, to a certain degree, be isolated from the general background of relations, while at the same time preserving individual islands of cooperation in the vast ocean of confrontation.

But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic in nature. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in stability in neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a common vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a shared view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky vs Immanuel Kant

Anyone in Russia who has at least the vaguest memories of reading Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel What Is to Be Done? at school ought to remember the theory of “rational egoism” that he loved so much. Nothing can be done about a person’s inherent egoism, and there is no point hoping for them to change their nature and suddenly become selflessly altruistic. Chernyshevsky was a militant atheist and categorically rejected the existence of Kant’s “moral law” in such people.

However, according to Chernyshevsky, people do not come into conflict with one another because of egoism as such, but rather because of how they perceive their own interests. Most people are so focused on achieving their near-term goals, serving their basic instincts and acting in a reactionary manner that they not only ignore the interests of those around them, but also effectively neglect their own longer-term ambitions. This inevitably impacts both the egoist’s environment and the egoist himself.

“Rational egoism” proposes articulating these interests in a “rational” manner, that is, by taking the interests and wishes of others into account and building a rational hierarchy of diverse desires, propensities and personal tasks – all without denying a person the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Reason softens the most dangerous and destructive manifestations of egoism without encroaching on the fundamental features of human nature.

As applied to international relations, the theory of “rational egoism” could be interpreted as “enlightened realism.” An analogue of Kant’s “moral law” in this case would be the unity of fundamental values between Russia and the European Union. However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead. That is, not on non-dogmatic religious views of Immanuel Kant, but instead on the atheist rationalism of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.

It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.

Why We Need “Enlightened Realism”

The noun realism in this formulation implies a sober assessment of the specific moment we are experiencing, as well as the constraints associated with it. We cannot go back 20 years to the “honeymoon” period of Moscow–Brussels relations. And even if we could, it would only mean a return to a situation of “bad infinity” and the very same problems that continued to pile up and eventually led to the 2014 crisis. “Realism” forces us to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, we will not be able to find a solid institutional basis for developing relations that is acceptable for both sides in the foreseeable future.

Relations between Europe and Russia are going to be shaky for a long time to come, regardless of the paths of political transit that have already been embarked upon in the East and the West. Irrespective of who will be in power in Moscow and Brussels five or ten years down the line and regardless of whether or not we can reach a fair and satisfactory solution to the “Ukrainian issue” during this time. The difficulties are caused by differences in geographical location, historical experience, existing traditions and the psychologies of the respective peoples. We cannot merely draw up some kind of framework agreement or charter to get past the crisis; this did not work in the past, and it will not work now.

The noun enlightened places the concept of “realism” into a certain framework. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump can be characterized as “realistic” (and also pragmatic, transactional, self-centred or cynical – underline as necessary). However, Trump’s “realism” is in no way “enlightened.” “Enlightened realism” means that the sides should take both their tactical and immediate interests, as well as their strategic and long-term needs, into account.

Foreign policy decisions should be made not only with a view to the next presidential campaign or how the general public might react, but also with an understanding of the strategic challenges, opportunities and priorities facing the sides. The further into the future we are prepared to look, the greater the number of areas of common interest between Russia and the European Union we will find.

What is more, “enlightenment” implies that the parties have to be mindful not only of their own interests, but also of the interests of the system of international relations as a whole, since the destruction of this system does not bode well for Russia or Europe. No tactical victory can outweigh the strategic costs associated with the destabilization of the global system, the breakdown of international organizations, the degradation of international law, and the transition to a “game without rules” where “every man” is “for himself” in world politics.

This understanding is especially relevant today, when other leading centres of power in world politics (the United States, China and India) are, for various reasons, not ready to bear the responsibility for preserving regional and global stability. It is in these conditions that Europe and Russia are inevitably assuming greater responsibility for maintaining peace and resolving conflicts in such regions as the Middle East and North Africa.

Let us stress once again that we are not talking here about abandoning “selective engagement” once and for all. Engagement will continue to be selective for the foreseeable future, as the only alternative would be no interaction whatsoever. The task right now is to give this engagement a new depth, greater clarity and a fresh perspective. Figuratively speaking, we are talking about moving from two-dimensional interaction to three-dimensional interaction, or, in other words, leaving the rowdy market square where narrow-fisted buyers haggle prices with dodgy traders for the tranquillity of university laboratories where we can start designing the future European and world order.

This will require a qualitatively different level of interaction between the two sides both at the level of political leadership and at the level of diplomatic missions, ministries of economy, independent experts and non-governmental organizations. Not a return to the rather meaningless biannual EU–Russia summits, but the beginning of practical work on the implementation of large, forward-looking joint projects.

The only way that the principle of “enlightened realism” can work in the engagement between Europe and Russia is if the sides endeavour to apply it to themselves first and foremost, and then to the other party. After all, “enlightened realism” is not about making concessions to the other side or surrendering one’s position. Rather, it is merely a more extensive and less opportunistic understanding of one’s own interests. Right now, both Brussels and Moscow are following in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s famous words: “[T]he nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.”

From our partner RIAC

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A New Wave of Euroscepticism in the Heart of Europe?

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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As we are about to enter a new decade, the European Union seems to be facing one of its worst existential crises since its conception. Euroscepticism is not something new; ever since the efforts to achieve the European integration started in the 1950s political parties that made of anti-integration their main platform started to mushroom throughout the continent. the current pandemic, lockdown measures, an economic crisis that looms seem to be exacerbating divisive trends in Europe.

Most recently, the 2008 and 2009 financial crises that brought radicalism, populism, and fringe politics to the forefront of the political agenda again, especially in southern Europe which felt the worst effects of the economic downturn: Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. six years later, in 2015, the migrant crisis further deepened the already existing fractures among member states, and particularly throughout Eastern Europe, the continent witnessed can you surge in populist narratives, however this was also the case in countries that had been traditionally immune to such rhetoric such as the Scandinavian countries, and  Sweden in particular.

There is a false sense of Swedish exceptionalism for welcoming refugees. it is true that Sweden has been a generous safe haven for migrants, and they have received more refugees than many other European countries. However, one cannot assume such policy truly reflects the sentiments of the population. soon after Sweden started welcoming migrants, political parties started to turn to an ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming massive immigration for a possible collapse of their health, social and welfare systems.

Sweden is not an isolated case, populists have had considerable media exposure and have successfully started to alter the political agenda of the European Union in recent years. they cannot and should not be taken lightly. radical political parties do have realistic chances to become mainstream alternatives and attain power in many European countries such as  France, Italy, Greece, The Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the UK.

Populism is particularly appealing to those that feel they do not belong in a new ever-changing reality because of its reactive nature. populism reminds voters of glorious pastthat is long gone because of the actions of those currently in power. populism thrives on the division  of “us” vs “them”, and on the need to protect national institutions and inherent values that are being eroded and attacked.

While Euroscepticism trends started to subside ask the European economies started to grow and the migrant inflow started to stabilise , there was a widely spread false sentiment of stability and the assumption that Euroscepticism would wither away. Brexit and the domestic and international chaos it caused in the UK and in Europe reinforced this perception. soon after the failure in negotiations and the never-ending extensions of the process did translate into a drop in the demands for a membership referendum in most European countries. However, the current development may as well reverse that trend  

Populist leaders across the continent have already started to use the pandemic to legitimise many of their prior ideological stances: protectionism; anti- globalization; anti-immigration policies; closure of borders; nationalism and tougher law and order policies. Italy so country that could dictate where European politics will head to in coming months or years. Italy has been hit particularly hard in this pandemic, not only by the high human cost, but also by the dark economic prospects for the country. Italy will be stricken by the worst economic contractions in Europe and its debt  is expected to rise two over 150% of their GDP. Italy is therefore set for one of the longest recoveries in Europe. with all this into account, the idea that Italy could follow the UK in its anti-European mode  is something that should not be that lightly put away.

Italy has been suffering from a wave of European anti integration sentiment since the 2008 crisis, according to a survey by the Tecné Agency, 42% of Italians are in favour of withdrawal from the EU, by December last year, only 26% of them supported the idea. This percentage could increase if Italians are not happy with post-pandemic measures and could further enflame North and South existing tensions. the pandemic has struck pre-existing weaknesses and frailties and has played on a sense of abandonment. populists in Italy are not an exception amidst this pandemic: they are returning to their very familiar core book: they are portraying themselves as the only answer to protect the people.

Italians feel they were abandoned by the rest of the European Union to fend for themselves; even now when the European Union has decided on a massive asset-purchase scheme of Eurobonds or coronabonds, the Union is blind to the fact that economies among their member states will be affected differently. these has also reinforced the belief that this measure is contrary to the solidarity principle the union is based upon. Ideally, to prevent widespread feelings of inaction a lack of solidarity, Germany and France should possibly toy with the idea of a shared debt, especially when there are already apparent cases of serious insolvency from southern member states. this can also potentially limit the support for populism across the continent.

Italy in particular he’s a worrying case, unlike the UK with Brexit, Italy is a founding member of the European Union and if they were to hold a referendum on European Union membership with the same result as the 2016 one in the UK it would be catastrophic for the European Union’s credibility and legitimacy. this is a very realistic result as the post pandemic continues to impact on the continents social, economic, and political cohesion; and especially in countries, like Italy, which have been flirting on and off with populism, and they seem to be a crisis away from becoming the next Brexit or the next debt disaster in Europe.

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Kosovo between USA and EU

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The issue of Kosovo is yet again becoming one of the hottest on the international agenda. While the US administration is set on the early (before the presidential elections in November) signing of an agreement on normalizing relations through territorial exchanges,  the European Union leadership, under pressure from Germany, is pursuing their own agenda: a settlement of political crisis in the region and prevention of a new territorial carve-up in the Balkans. These differences can well result in a buildup of tension on both coasts of the Atlantic not only regarding the Balkan but also in relation to other burning international issues.

So far, the United States is somewhat outplaying the EU on this issue. The Trump administration, after securing solidarity with Kosovo’s President Hashim Taci in his confrontation with radical Prime Minister Albin Kurti, has de facto forced the latter to resign. It is the leader of the Self-Determination Radical Movement who is strongly opposed to an agreement with Belgrade and partition of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian parts in exchange for the lifting of Serbia’s objections to Pristina’s membership in international organizations. Considering that Serbia’s position is backed by Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, there are grounds to assume that Serbia’s refusal to counteract efforts by Kosovo diplomacy will mean Kosovo’s admission to the UN as an independent state – even in the absence of a legal acknowledgment of independence on the part of Belgrade and a number of EU members (Spain Greece, Cyprus, Rumania and  Slovakia).

Understandably, the EU leadership is categorically against such a prospect as undermining the unity of the organization and fraught with new changes of the Balkan borders. Brussels has been doing its utmost to consolidate Kosovo’s political landscape and at the same time isolate the chief “negotiator” with Belgrade – President Hashim Taci. The EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi said openly on May 7 that Kosovo needed a strong and stable government. Commenting on the situation following the vote of no confidence in the Albin Kurti Cabinet pronounced by the Kosovo Parliament on March 25, the Commissioner pointed out that ‘time is too valuable to be lost’: “If we do want to overcome the crisis, if we do mean to put Kosovo on the European track, we must do everything we can to come to an early solution in order to set up a sustainable government”.

Pristina should have no doubts which side Brussels is on in matters relative to Kosovo’s government and partition of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian parts. To this end, the next day, on May 8th, spokesperson for Kosovo in European Parliament Viola von Cramon said that Germany is against changing the borders between Serbia and Kosovo. In her words, any carve-up of borders in Western Balkans requires public approval at the referendum. «A solution is not in the hands of the presidents of two countries since an agreement they sign is to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries and be acceptable for all», – she said in an interview on the Kosovo TV Channel RTK.

Simultaneously, she de facto acknowledged the presence in the EU of grave differences on a further development of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. When answering a question by a Kosovo journalist as to when we can expect liberalization of visa regime between Serbia and Kosovo, Viola von Cramon said that along with the current difficulties it looks like within the EU there is no political will to take such a decision.

Spain is among countries which refuse to acknowledge self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo and which speak against a carve-up of Balkan borders. Spanish media and public opinion have been following closely all the possible scenarios of the development of the situation in the Balkans through the prism of the country’s own problems that have to do with separatism on the part of Basques and Catalonians. However, they are fairly skeptical about EU efforts.

The Spanish El Mundo writes in this regard that «in the heat of coronavirus epidemic the heads of state and government of 27 EU members and six Balkan countries held a video conference. «It is not a summit on EU expansion», – Spain keeps repeating. For if it were different, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez would have never agreed to take part in a high-level event, which was also attended by Kosovo’s president. This summit is designed to bring the sides concerned closer and bridge the differences. Citing Brussels’ sources El Mundo admits that the EU will not be able to offer the Balkan partners the prospect of early membership in the alliance , despite reports about the start of preliminary talks with Albania and North Macedonia. «Practically everybody came to the conclusion that the European Union would not expand for at least another ten years. What happened in 2004, when 10 countries joined the EU at a time, will not take place again. No appetite, no desire. And in the light of disagreements with Hungary and Poland in recent years, nobody wants more experiments», – El Mundo reports.

Mass media in Turkey – a country that found itself locked out of the EU – are as frank in their comments on the crisis in the EU’s Balkan policy. «The decision to start talks with Albania and North Macedonia about a full membership in the European Union means that the EU’s influence in Western Balkans will increase. However, this does not mean that the region will fully fall under the influence of the EU. For nearly 20 years the Balkans have been a buffer zone between big powers. Western Balkan countries where the US influence is strong include Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia», – the Turkish Anadolu Ajansı news agency.

Meanwhile, it is essential to remember that a mere idea – even if hypothetical – of granting Kosovo and other Balkan territories membership in the EU comes instrumental in confrontation with the USA. The latter can use financial and military-technical support but cannot promise membership in regional blocs or multilateral trade agreements. «The battle for influence in Western Balkans is currently in full swing. Given the circumstances, it is possible to say that the EU, which chose to start talks with Albanian and North Macedonia on full membership in the European Union, outflanked its competitors and has hit the top», – the Turkish news agency reports: «Besides, the EU considers it an advantage that countries such as Greece, Slovenia and Croatia are members of the EU, while Serbia and Montenegro continue talks on membership in the EU».

Given the situation, Russia is set on close coordination of effort with Serbian leaders and support of negotiating process in a format that makes it possible to take into account the interests of Serbs and ensures the possibility of a compromise. Simultaneously, Moscow underscores the priority of the UN mechanisms over any other formats of negotiations (including under the patronage of the EU) and the importance of taking any decisions that could be reached between Belgrade and Pristina to the UN Security Council. 

From our partner International Affairs

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A Sad Anniversary: Ten Years of the Partnership for Modernization

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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One approaching anniversary seems almost entirely lost in this spring’s torrent of different celebrations and commemorative dates. Ten years ago, the “Partnership for Modernization” Russia-EU Initiative was launched. Let us recap: at the 25th Russia-EU summit in Rostov-on-Don on May 31—June 1, 2010, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and President of the European Commission Jose Barroso announced that the Partnership marked a new stage and level in the cooperation between Moscow and Brussels.

Back then, the parties also outlined the priorities for their joint efforts. These included expanding opportunities for investment in the key sectors driving growth and innovations, bolstering and deepening bilateral trade and economic collaboration, and promoting small- and medium-sized enterprises. The parties noted they would prioritize the alignment of technical regulations and standards and enhanced protection of intellectual property rights. Transportation earned special mention.

Promoting a sustainable low-carbon economy and energy efficiency, and support for international talks on fighting climate change were also set as forward-looking areas for sectoral cooperation. The parties agreed to strengthen collaboration in innovation, research and development, as well as space exploration. They noted the need to ensure balanced development by addressing the regional and social consequences of economic restructuring. Additionally, the Partnership envisioned effective functioning of the judiciary and stepping up the fight against corruption, promoting people-to-people links and boosting dialogue with civil society in order to foster participation by individuals and businesses.

Russia and the European Union pinned great hopes on this initiative. On the one hand, both Moscow and Brussels clearly saw that, following the surge in the early 21st century, Russia–EU relations were stalling and becoming bogged down in endless bureaucratic approvals and they were slowed down by many disagreements within the EU itself. Russia–EU biannual summits were gradually losing substance and were becoming less and less productive. The prospects for achieving agreement on such fundamental issues as energy cooperation or a visa-free regime remained vague, while the timeline for signing a new Russia–EU framework agreement to replace the hopelessly outdated 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was moving further and further into the indeterminate future.

On the other hand, the overall political climate at the turn of the first and second decades of the 21st century favoured new initiatives in Russia-Europe relations and prompted the parties to set more ambitious goals. By 2010, the Russia–US “reset” mechanism had already been launched, Moscow’s relations with Central European states, including Poland, were gradually improving; the EU had emerged from another constitutional crisis, and the armed conflict in the South Caucasus was receding into the past. Economic ties between Russia and its western neighbours had passed through the ordeal of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009 and demonstrated steady positive dynamics.

Accordingly, the parties viewed the Partnership for Modernization agreement as summing up a certain intermediate stage in Russia–EU relations and creating an additional positive impetus for endowing these relations with new dynamics. Both Moscow and Brussels had reasons to be optimistic about the future: the second decade of the 21st century promised momentous new achievements, new political and economic breakthroughs in both the West and the East of Europe.

Lost Illusions

Nowadays, the 10th anniversary of the Partnership for Modernization is unlikely to attract much attention either in Russia or in the European Union. European leaders will not arrive at a new Russia–EU summit. Experts, entrepreneurs and journalists will not flock to crowded international conferences and forums marking the anniversary. The participants in the Rostov-on-Don summit will not be looking back and reminiscing to the younger generation about the preparations, discussions, and signing of the historic Partnership announcement. The coronavirus pandemic that has stopped all air travel in a petrified Europe and imposed a strict moratorium on public events is not the only reason for this. The thing is, the Partnership is no longer worth mentioning in either the West or East.

Jose Barroso, Former President of the European Commission, has been working for the USA’s Goldman Sachs for a long time; his move to the private sector was scandalous and prompted a special investigation by the European Union. Dmitry Medvedev left the office of Russian President less than two years after the Partnership was launched and, since January 2020, following his appointment as Deputy Chair of Russia’s Security Council, he is no longer involved in matters of international economic cooperation. Today, neither of these men apparently sees the Partnership for Modernization as one of their principal political achievements. Quite possibly, many of those who worked in some way on preparing the Partnership today feel a little bit awkward: how naïve and gullible we were ten years ago if we could discuss such a document in earnest!

It is hard to believe today that, just ten years ago, such in-depth cooperation between Brussels and Moscow could have been discussed as a practical matter. It is equally hard to believe that, in November 2010, the President of Russia attended the Russia–EU summit in Lisbon and discussed the practical prospects for partnership relations between Moscow and NATO based on delineating areas of responsibility for maintaining global security.

History has amended the plans of the Rostov-on-Don summit’s participants as it saw fit. The second decade of the 21st century was a time of trial for both Russia and the EU. Both parties are emerging from this decade with a heavy burden of new and unforeseen problems; acutely exacerbated bilateral relations make this burden all the heavier. Neither the East nor the West of Europe is any longer suffused with the cheerful historical optimism of ten years ago.

Given the radically new circumstances, is it worth remembering the events of ten years ago? Apparently it is, at least to understand what went wrong, why great expectations gave way to bitter disappointments, why, instead of an upswing, everything that had been achieved collapsed. These recollections are necessary at least for us to be able to assess the prospect for Russia-EU interactions in the third decade of the 21st century realistically.

Some believe (especially in Europe, but there are also some proponents in Russia) that, as regards implementing the Partnership for Modernization, everything went well between Moscow and Brussels up until the events in Crimea and Donbass in the spring and summer of 2014. Had there been no 2014 crisis, we would have been reaping the rich harvest of a decade of a mutually advantageous partnership and would have been building tremendous plans for the future.

The tragic events of 2014 did, indeed, draw a bold line under a long stretch of Russia–EU relations, as well as nullifying the Partnership’s prospects. Yet it would be a mistake to reduce all the problems to a single, if extremely acute, crisis. Had everything been going well with the Partnership (and the plans envisioned a new framework agreement following hard on the heels of the Partnership), the 2014 crisis is unlikely to have taken place. The parties would have had enough common sense and specific economic stimuli not to cross the line that separated us from a rapid and irreversible exacerbation of relations. And, if the line was, indeed, irreversibly crossed (be it in January, March or July 2014), this would have meant that, by 2014, the parties already had no particular expectations concerning the Partnership for Modernization achieving its full fruition or some positive breakthroughs taking place in bilateral relations in general. In other words, the four years of joint work within the Partnership’s framework did not perform their role of a deterrent that, under other circumstances, the parties might have hoped for.

The Partnership’s Ambiguity: Contents and Mechanisms

Did the Partnership concept contain some initial flaws, drawbacks or ambiguities that prevented its fully-fledged implementation? Today, looking back at it with the benefit of decade-long hindsight, we have to answer that question positively. From the very outset, the concept had inbuilt contradictions inherent in both the very term “modernization” and in the priority mechanisms chosen for implementing the concept.

Let us begin with the contents. When coordinating the Partnership’s concept and when implementing it, Russia invariably stressed its technological and innovative dimension. President Dmitry Medvedev repeatedly emphasized that the concept applied primarily to deepening cooperation in high tech spheres. These have always been among the most difficult and sensitive for international cooperation in general and between Russia and the West in particular. Implementing the idea of Russia and the EU’s mutual “interpenetration” into each other’s high-tech economic sectors can be likened to the most difficult open-heart surgery, which could only be performed by a top-notch professional. Even with both parties having the political will for it, it was virtually inevitable that they would run into many difficulties in the way of the Russia-EU “modernization alliance’s” functioning.

The EU focused most on Russia’s social and political modernization, on bringing Russia’s institutions and practices up to the European level. The “Partnership for Modernization” was frequently seen as some analogue of the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme for Central European states, which mostly emphasized the humanitarian and legal aspects. Naturally, the EU would act as the mentor and Russia was assigned the role of obedient student. That also required Brussels to act with the utmost delicacy and caution (brain surgery?), which, sadly, it did not. Suffice it to recall here the activities of the EU­–Russia Civil Society Forum: Brussels officials assumed the unilateral right to determine who in Russia had the right to represent this civil society and who did not. Since Russia, unlike Central European states, was not aiming to join the European Union, such a pointedly and obtrusively paternalistic attitude on the part of the EU could not but annoy Moscow.

These contradictions in defining “modernization” probably were not irreconcilable and could have been settled somehow. Moscow could have acknowledged that technological modernization is closely linked to social modernization, while it is impossible to attract European investment and technologies without improving state governance, reforming the judiciary, protecting intellectual property and the rights of investors. Brussels could have remembered that the EU had always been rather flexible in applying the principle of “political conditionality” (the requirements that the EU’s partners respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law) and could have used the experience of the EU’s relations with, for instance, China. Brussels could have entertained a broader definition of “civil society” leaders in Russia, adding some politically neutral organizations working on environmental issues, education, socially-orientated business, etc. to politically-engaged NPOs. Unfortunately, both parties preferred to insist on their own interpretations of the Partnership’s priorities, thereby provoking a negative response from their counterpart.

The parties’ different approaches were manifested in their ideas concerning the forward-looking mechanisms for implementing the Partnership. Europe would have liked to emphasize “bottom-up” modernization, meaning modernization originating in the private sector, expert networks and civil society and moving toward major economic projects and sectoral cooperation. Russia, on the contrary, prioritized “top-down” modernization, that is, modernization originating with the government and ministries and moving toward individual enterprises. Moscow had always pinned its principal hopes on sectoral dialogue as the principal mechanism for implementing the Partnership. That is, the parties’ ideas concerning the cooperation drivers were quite different from the outset.

Let us add to the mix such a complicating factor as significant structural differences in the economies in the West and the East of Europe: Moscow had always pinned its principal expectations concerning the Partnership’s implementation on big business, while Brussels invariably emphasized the EU prioritization of development of cooperation at the small- and medium-sized business level. Consequently, Russia calling for the partners in Brussels to launch the development of specific large-scale infrastructure projects and create socially significant manufacturing enterprises did not prompt a particularly enthusiastic response on the part of EU officials.

On the other hand, the EU negotiators never missed an opportunity to say that Russia’s modernization could not be efficient and comprehensive if it did not extend to the so-called “strategic sectors” protected from foreign competition by their special legal and political status and not having real stimuli for technological re-equipment and introduction of up-to-date corporate governance. It is easy to imagine the response these statements must have prompted among influential top managers of Russia’s state corporations!

Under different circumstances, a mutually acceptable balance between these two approaches could probably have been found. Unfortunately, when it came to Russia, the traditional “agency-based” practice of structuring such projects was in the way: the efforts of government officials were rarely supplemented by the requisite mobilization of the expert community. The activities of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) were an exception as INSOR came to be an important venue for collaboration between officials and independent experts. As for the European Union, it was incapable of implementing the Partnership in the “top-down” format simply because the relevant agencies in Brussels were institutionally weak: the given departments of the European Commission, headed by their Directors General, could only loosely be seen as direct counterparts of Russian ministries and agencies headed by federal ministers.

It appears, however, that the fatal blow to implementation of the Partnership was delivered by something other than the differences outlined above. Such an initiative could have been implemented only if it had been constantly kept in sight by the parties’ top leadership unconditionally prioritizing it. In the meantime, over the years since the Partnership was signed, Russia was gradually moving away from the innovative development strategy, at least in the shape and form formulated during Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency. Jose Barroso’s team, in turn, rapidly lost interest in the Partnership following Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin and switched its attention to other projects on the eastern frontiers of the European Union.

The Virtue of Necessity

We cannot go back to the year 2010. Even if, by some miracle, the conflict within and around Ukraine were to be solved promptly, on mutually acceptable grounds, the contradictions inherent in the Partnership for Modernization would not go away. Additionally, ten years on, the concept has definitely become obsolete. Our world is now different, the relations between its major actors are structured differently, the dominant ideas of the main challenges and threats faced by individual states and by humanity as a whole have changed radically.

Yet it is too early to write off the Partnership for Modernization. Its relevance might increase precisely because the past ten years have proven to be such a trial for both Brussels and Moscow. Although the European Quarter in Brussels and the Kremlin in Moscow still sound triumphant fanfares, the off-key notes in that cheerful music can be heard with increasing clarity. Little is now left of the former triumphant sentiments of both the European and Russian elites and of the European and Russian societies. The European Union faced an unprecedented migration crisis, experienced a sharp upswing in the popularity right-wing populists and Euro-sceptics, went through a painful divorce from the UK and found itself on the receiving end of the USA’s previously unthinkable hostility.

Russia had to face a variety of economic sanctions, withstand the devaluation of its currency and a drop in the population’s real incomes, and acknowledge the essential loss of its energy superpower status. Both parties are among the countries and regions particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Although, over the last ten years, both the European Union and Russia have demonstrated an impressive ability to weather shocks, it must be acknowledged today they have far fewer objective grounds than ten years ago for confidence in a sunny future. Recognizing one’s weakness and vulnerability and realizing one’s common interests with a partner—surely this is a combination that produces readiness to compromise?

Europe found itself squeezed between the US, which still dominates the world and looks on Europe with ever diminishing favour, and China, which is gradually gaining power. Naturally, expanding cooperation with Moscow will not resolve all of Europe’s problems, but it might turn out to be an instrument for buttressing the EU’s current standing in global politics and the global economy and, as such, it clearly should not be neglected.

Having lost a significant chunk of its natural resource rent, Russia is being forced to seek a new socio-economic development model, and it will have to do so under extremely unfavourable external circumstances. Where will it be looking for this model? Perhaps China, India or Singapore? Even given all their advantages, it is doubtful that Asian modernization models would suit the predominantly European society that Russia was in 2010, is in 2020, and will remain in 2030, irrespective of what the many proponents of “Eurasian identity” would like to convince us of.

Is this not an incentive to start working on Partnership for Modernization 2.0? Sceptics are likely to ask: what about the unresolved problems in the east of Ukraine? What about the continuing divergence between the Russian and European political development tracks? What about the unconditional priority both Brussels and Moscow accord their own domestic issues? These questions are reasonable and fair. Yet we will never be able to answer them if we remain unable at least to pencil in a general outline of the desired common future. An attractive image of a desired future should, among other things, become a powerful stimulus for overcoming the negative legacy of the past decade, for resolving the specific issues that stand in the way of a new rapprochement between Russia and the EU.

We would very much hope that the anniversary of the Partnership for Modernization will become not only a reason to mourn the failed hopes of the past decade but also an incentive to think about the opportunities offered by the next ten years.

From our partner RIAC

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