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regime remained vague, while the timeline for signing a new Russia–EU framework agreement to replace the hopelessly outdated 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was moving further and further into the indeterminate future.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.
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