The furor that followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s threat to sever Russia’s ties with the EU wasn’t really justified: there have been none to speak of since 2014.
The diplomatic embarrassment suffered by Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, in Moscow earlier this month unleashed passions on both sides of the EU-Russia relationship that had been building for a long time and were bound to spill over eventually.
Behind this skirmish, which was precipitated by the poisoning and subsequent jailing of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, lies a fundamental question: is the EU really the only option for organizing Europe’s political-economic space and for acting as a moral and political benchmark for its external partners?
The foundations of Russia’s relations with the EU were laid in the first half of the 1990s with the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in 1994 and ratified in 1997. Conceptually, it was based on a postulate then taken for granted. The end of the Cold War had created opportunities to consolidate the Old World—liberally understood to stretch as far east and south as possible—on the basis of the norms and rules developed and refined in Western Europe during the region’s integration from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Many newly independent states were admitted to the EU, which grew from twelve member states in 1992 to twenty-eight in 2015. The rest were invited to be part of a “wider Europe,” with no third option on offer.
The prospect of Russia joining was never in the cards. However, it was believed that its post-communist transformation would follow the European model and make the country more or less compatible with the EU, with which Russia would form an ill-defined community.
Moscow shared that perspective as late as the late 2000s. Even afterward, it attempted to reconcile that expectation with its increasingly apparent divergence with the EU, hence the intense high-level political dialogue in which the two sides engaged until 2014: a privilege the EU extended to Russia alone. Moscow used to insist on holding two summits a year, even as Brussels held just one a year with its most important partners.
The premise of all this was that European integration had no competition as a means of organizing Europe’s political space. Its successful application in Western Europe aside, it dovetailed ideally with the notion, so triumphant after the Cold War, of the liberal world order. Indeed, Europe’s lack of traditional hard power and reliance on other instruments, chief among them normative expansion and conditionality—i.e., requiring partners to change their practices in exchange for access to privilege—was nothing if not consistent with liberal principles.
The evolution of EU-Russia relations from the hopeful dawn of the early 1990s to the despairing sunset of the 2010s is one of the most revealing episodes in the history of the post-Cold War global transformation. Ever since the idea of a formalized community consisting of Europe and Russia lost its relevance (no practical steps have been taken to that end since the late 2000s), the relationship’s original principles have been meaningless.
The attempt at institutional partnership represented the culmination of about 200 years of efforts by a school of thought in Russia to Westernize the country. For the first time, the Westernizers saw an opportunity to qualitatively change the nature of Russia’s relations with the West.
That opportunity turned out to be a treacherous one. Russia’s Westernizers never intended for their country to formally submit to Europe’s rules and regulations, even as they pushed for modernization, active cooperation with Europe, and emulation of its ways. Yet that was precisely what Europe asked of Russia after 1992.
Europe’s experiment with its transformation into a politically consolidated subject, one projecting its normative framework outward, presupposed hierarchical relations between the EU and its direct neighbors. From the start, Russia was expected to not only cooperate with the EU, but also develop joint institutions. In its relations with Russia, Europe countenanced no retreat from its insistence on rule transfer.
Had Moscow resolved to become part of this “wider Europe,” the concessions it was expected to make would have been justified. But Russia’s Westernizers failed to persuade the country of the merits of qualitatively limiting its own sovereignty for the sake of following the European model.
Today, the two sides find themselves deeply irritated with each other, and their political relations effectively nonexistent. Indeed, the furor that followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s threat to sever Russia’s ties with the EU wasn’t really justified, given that there have been none to speak of since 2014. There remain only Russia’s relations with individual EU member states.
Arguably, the Navalny affair has laid bare the central contradiction of Russia’s conflict with the EU: the cause of all the sanctions and political tensions is Russia’s domestic politics. Were Europe’s institutions and their representatives to emphasize in their criticism of Navalny’s treatment Russia’s alleged use of chemical warfare agents to poison him, underlining the dangers posed by their circulation by unknown persons, the issue could be treated as an international matter of concern. As things stand, Europe’s objections primarily relate to the violation of democratic norms, rights, and freedoms inside Russia, which the EU maintains it cannot tolerate.
Brussels’s stance is easy to understand in terms of the logic of a “wider Europe.” But that logic has long had no place in Russia’s relations with the EU. The reality is that their political dialogue is a relic of a bygone era. Everything has changed, from Russia and Europe to the West and the wider world. The liberal world order is no more.
Moscow’s decisiveness in how it has responded to EU attempts to pressure Russia directly over Navalny speaks to its confidence that it has little to lose in its relations with Europe. It increasingly believes that the EU is undergoing irreversible changes as a result of which it will never again have the clout it had fifteen to twenty years ago.
Back then, it seemed that the EU would become a global player on par with the United States and China and come to unilaterally shape not only Europe but also much of Eurasia. It is now clear that such a goal is unfeasible: not just in Eurasia but in Europe too, where it has become possible to envision alternative means of organizing the continent’s political-economic space.
When it comes to EU-Russia relations, then, the old framework is not just obsolete, it may even prove harmful, as it risks provoking new clashes. Once the EU and Russia are ready, as they eventually will be, a new framework awaits: one promising a new boost to EU-Russia cooperation on the understanding that a formal community consisting of the two is not an outcome worth pursuing.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
From our partner RIAC
Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans
Despite various official efforts, including regular payment of maternal capital to stimulate birth rates and regulating migration policy to boost population, Russia is reportedly experiencing decreasing population. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, Russia’s population currently stands at approximately 144 million, down from 148.3 million.
Experts at the Higher School of Economics believe that regulating the legal status of migrants, majority of them arriving from the Commonwealth of Independent States or the former Soviet republics, could be useful or resourceful for developing the economy, especially on various infrastructure projects planned for country. These huge human resources could be used in the vast agricultural fields to boost domestic agricultural production. On the contrary, the Federal Migration Service plans to deport all illegal migrants from Russia.
Within the long-term sustainable development program, Russia has multibillion dollar plans to address its infrastructure deficit especially in the provinces, and undertake megaprojects across its vast territory, and migrant labor could be useful here. The government can ensure that steady improvements are consistently made with the strategy of legalizing (regulating legal status) and redeploying the available foreign labor, majority from the former Soviet republics rather than deporting back to their countries of origin.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been credited for transforming the city into a very neat and smart modern one, thanks partly to foreign labor – invaluable reliable asset – performing excellently in maintaining cleanliness and on the large-scale construction sites, and so also in various micro-regions on the edge or outskirts of Moscow.
With its accumulated experience, the Moscow City Hall has now started hosting the Smart Cities Moscow, international forum dedicated to the development of smart cities and for discussing about changes in development strategies, infrastructure challenges and adaptation of the urban environment to the realities of the new normal society.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans. He further acknowledged that the number of migrants in Russia has reduced significantly, and now their numbers are not sufficient to implement ambitious projects in the country.
“I can only speak about the real state of affairs, which suggests that, in fact, we have very few migrants remaining over the past year. Actually, we have a severe dearth of these migrants to implement our ambitious plans,” the Kremlin spokesman pointed out.
In particular, it concerns projects in agricultural and construction sectors. “We need to build more than we are building now. It should be more tangible, and this requires working hands. There is certainly a shortage in migrants. Now there are few of them due to the pandemic,” Peskov said.
Early April, an official from the Russian Interior Ministry told TASS News Agency that the number of illegal migrants working in Russia decreased by 40% in 2020 if compared to the previous year. It also stated that 5.5 million foreign citizens were registered staying in Russia last year, while the average figure previously ranged between nine and eleven million.
On March 30, 2021, President Vladimir Putin chaired the tenth meeting of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations via videoconference, noted that tackling the tasks facing the country needs not only an effective economy but also competent management. For a huge multinational state such as Russia, it is fundamentally, and even crucially important, to ensure public solidarity and a feeling of involvement in the life, and responsibility for its present and future.
At this moment, over 80 percent of Russian citizens have a positive view on interethnic relations, and it is important in harmonizing interethnic relations in the country, Putin noted during the meeting, and added “Russia has a unique and original heritage of its peoples. It is part of our common wealth, it should be accessible to every resident of our country, every citizen, everyone who lives on this land. Of course, we will need to review the proposal to extend the terms for temporary stay of minors of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation.”
President Vladimir Putin has already approved a list of instructions aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship in Russia based on the proposals drafted by the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.
“Within the framework of the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025, the Presidential Executive Office of the Russian Federation shall organize work aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship of the Russian Federation,” an official statement posted to Kremlin website.
In addition, the president ordered the Government, the Interior and Foreign Ministries, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Justice Ministry alongside the Presidential Executive Office to make amendments to the plan of action for 2019-2021, aimed at implementing the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.
Nobody Wants a War in Donbass
Any escalation is unique in its own way. Right now there’s a combination of unfavorable trends on both sides, which are leading to an escalation of the conflict. This combination creates additional risks and threats that weren’t there before.
On the Ukrainian side, the problem is that the president is losing his political position and becoming a hostage of right-wing and nationalist forces. Many of the reform initiatives that he came to power with have stalled. Political sentiments are changing within his faction. They’re saying that with his recent steps, in particular the language law and the closure of television stations that Kyiv dislikes, he’s starting to stray towards the agenda of his predecessor, Poroshenko. And this means a weakening of his position. Probably, he’s already thinking about re-election and how he will look during the campaign. Here, the trend is unfavorable.
On the other hand, there’s the arrival of Biden, who will always be more attentive to Ukraine than Trump. There’s an expectation that the U.S. will be more consistent and decisive in its support for the Ukrainian side in the event of a conflict. This invigorates the forces that are looking for an escalation.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a role. They said there was only a political path to resolving the conflict, but in Karabakh [the Azerbaijanis] used force and made real progress. This motivates the people who think that military force can resolve a conflict. Moreover, Ukraine is carrying out defense cooperation with Turkey, so there may be hopes that the balance of forces will shift in Kyiv’s favor.
There’s also a radicalization of the political leadership of the DNR and LNR. They say that [full-scale] war is, if not inevitable, than very likely—and Russia must intervene. The idea that the DNR and LNR should join Russia is gaining popularity once again. This is facilitated by Russia’s actions. In the last two years, the mechanisms for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the LNR and DNR have changed. Hundreds of thousands of LNR and DNR residents are already citizens of the Russian Federation, and Russia has—or at the very least should have—some obligations towards its citizens. This gives hope to [the residents] of the LNR and DNR that if an escalation begins, Russia won’t remain on the sidelines and we will see large-scale intervention. Without Russia, the conflict will not develop in the favor of the republics.
As for Russia, our relations with the West continue to deteriorate. There’s Biden’s statement about Putin being a killer, and relations with the European Union. We are witnessing an accumulation of destabilizing trends.
I don’t think anyone wants a real, big war, since the costs of such a conflict will exceed the political dividends. It’s difficult to predict what such a conflict might lead to, given that the stakes are very high. But an unintended escalation could occur.
Hopefully, all of those involved have enough wisdom, determination, and tolerance to find a positive solution. So far, we are far from a serious conflict, but we’re closer than at the beginning of April 2020 or 2019. Unfortunately, we’re headed downhill, and it’s difficult to say how long it will go on.
To prevent a [full-scale] war from starting, the situation in Donbass needs to be stabilized. That’s the first task. In recent weeks, the number of ceasefire violations has been increasing, and the number of victims is growing. We need to return to the issues of the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the OSCE mission, and monitoring the ceasefire.
The second task is to discuss issues of political regulation. The main uncertainty is how flexible all the parties can be. The Minsk agreements were signed a long time ago, [but] it’s difficult to implement them in full, there needs to be a demonstrated willingness not to revise them, but to somehow bring them up to date. How ready are the parties for this? So far, we aren’t seeing much of this, but without it we will not advance any further.
The third issue is that it’s impossible to resolve the Donbass problem separately from the problem of European security as a whole. If we limit ourselves to how we fought in Donbass, Kyiv will always be afraid that Russia will build up its strength and an intervention will begin. And in Russia there will always be the fear that NATO infrastructure will be developed near Voronezh and Belgorod. We have to deal not only with this issue, but also think about how to create the entire architecture of European security. And it isn’t a question of experts lacking imagination and qualifications, but of statesmen lacking the political will to seriously deal with these issues. Because if you reduce everything to the requirements of the formal implementation of the Minsk agreements, this is what we’ve been fighting about for seven years already.
I think that Ukraine will now try to increase the political pressure on Moscow and get away from the issue of the Minsk agreements. And going forward a lot depends on what the position of the West and U.S. will be. To what extent and in what format will they provide support in the event of an escalation? This is still an open question. And, I think, even Biden doesn’t know the answer to it.
From our partner RIAC
Updating the USSR: A Test for Freedom
Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the only all-Union referendum in the history of the USSR took place. One question was put to a vote: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Almost 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the preservation of the USSR in an updated form. The authorities of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused to hold the referendum on their territory. By that time, the legislative and executive bodies and institutions in these republics were already controlled by secessionist forces, which did not hide their intentions to leave the USSR.
The March 17 referendum at that time was the only convincing attempt to appeal to public opinion on the most important issue of the political life of a huge country. However, the results did not change anything — by December 8 of the same year, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine decided to dissolve the USSR. The referendum itself became the beginning of the end of a unique state — an experiment in the vast expanses of Eurasia. By that time, the republican elites were already ready to take power and wealth into their own hands; the events of August 1991 spurred this readiness — in Turkmenistan, where almost 100 percent of the population voted to preserve the USSR, on August 22, 1991, all enterprises were placed under republican control.
All the republics of the USSR met the new year in 1992 as newly independent states. For some of them, this status was a long-awaited event, for which they had fought. Others were, according to former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Apas Jumagulov, “thrown out of the union, cut off as an unnecessary part of the body.” Many economic ties broke off immediately, while others collapsed gradually; the rest survived and were even strengthened. In politics, everyone was left to their own problems. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan plunged into bloody political and interethnic conflicts during their first years of independence.
The path of the countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR over the years was the road to gaining their own subjectivity in international politics. With great difficulty and despite all odds, Armenia and Moldova are coping with this task. The majority — Russia, Azerbaijan and all the countries of Central Asia — were able to solve the problem more or less successfully. Georgia and two Slavic republics — Belarus and Ukraine, were hanging in the “limbo” between external management and full-fledged statehood. The three Baltic republics quickly transferred their sovereignty to the European Union and NATO. In their independent development, they had to make, in fact, the only decision, which, moreover, was due to historical reasons and external circumstances. This decision was made and now the fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia cannot be perceived outside the context of Russia-West interaction.
For the rest, the direct link between success in creating their own statehood and the scale of interaction with the West (Europe and the United States) is quite obvious. This historical fact reveals a relationship between the ability of small and medium states to ensure their sovereignty and the interests of the great powers in their neighbourhood. Such powers were Russia and the European states, united into the European Union simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR. Also, an important role was played by the United States, which always sought to limit Russian opportunities and supported the newly independent states. At the same time, an attempt to choose in favour of closer relations with the West to the detriment of Russian interests in all cases, without exception, led to a very shaky statehood and the loss of territory.
The dramatic fate of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine shows that the strong collective institutions of the West are capable of exerting a stabilising effect only on those states that directly became part of them.
In all other cases, no matter how complete absorption becomes possible, an orientation towards these institutions only leads to the use of small countries in a diplomatic game with bigger partners.
Therefore, the experience of the development of such major players as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan is indicative — they were able to confidently form their own statehood, without finding themselves in a situation of choosing between conflicting poles of power. Their main resource turned out to be a rather fair demographic situation. But not only this — the population of Ukraine has also been and remains large by European standards. Kazakhstan is a success by this indicator; equal to the average European country or small Asian states.
Therefore, the ability of most of the countries of the former USSR to build relatively independent and stable statehood played no less important role. In many ways, this ability was established during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Founded on December 30, 1922, it was not just a continuation of the Russian Empire, which had collapsed five years earlier. Its main distinguishing feature was its unique model of state administration, based on the full power of one political party. As long as the unique position of the Communist Party remained in the Soviet state, the experiment could exist. With the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, its days were numbered regardless of the desire of the population or the real readiness of the elites to take full responsibility for what was happening.
The USSR model of state structure, new by historical standards, created the conditions for a rather unique experiment, within the framework of which union republics were created, none of which, except for Russia, Georgia and Armenia, had the experience of centralised state administration within the territorial boundaries that they acquired within the framework of the USSR. At least the peoples inhabiting them can boast of a significant experience of statehood as such. Thus, most of the countries of Central Asia trace their ancestry back to great empires or urban civilizations of past centuries.
The Baltic republics were always on the sidelines — their independent statehood arose during the collapse of the Russian Empire and existed as such for almost 20 years before being incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Russia has returned to its historical state of being a major European power or empire of the 19th century, with the development of a multinational and multi-faith society central to its development objectives. In fact, Russia has not lost anything really necessary for its survival in international politics.
The peculiar structure of the USSR formalised the situation in which the former outskirts of the Russian Empire ceased to be part of the Russian state, although Moscow served as the centre of the union. Russia among them was in the most ambiguous position — it did not have its own most important institutions of Soviet statehood — the party organisation and the republican State Security Committee. Russian nationalism was subjected to the most severe and consistent persecution by the Soviet authorities.
The vast majority of republics within the USSR, for the first time, received the experience of building their own state and their national elite.
The backbone of the ruling class was the Soviet and party nomenklatura, which all took power, with few exceptions, after 1991. Even in Tajikistan, where the first years of independence were overshadowed by the civil war, it was this part of society that was eventually able to establish control over the situation. In other Central Asian countries, elites formed on the basis of the state tradition established during the Soviet era, gradually supplemented by representatives of a new generation that grew professionally after the collapse of the USSR.
Thirty years is a sufficient period to assess the results of the independent development of the countries that emerged from the republics of the former USSR. Now the period of their growing up can be considered complete; ahead is an independent future. Russia is increasingly feeling independent and not particularly obligated to its neighbours. In any event, Moscow will continue to follow a moral imperative of responsibility for maintaining peace and strictly ensure that its neighbours correlate their actions with Russian security interests.
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