Europe's view of Russia frequently reflects misconceptions. Some Europeans hide behind Winston Churchill's famous -- but often misrepresented -- comment that Russia is a mystery, riddle and an enigma. Others adhere to a naive, visionary optimism about Moscow's understanding of democracy and the rule of law.
But neither view reflects the true nature of Russia. What Europe needs is a healthy and robust realpolitik, one that is free from illusions about the giant next door. Past experience shows that there is nothing mysterious or enigmatic about Russia's pursuit of its national (even imperialist) interests. The trick for Europe is to counterbalance Russian self-interest, and this means the EU has to agree on -- and jointly promote -- Europe's own interests and channel relations with Moscow into an international framework that upholds the rule of law.
Viewing Russian behavior as a riddle also reinforces Moscow's traditional position of being a country with a unique role in history -- one that is allowed to function outside any existing political or national models. Moscow expects people to make an exception in Russia's case, and its refusal to ratify and implement the Energy Charter was just one example of this conduct.
Anti-democratic developments in Russia make it essential to understand where in real terms we stand vis-a-vis Russia. This is all the more urgent as spin doctors are busy creating new illusions around the personality of President Dmitry Medvedev. Depending on who you listen to, Medvedev is either a new John Kennedy or he's a harmless technocrat with no KGB background. Western leaders who buy into such illusions and race one another to the gates of the Kremlin demonstrate a classic case of European confusion regarding Russia.
What, then, are the current realities that should inform a more accurate EU analysis of Russia? First, we have to acknowledge that Russia is not a democracy. In fact, the policy of building a "normal" society that respects the rule of law has been reversed. Under the guise of "sovereign democracy," Russia openly and defiantly abandons the goal of becoming an advanced open society, marked by political liberty and the rule of law.
That does not mean that Russia is the same as the Soviet Union, but Europe must stop thinking of Russia as a "normal" strategic partner. While the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement declares common values as the basis of a partnership, this is deceptive. We can speak about common interests, certainly, but not common values. Russia no longer aims to integrate with the West under Western terms and conditions.
The European Union should forget any notion that Russia is a friend, ally or reliable partner. Russia's strategic interests in Europe directly oppose those of the EU. Moscow wants to split the EU apart and is trying to set old and new member states against each other. The former Soviet-occupied Baltic states are the main target and testing ground for these divisive policies. Russia combines political and economic pressure on the three Baltic states with disinformation campaigns and the exploitation of Soviet-era immigrants. Russia has also tried to turn these EU members into bargaining chips in possible future deals with the EU.
Energy is a sector where the EU needs to get a real grip on today's realities. The EU is increasingly dependent on Russian oil and on gas, but a more sober economic analyses show that Russia needs the EU more than the EU needs Russia.
European companies continue, meanwhile, to do business with Russia despite its flagrant disregard for Western norms, its dramatic lack of reciprocity and its general disdain for legal guarantees. They rush into Russian markets in search of short-term gain and accept the crippling moral price of having to share their profits with the ruling elite. The business practices involved cast aside most EU principles of fairness and transparency.
The EU's weakness extends beyond economic and commercial relations and into the political sphere. Russia's Council of Europe membership is a case in point. In 1996, Russia was accepted as a member only after lengthy debate and in return for a long list of democratic commitments which were to be met in the shortest possible time. The decision was purely political: The majority concluded that Russia was "better in than out." The justification was that membership would speed up Russia's democratic transformation. Sadly, the opposite is true.
The EU should set clear rules that are not subject to change as a result of whim or exceptional circumstances. They must be based on the international standards for the rule of law. Europe's working relationship with Moscow should start afresh on the basis of friendly -- but firm -- reciprocity.
Time to take the riddle out of Russia (2)