|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||11/04/96, Volume 2, Number 15|
THEY have a partnership pact as thick as a telephone book. And they have big plans. But neither the European Union nor Russia are quite sure what that means.
And who can blame them?
Russia is eight weeks away from a presidential election which many feel could radically change its face. The Union is also heading for a face-lift, as this year's negotiations on revisions to the Maastricht Treaty could result not only in new policies but also, eventually, in new member states.
Both sides are watching each other closely and both are feeling slightly helpless. The EU must refrain from taking sides in election campaigning and can only guess at how much of the new, nationalist tough talk emanating from Moscow is sincere.
For their part, the Russians - despite being told by Europe that they are its foreign policy priority - feel they are not getting the dialogue they want.
“Our relations with Russia seem to be a succession of hurdles which we and they have to jump over,” said an EU official.
One of the first hurdles is ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) by Europe's national parliaments and by the Russian Duma.
That process could be helped along this month, with the Union scheduled to review its lengthy 'action plan' and prioritise its initiatives with Moscow.
But so far, EU officials have not consulted their Russian counterparts on the plan and Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek's vague offers to do so seem little more than lip service. Russian officials have only been shown an 'outline' of the action plan rather than the complete report.
That could be a grave oversight if the plan is really intended to be what some EU officials say it is: a signal to President Boris Yeltsin's government that “the EU is here and it's ready to help” keep him - and even more importantly his reforms - in place.
Russians also want talks on how to implement the 200-page PCA and are wondering why, after the EU has spent two full years in intense discussions with Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) to prepare them for eventual accession to the Union, it has devoted so little time to talks with Moscow about its partnership plans.
“We need a careful programme of practical steps for implementation of the PCA provisions,” said a diplomat. “We appreciate the general approach of the PCA, but without consultation with Russian authorities on many levels, it would be useless work.”
If consultations do begin, he said, “We hope the Commissioner won't be in a hurry.”
The EU's member states do not seem to be in a hurry: only half a dozen of its national parliaments have so far ratified the PCA. The previous Russian Duma held a first hearing on the subject, but officials admit that ratification by the newly-elected parliament is unlikely before June's presidential election.
The three-month-old Duma itself is a threat to the PCA. Controlled by the combined forces of the Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, it is likely to argue long and hard over the economic reforms proposed in the PCA.
European diplomats, including German Finance Minister Theo Waigel and Van Den Broek, have served notice on Russia that any backsliding from market reforms will be watched and criticised.
But EU officials do not seem overly concerned that the nationalist trend in Russia poses a serious threat to cooperation with Europe. Even the appointment of a foreign minister, Yevgeni Primakov, known to be more interested in Asia than his Euro-centric predecessor, has not caused them to fear that the EU will slide down Russia's priority list.
“Their zigzag in policy is somewhat worrying, but not unexpected,” said one EU official. “We think we have a long-term relationship.”
Russian desire for cooperation, at least as far as Yeltsin is concerned, seems intact.
This was confirmed by a Russian diplomat who said: “Russia considers the EU as one of the major centres of political and economic gravity of the modern universe.”
He also stressed the need for cooperation on security matters, saying: “You can't have a European security system without all the major players.”
So far, Russia has supported the notion of EU enlargement to the east as a helpful tool in consolidating European security. But it remains steadfast in its opposition to NATO's planned expansion eastwards.
Recent hints from Primakov that Russia might accept a NATO expansion limited to Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics were rapidly snuffed out in Moscow, but Yeltsin later suggested that he might tolerate semi-membership for the CEECs.
To keep Russia secure in the feeling that EU and NATO expansion plans are not linked, the Union will have to be very careful how it publicises plans to integrate its so-called military arm, the Western European Union (WEU) - which already counts the Baltic states among its partners - into NATO.
The Union will also have to tread carefully around the growing contest between the US and Russia. The more Washington insists that NATO will expand, the more Russia insists it will not, warning that NATO expansion could light “the flame of war” across Europe.
Meanwhile, Russia is taking more interest in its neighbours and stepping up talk of closer integration with them. Belarus is planning an imminent union, and Ukraine, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan - which have large Russian minorities - are also considered likely to join Russia in some form of new union.
Ignoring the Duma's recent vote to denounce the 1991 accord that dissolved the Soviet Union, Primakov told Van Den Broek that future CIS integration could be modelled “along the lines of the European Union”. The EU encourages Russia in that direction, but continues to forge its own political and commercial links with the CIS and has already agreed association accords with many.
Another notion floated by Russia is that of a military pact for the eastern bloc to compete with the western alliance. Both NATO and EU officials oppose the idea.
Through its participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia (IFOR), Russia's ties with NATO are fairly healthy at the moment. When Moscow sacked the first general it had appointed to IFOR for not cooperating with NATO officers, it was signalling that it wanted to keep relations cordial.
The biggest fly in the ointment is Russia's position on the secessionist aspirations of Chechnya. War has claimed more than 20,000 lives since Yeltsin sent 40,000 Russian troops there in December 1994 to crush an independence movement.
The EU had stalled the interim accord with Russia (the planned first step of the PCA), but eventually approved it on condition that its humanitarian aid shipments had uninterrupted access to Chechnya.
Yet to be convinced by Yeltsin's pledge to end the war, EU officials say Russia has not lived up to that condition, and access to Chechen civilians is sporadic.
“The Russian military has stopped us from getting through,” said one, adding that “aid convoys have been forced to take huge detours, and planning is next to impossible”.
Russia's aid minister, in Brussels last month to see Commission officials, promised to help. However, his request for EU funding for the EmerCom ministry was turned down, as the Commission refuses to give aid money through government agencies. “We didn't say No to collaboration,” insisted one official.
Last month EU governments condemned “unprovoked attacks by Russian forces on civil targets” and a “severe worsening of the human rights situation”.
They dished out criticism in equal measures to Chechens, however, condemning “terrorism” such as hostage taking.
But Union officials say it would take a great deal to stop the EU forging ahead with its plans to build stronger ties with Russia.
“We can't allow the whole relationship to be frozen unless there's a breach of one of the fundamental conditions,” said a top Commission official.
Read literally, the suspension clause in the PCA could mean human rights abuses would be enough to call the accord into question. But EU officials negotiating the accord promised their Russian counterparts that it would be used only in drastic situations.
“They were concerned, but we said we needed it in case another coup attempt like the one which occurred in August (1991) were to succeed,” said one.
Short of a coup then, it appears that the Union will not be deflected from its goal of forging closer links with Russia.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Russia|