What Russia and the EU share, even having drifted apart from each other in most policy spheres, are unfulfilled (or simply wrong) expectations. Indeed, intensive discourse on Russia’s European vocation did not bring so far fruits, as many in Brussels or Berlin have expected. And trade and economic interdependence does not automatically translate into political cooperation, as the Kremlin anticipated.
This may sound quite pessimistic, but skepticism and pessimism are exactly the feelings that dominate in today’s German approach to Russia. The most recent evidence of this came at the conference on prospects of German – Polish – Russian relations convened a few days ago at University of Potsdam.
Conference organizer Professor Jochen Franzkewas was quite straightforward in his assessments of the current state of German-Russian relations: they are very negative. Germany lost confidence in Russian leaders, which turned “strategic partnership” into a term without content. Berlin’s recognition of Russia’s possible contribution to stabilizing some regions of Eurasia does not go as far as accepting Russia’s sphere of interests. The search for a new agreement between Russia and the EU is stalled due to divergent approaches to it: Brussels wants this document to be as detailed as possible, while Moscow seems to be interested in a relatively short agreement needed basically for legitimizing the Kremlin’s international status and leaving to it as much freedom of action as possible.
Stefan Meister from the Berlin-based think tank DGAP, shared this dreary appraisal by claiming that we have to face the end of a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia. In his opinion, Russia is losing Germany as its key advocate in Europe. German political class is frustrated by the lack of positive news from Moscow. For most German companies, a partnership with Gazprom is viewed as inflexible. Many issue areas declared as parts of bilateral relations are in fact simulacra, or simply soap bubbles. For instance, even experts are unsure of the “legal dialogue” between Russia and Germany. The same goes for a “dialogue between civil societies” – does it exist at all?
Russia, according to pro-Kremlin speakers, does not need to learn from European experiences. One example discussed at the conference is muliticulturalism. Perhaps, more or less successful multi-ethnic relations are possible only on the basis of grass-roots self-organization on the local (communal, municipal, regional) level. It is here that the Putin system demonstrates its limits: in the absence of a fully-fledged local democracy, it is the state that tries to secure ethnic and religious peace in a top-down manner. But, the European lesson is that the state can’t be the sole constructor of a multi-cultural society. Rather, it can only set certain frames to be filled with specific content by local communities themselves.
In Meister’s view, Russia is not soley at fault for itsdeplorable lack of understanding with Europe. Germany shares part of blame, since it is short of vision and due expertise, and its Ostpolitik is very much elite-driven. Russia is not a personal priority for chancellor Angela Merkel or President Joachim Gauk, who is reluctant to travel to Russia and speak withVladimir Putin. Merkel might criticize her predecessors, but never developed an alternative approach to Russia. Eventually, it was Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski who took his German counter-part Guido Westerwelle to Belarus a year ago, not the other way around.
Of course, the federal government in Berlin tries to balance between the two dominating domestic groups. The value-based camp thinks that Germany’s priority lies in political domain, and Germany must more robustly raise issues of democracy and human rights while talking to the Kremlin. The Realpolitik camp deems that Germany benefits a lot from Russia’s energy supplies, and the only problem in bilateral relations is unfortunate but corrigible miscommunication. It is the first camp that seems to get prominence nowadays, since the criticism of their opponents is on the rise.
Of course, other voices weigh in on this debate. For example, critical voices from Poland, the closest foreign policy partner of Germany, are also strong. Many Poles see Germany rather as a mediator between the EU and its neighbors, yet not as a fully-fledged part of the EU. Also, Ukrainians are much more critical toward the EU and Germany, claiming that from the outset, Ukraine was not high in the EU agenda.
The conference proceedings offer a sober perspective for EU’s relations with Russia. Wishful thinking does not work, and this has to be recognized by all parties. One of the games that Russia has played with Europe consisted in loudly declaring some kind of mega-project, followed up by actions that make EU skeptical of Russian initiatives. This was the case of the European Security Treaty proposed by ex-President Medvedev—it remained only on paper due to evidently low quality of articulation of the idea and, more importantly, to Russia’s disinterest in accepting the Meseberg initiative as an institutional follow-up of Medvedev’s proposal. The same outcome might happen with the Russian demands for abolishing visas. after the Eurasian Union plans were announced, the EU might become even more skeptical about visa-free regime with Russia. Putin’s idea of a unified economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok appears to be another mega-project with scarce chances for implementation. Perhaps, instead of strategic partnership, what Russia and the EU need is a strategic pause.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.