The recent German-Nordic-Baltic Forum in Riga was an exercise in furnishing new ideas for the forthcoming half-year Latvian EU presidency starting in January 2015. Along with brainstorming ways to strengthen the EU’s economic system, increase social cohesion and fundamental values, and readjust energy and neighborhood policies, external challenges were a big part of the discussion – with Ukraine at the top of the agenda of course.
I heard many optimistic voices claiming that there is nothing to worry about: that the EU is recovering from its financial troubles, the Eurozone is expanding, and Greece is no longer a high-profile issue. They say that Brussels is handling the Ukraine crisis well – better than it did the 2004 Orange revolution and the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict. They claim that we are witnessing a crisis of Russia's identity not of Europe’s. I agree, except on the last point; I feel the crisis in Ukraine is a deep and equal challenge for both Russia and the EU.
From the many speakers, I got a clear understanding that the EU is surrounded by crisis areas: North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. A top-level Latvian diplomat mentioned Ukraine and Egypt as crucial countries for the EU, saying that the Latvian EU presidency will ensure that high attention will be paid to Europe’s eastern and southern neighborhoods.
As usual, Belarus was mentioned as a recurring place of EU concern, but less usual was that Central Asia was discussed among politically sensitive issues, a relatively rare element in the EU foreign policy discourse. My reading on this is that the EU is increasingly interested in influencing Russia's closest partners in this region, with China and Kazakhstan as priorities. There is a comprehension that Russia's resources very much depend on the state of Moscow's relations with its non-Western allies, whose loyalty to Moscow cannot be taken as a constant.
In my informal conversations, I began to think that miscomprehensions still exist about Russia and its elites. Perhaps, the main misreading stems from an intuitive penchant to treat Russia as a European country. The problem is not only that this narrative strengthens the Kremlin's discourse, but that many Europeans implicitly apply to Russia characteristics that are applicable to European countries that have successfully experienced a transition to democracy via Europeanization.
For example, a German diplomat suggested that perhaps the EU needs to make its voice stronger in Russia, thus presuming that a great deal of misunderstanding stems simply from the lack of appropriate information available to Russian society. But I think that many Russians who support Vladimir Putin are not short of information – they are Internet users and are aware of different opinions – rather they side with the Kremlin propaganda, sharing many of its key assumptions about an unfriendly West and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
Many Europeans find it hard to understand Putin beyond the European normative context. The same German diplomat asked me, "Doesn't Putin care about the social well-being of his population? About education and civil society?" Well, yes and no. I told him about Russia’s Pension Fund money being used to pay for Crimea, about new Russian political science textbooks based on “patriotic traditions,” and the decreasing of foreign language teaching in schools.
We went on to talk about when the head of Siemens went to Moscow to meet Putin at the peak of the European debate about sanctions. What European messages did he convey to Putin? The German diplomat thought it was about warning Putin directly about costs and trade losses, even though I continue to have a very limited sense that the most cherished German idea of Wandel durch Handel ("changes through trade") can work with Russia. Well, perhaps, there are links between sanctions (and the threat of sanctions) and Putin's fairly recent decision to revoke official consent from the Russian parliament to use Russian military force in Ukraine, yet I couldn’t help but think that such methods do not position Russia as a European country for sure, and that other factors play into Kremlin decision-making.
How about the possible future policy tracks of the EU eastern policy – an issue that is of primordial importance for the Baltic and Nordic countries that border Russia? Many speakers agreed that what the Latvian EU presidency can do is forge a consensus within the EU. Sounds reasonable, but around what nodal points?
In terms of institutional frames, the EU and its member states have different options at their disposal. Germany is the country that is best positioned in this respect: it is part of the Weimar triangular diplomacy project (along with France and Poland); it invested a lot in creating the Germany-Poland-Russia policy platform; and it has a strong say in the Eastern Partnership framework. But in terms of actual substance, ideas ranged from conciliatory ("Our offers have to be compatible with the integration plans of others") to intransigent ("Russia's actions are absolutely unacceptable and the very foundation of the European order is challenged. If Russia foments the division of Ukraine, Germany will have to take stronger measures. We shall not tolerate Russian threats").
Some proposals boiled down to pursuing a policy of "constructive ambiguity,” mainly toward Ukraine. EU membership for this country is not on the table, but Association Agreements can produce good results. The Latvian diplomats think that one of the elements of their presidency will be to measure the outcomes of the Ukrainian transition. My hunch at this juncture is that Ukrainians expect something more from the EU than just assessing their transition, considering the country will most probably continue to be sabotaged by Russian strategists.
This raised a key quest that Europeans grapple with: what and how much to promise to their neighbors? One speaker qualified the withdrawal of the previous security commitments to Georgia and Ukraine at the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit as "a disaster, and we should not repeat a similar mistake again.” But does this mean that Europe should revisit the Membership Action Plans for at least these two countries?
The many ideas from the Forum will pass to the new EU foreign policy chief and the Latvian EU chairmanship agenda. Only once this leadership takes stage will we receive more clarity about how the EU will handle its interesting challenges.
The 6th German-Nordic-Baltic Forum in Riga was sponsored by the Institute for European Politics in Berlin and hosted by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.