TCS Daily

Europe's Weakness for Russia

By Evgeny Morozov - May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

The old joke has it that Adam and Eve were Russian; why else would they think they were in Paradise when they were homeless, naked, and just had one apple for both of them? Substitute "Gazprom" for "apple" -- and you will understand why Vladimir Putin is so popular in today's Russia.

Now that Gazprom's "apples" have made every Russian if not rich then at least happy, Moscow can embark on a luxurious foreign crusade under the motto of "restoring everything that we lost in the 1990s". That includes territory, influence, money, and, perhaps most important for Russians, respect. The EU, which spent a good part of the 1990s lecturing the Kremlin on every possible subject, might be its first victim.

On the eve of the Russia-EU summit, which takes place this week in the Russian resort town of Sochi, the EU is not in the mood for Russian jokes. The summit's agenda is hardly inspiring and includes a host of leftovers from previous gatherings that all need to be resolved this year.

Visa facilitation, re-admission of aliens, and further cooperation along the four so-called common spaces will all get an honorary mention. The EU's Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which expires in 2007, presents both parties with a flurry of logistical issues to be settled. The Sochi summit should start defining a new framework that will form the cornerstone of EU-Russia cooperation for at least the next five years.

However, Gazprom and the energy security that it supposedly provides is sure to spice up the otherwise boring gathering. The Kremlin has already turned most of the communication between the EU and Russia into a minefield, where nation-states walk on tiptoes to compete for Putin's heart, often ignoring orders from Brussels.

Gone are the days when the EU waved a human-rights cudgel at Moscow, with the Kremlin responding to its every sigh. Welcome to Russia 2.0: the Kremlin is waving an energy cudgel at EU national capitals, with them ready to serve, pay up, and perform. Brussels has no choice but watch the show and attend bilateral summits to talk about subjects like visa facilitation.

The real significance of the EU's dependence on Russian energy is not simply economic. It also has destructive potential for what used to be a well-orchestrated policy on Russia. Now, while nobody has abandoned that policy in principle, it has given way to bilateral deals between Moscow and national capitals, with the EU desperately trying to hold power.

Brussels capitulated to bilateralism in September 2005, when Germany and Russia struck a deal to build a pipeline under the Baltic Sea, to the dismay of the Baltic states and Poland. The deal signaled that that the EU's common policy on Russia was in free fall. When Russia turned off the gas tap for Ukraine in January 2006, the EU's reflex convulsions were just face-saving exercises. Taming the Kremlin became a mission impossible even for national capitals.

So, as Moscow feels emboldened to set its own terms regardless of the European reaction, summits like the one in Sochi are becoming useless. They only illustrate the EU's impotence in its relationship with Moscow, largely because the Kremlin has constructed an environment in which the only concession the EU can make in exchange for Russian energy is closing its eyes to Moscow's shady domestic and international policies. Yeltsin would have been publicly whipped by the EU on all of these issues. Yet, with Putin the EU will not even broach them.

The Kremlin, of course, feels triumphant; Russia has reached a point at which Russia's ambassador to the EU can seriously talk about the threats that further EU enlargement poses to the EU-Russia relationship, and be taken seriously. Will Europeans heed his advice and stop enlargement? Why not? The Germans and French would rather have gas in their flats than Ukrainians in the EU.

However, it is not just gas that is at stake. The EU's current problems with Russia reveal a much more serious malaise in its foreign policy: Brussels is incapable of co-opting countries that have no membership aspirations. Russia and, to an even greater extent, Belarus, are the primary examples: since they don't want anything from EU, the latter constantly fails to discipline them.

For more than a decade the prospect of EU membership has been the only policy instrument used by Brussels. As a result, its other tools have rusted. For the time being, EU politicos might as well agree to all of the Kremlin's demands and go enjoy Sochi's beaches; there is not much else they can do anyway.

The author is a columnist for the Russian newspaper Akzia. He lives in Berlin.


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