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Analysis & Opinion
03.06.10 The Summit
By Tai Adelaja

They came, they ate and they left. Even before the 25th EU-Russia summit kicked off on Monday, there were ominous signs that it would only achieve modest results. The summit agenda was packed with global issues like the financial and economic crises, climate change and energy security. But a three-page summit preview issued by the Kremlin last weekend expunged priority issues like the new EU-Russia partnership for modernization and the "road map" by which the EU would waive visa requirements for Russians.

The meeting in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don is the first between Dmitry Medvedev and EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who has been leading the EU since the Lisbon Treaty took effect last year. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, and Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, along with other EU leaders attended an informal dinner on Monday ahead of the two-day meeting, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was conspicuously absent. “The prime minister was not just absent from the meeting but, with his knowledge, demonstrators were dispersed on May 31. This is a clear message to the Russia-EU summit,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Instead of demonstrating to the summit leaders that Russia is willing to listen to their complaints about the protection of human rights and other freedoms, what we have is a clear statement that the EU cannot prevent Russia from acting as it sees fit on its home turf.”

Russia, Petrov said, appears to be saying that it is not satisfied with small steps and half-measures. “This shows that instead of serious economic and political issues, the summit agenda is nothing but a stage-managed political dialogue.” While past summits were marred by spats over issues such as human rights abuses in Russia, the August 2008 war in Georgia and Moscow's ire at perceived EU encroachment into its former Soviet fiefdom, this year’s summit was expected to be anything but smooth-sailing.

If the global economic downturn taught Moscow anything, it is the precariousness of its reliance on a monoculture economy. So the Kremlin has made no secret of its intention to seek help from EU nations, which account for about 80 percent of all investment in the country, to push forward its modernization program. “By definition, the European Union is our closest partner. We are essentially a European country,” presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich said in an interview with the Kommersant business daily on Monday.

Before the summit the EU foreign ministers toyed with the idea of giving Russia a “road map” that would lead to abolishing travel restrictions for Russian citizens. But this issue never made the agenda. During its EU presidency in January, Spain promised to launch negotiations for a visa-free travel regime, and Russia clung on to the issue. At a press conference after the summit, Medvedev handed Rompuy a draft treaty on the visa-free arrangement, in order to "expedite the process." Medvedev also said that Russia is always ready to cancel visas for Europeans, while linking hesitation in the EU to the resistance of a number of EU countries that harbor historical fears of Russia. However, political analysts said that the EU could hardly give Russia a visa free regime before granting the same privilege to closer partners like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, which are members of the European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership initiative.

Other nagging issues were swept under the rug during the negotiations in Rostov-on-Don, further ensuring that the summit would remain essentially symbolic. Firstly, the meeting came at the height of a debt crisis within EU member states, with the euro losing value while Greece, a member state, is deeply enmeshed in crisis. Russia, which holds about half of its foreign reserves in euros, has been ill-at-ease watching the unfolding developments in the euro zone. “In principle, a post-crisis Russia could be more amenable to discussions about human rights and political freedoms, but the fact that EU member states are facing economic crises of their own makes it difficult to pressure Russia on those issues,” Petrov said.

Secondly, there were long-standing energy issues that the partners failed to raise for the sake of decorum. Europe's newfound potential for shale gas exploration has made energy issues more pressing for Russia, which is presently responsible for over 25 percent of Europe's gas supplies. The sides also maintained a "civil silence" over two competing pipeline projects – Nabucco and South Stream – backed by the EU and Russia respectively. The EU has also been trying to make headway on trade disputes with Russia over anti-EU tariffs on timber exports and fees for trans-Siberian over-flights.

“The stalemate in relations is caused by the fact that Russia continues to push the old agenda,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies. “Russia’s European policy is tied to its energy interests, and everything it offers to its European partners is based on that energy concept.” But after the financial crisis, which affected both energy prices, investments and the domestic budget, it is clear that Russia no longer has the leverage to tie everything to its energy concept, Stanovaya said.

A modest “special statement” adopted by the participants on Tuesday spelled out the need to stimulate innovation, promote a low-carbon economy and protect intellectual property. The EU also insisted that a set of policy measures ensuring the effective functioning of the Russian judicial system, combating corruption and strengthening the dialogue with civil society also get included. Europe said it would help with economic modernization, but expects Russia to make democratic changes.

However, both the EU and Russia appear to have different working definitions of the main issues at stake, experts say. "Europeans see modernization as inclusive of national and political changes, while Russia took a more pragmatic approach, seeing modernization as an opportunity to tap into Western technology and know-how in certain fields in order to advance its own objectives,” Petrov said.

In addition, Russia appears more interested in conducting bilateral negotiations with individual members of the EU while playing a political game with the European Union as a whole. “One of the elements of this game is the handing over of the request for visa restrictions to be lifted while knowing perfectly well that this is unachievable at this stage,” Petrov said. “The problem is that while such an approach could work in a bilateral relationship, it can hardly work with the EU as a body.”

A more victorious approach would have been to reach an understanding with the EU nations now that gas prices are falling, experts say. “A lot of problems have piled up in EU-Russia relations that cannot be resolved unless Russia is willing to listen to advice from its European partners and modify its energy-centric approach,” Stanovaya said. “Whether you are talking about the visa regime or democracy or legislative changes, there are no problems that partners can resolve very quickly. That is why the Russia-EU summit agenda was so lean and so trivial.”
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