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Russia’s EU policy: multiple messages, absent strategy

Medvedev_G8.jpg

On the eve of the EU-Russia Summit in Nizhny Novgorod, all eyes are fixed on new political dimensions to the bilateral relationship. Yet the picture being formed is incoherent and indistinct, representative more of political conjecture and systemic instability than it is of conscious policy positions, says Andrei Makarychev.

Andrey Makarychev
8 June 2011

On June 9-10, Russian and EU politicians will gather in Nizhny Novgorod for their regular bilateral summit. As always, numerous technical issues — from visa facilitation talks to Russia’s WTO accession — will be discussed, but the real interest will be the political side of relations, which have in recent days become more significant than at any time in recent years.

A key moment was the G8 summit in Deauville, when the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not only shared the Western policy towards Libya, but also publicly confirmed that by violently oppressing his own people Gaddafi had de-legitimized himself. Internationally, this declaration can be understood in both normative (as a gesture of subscribing to the Western understanding of sovereignty as responsibility) and political (as a clear support to the coalition forces operation in Libya) senses. Yet Medvedev’s move has an important domestic context as well, since his position regarding Libya appears to be in contrast with explicitly critical to the West pronouncements by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov.    

"The prospects of reifying Medvedev’s good intentions are unclear, since they do not represent a conscious Kremlin strategy, but are more a by-product of the growing imbalances in a policy-making system shaken by uncertainties about the forthcoming presidential election."

The overt solidarity with the West that Medvedev expressed in Deauville can probably be explained by his growing understanding of the importance of Western support for his policies. It could certainly be argued that Medvedev rates partnership with Europe much higher than Putin did/does. However, the prospects of reifying Medvedev’s good intentions are unclear, since they do not represent a conscious Kremlin strategy, but are more a by-product of the growing imbalances in a policy-making system shaken by uncertainties about the forthcoming presidential election. Of course, the signs of greater political polarisation in Moscow may create new opportunities for EU’s Russian policy, however the grounds for scepticism seem to be much stronger.

Medvedev G8

At the G8 summit in Deauville president Dmitry Medvedev surprised the world condemning colonel Gaddafi for violent repressions against his own people

First, in his European policy Medvedev is himself far from being consistent. For example, just a couple of weeks ago he quite unexpectedly suggested that countries like Ukraine face an “either – or” dilemma of “going West” (i.e. integrating with EU) versus staying “with Russia” (i.e. in the Russian sphere of influence). “You can’t sit on two chairs”, he said. “You are either here or there. No chances for doing two things together”. This simplistic black-and-white enunciation was almost immediately disavowed by the Russian Foreign Minister, who noted that Russian diplomacy was not aimed at pushing Ukraine to make an “artificial” choice between Moscow and Brussels. What is worth noting at this juncture is not only an unusual polemical exchange of views between President and Foreign Minister, but the role swap as well: unlike in the Libyan debate, it was Medvedev who took a critical distance to Europe, while the Foreign Ministry in a much more conciliatory tone denied any conflict between CIS and EU integrative projects.

This example shows that the key Russian foreign policy-makers lack stable ideological preferences. Most of them are technocrats and thus define their standpoints on the basis of changeable conjuncture. In fact, Medvedev sends at least two contradictory messages simultaneously: on the one hand, he ventures to make it clear that Russia wants to be part of Europe and adhere to its normative principles; yet on the other hand he asserts that Russia and EU are two separate entities and their interests won’t converge – at least, not in the foreseeable future. Perhaps, he simply does not realize – or does not care - how confusing for Europe these messages may be.

The same goes for other signals coming from Moscow, as exemplified, for instance, by the most recent comments made by Russian Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onischenko. He claimed that the deadly e-coli infection that has spread across Europe could have resulted from “someone’s intentional action”, and then did not rule out the possibility that the Russian authorities may ban their citizens from travelling to the European countries where the infection originated. Having explicitly politicized the food safety problem by articulating it in “us” versus “them” opposition, Onischenko showed little understanding of how negatively his comments could influence the EU position on Russia’s WTO membership. 

And here comes the second problem for Medvedev. Very much as Putin did, his administration tries to reduce the whole gamut of Russia’s European policies to purely technical matters. Yet what he misses is that EU foreign policy is becoming increasingly normative. The “Arab spring” made many European policymakers think of strengthening the normative potential of EU interactions and communications with non-democratic governments. The Mladko Radic trial in the Hague – though not linked directly with EU policies – will certainly add a new momentum to the EU’s pursuance of explicitly normative foreign policy goals. And Catherine Ashton’s recent critical comment on Khodorkovsky’s trial is a good illustration of the normative dimension EU policy now adopts towards the Kremlin.

Russia has to take all this into due account. The normative issues will certainly have a direct influence on the future of the “partnership for modernisation” track of bilateral relations as well. In elevating the concept of modernisation to the pivotal element of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy agendas, Medvedev seems to underestimate two interrelated points. Firstly, for the EU modernisation is by no means a technical, but definitely a deeply social, concept extending far beyond futuristic projects like Skolkovo. Modernisation, in the European reading, necessarily embraces good governance, transparency and accountability, sustainable development, and other normative “signifiers” almost absent in the Russian discourse. The European understanding of modernisation presupposes decentralisation and regionalisation – a perspective which Medvedev denies as resolutely as Putin did during his presidency. Both of them do understand that fully-fledged and comprehensive modernisation will ultimately require a radical renewal of the ruling elites, which, of course, is far beyond their strategic plans.

"Firstly, for the EU modernisation is by no means a technical, but definitely a deeply social, concept extending far beyond futuristic projects like Skolkovo."

The second issue related to modernisation has even more important repercussions for the prospects of EU – Russian relations. As a colleague of mine has suggested convincingly, the key source of the disconnect between Russia and EU stems “from Russia’s inability to fully embrace (European) modernity and complete the construction of modern polity… Until Russia becomes a truly modern state, its socio-political system (and its ‘national interests’) is unlikely to be regarded as fully legitimate.”

In other words, Medvedev’s belated modernisation is another edition of the not-so-new “catching up with Europe” policy in which Russia itself implicitly confirms its role identity as an object of Europeanisation mechanisms. It is only within this semantic context that Medvedev may receive some positive feedback from the EU in Nizhny Novgorod.

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