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17.05.2007. Time to back off: Russian-European relations

One can only be amazed at the present state of Russian-European relations. Misunderstandings and minor issues take precedence over far deeper shared interests.

These interests are clear: the need to prevent or manage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the fight against terrorism, which is bound to get worse after the inevitable American withdrawal from Iraq; the need to defuse, avoid or confront Islamic extremism.

There is also a common, albeit hidden, interest in managing the United States, to return that critical country from ruinous unilateralism to a position of effective leadership in a multilateral world.

Another issue that should unite Russia and the European Union, but at this juncture is largely contentious, is energy.

Russia, as a supplier, is naturally interested in higher prices. Europe, in lower prices. This difference could have been overcome if both sides had agreed on a common strategy. Russia would have been offered ownership and thus partial control over European distribution; Europeans, in exchange, would have been offered partial ownership and control of Russian extraction.

That is basically what President Vladimir Putin has been offering in recent years. So far, the offer has met largely with a negative response.

Instead, Russia has been accused of energy imperialism, of being an unreliable supplier (as if Europe has more reliable suppliers), of an inability to develop its own resources (though Russia does not need any more gas or oil). It has been threatened with an «energy NATO,» a common European energy policy. From outside, that sounds like a consumer cartel.

If I were a petty Russian nationalist, I would rub my hands in glee. In a rough struggle, Moscow would win. Russia could join in setting up a cartel of suppliers; it could redirect part of its supplies to the east and the south. But a victory like this would be a strategic defeat for all of Europe, West and East. Cooperation, by contrast, could be the basis for a pan-European energy alliance.

Of course, there are objective reasons why we have failed to act on common interests. One is the difference in the stage of political development. Russia is undergoing a post-revolutionary restoration; it is returning to the notion of a nation state and to values banned under Communism — religion, individualism, greed.

Europe is successfully striving to overcome state nationalism and to create a new political culture, leaving behind reliance on force in foreign policy and seeking a more collective and humane approach.

Russia's influence has temporarily soared from the limbo of the 1990s, creating a new self-confidence, and sometimes arrogance. European influence is waning due to its middle-age crisis, creating a sense of weakness and vulnerability.

Because of these and other factors, neither side is capable of formulating and implementing long-term policies based on mutual interests. In the meantime, secondary or even farcical issues come to the fore.

The primary source of contention is what we call «our common neighborhood.» In Ukraine, we competed over the 2004 Ukrainian elections, and we are now competing over Ukraine's chaotic politics. Each side has chosen to support different teams of local oligarchs. One is believed to be pro-Russian and anti-democratic, the other democratic and pro-European.

We also clashed over Russia's rather awkward but fully justified imposition of market prices on gas supplied to Ukraine. And when Moscow tried to do away with immoral oil and gas subsidies to Belarus, it was accused of plotting an anschluss.

Russians have come to the conclusion that they are cursed whatever they do. That, in turn, has negated the moral power of European criticism, even when it is appropriate.

Then there is the problem of «unrecognized states» — the territories that have split off from Moldova, Georgia or Azerbaijan after bloody conflicts. The issue is divisive, but of such minor importance that one wonders why so much time and effort is spent on it.

Then there's Estonia. Brussels has chosen to give Tallinn de facto support in moving the monument to the unknown Soviet soldier, which is perceived by many in Moscow as an attempt to rewrite the history of World War II.

While Russia and the EU lose time on these misguided rivalries, both are facing a long-term weakening of their positions.

Most of the outside world believes that Europe is bound to lose in the competition for international power because its common foreign policy allows small states to dictate to Berlin, Paris or Rome. In addition, «hard power issues» such as military power or energy, in which Europe is weak, are regaining importance.

For its part, Russia, despite its current surge of economic growth and international influence, must confront many geopolitical challenges in the long run that it cannot deal with alone, like the growth of China or the rise of militant Islam.

A Russia-EU strategic alliance, which would include issues of energy, may not be politically correct at this point. But it is so clearly beneficial to both sides that it should be put back on the table.

// International Herald Tribune