The disputes that have dogged EU-Russia relations reflect deeply rooted attitudes on both sides, acknowledges former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, but that’s no reason to abandon efforts to improve co-operation. He charts some of the steps towards a “greater Europe” stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Russia’s re-elected President Vladimir Putin has advanced an even more ambitious goal than Charles de Gaulle ever dreamt of with his vision of a Europe “that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals”, for Putin recently put forward the idea of creating “a common market stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with a consolidated volume of one trillion euros”.
How feasible do Russians and Europeans think this would be? In the race to globalisation, Russia and Europe may be sitting in different boats but they’re sailing in the same direction. The stakes are high for both: If Russia falls behind, it will continue on its downward slide of becoming solely a raw materials producer, completely dependent on the fluctuations of global energy prices. The scientific, cultural and educational potential of the country will in all likelihood decay further, eventually depriving Russia not only of the position of being a great power, but even that of an independent actor in global politics.
For Europe, a failure to respond to the challenges of the 21st century will result in less dramatic but no less serious consequences – chronic economic stagnation, rising social tensions and political instability. Europe could very well lose its position in the most attractive international markets. Industrial production will migrate to East Asia, innovation will stay in North America, and its inability to cope with the new realities might even call into question the whole rationale for the “European project”.
Russia and Europe therefore need to question the state of their own relationship: are they competitors or potential partners? Are their interests in this age of globalisation converging or diverging?
It goes without saying that there are many Russians who don’t nowadays see Europe as a political and economic partner, or as an ally of either today’s Russia or in the future. These sceptics argue that Russia should aim to partner with other global leaders, for in their eyes Europe has already lost the battle for innovation and economic development, and is slowly but surely turning into little more than an “industrial museum”.
Of course, plenty of these sceptics are to be found in Europe too. Their view would tend to be that a partnership with Russia would have a corrosive impact on European economics and politics, so while it might prove to be an asset in the immediate future, it would be a long-term liability. They also argue that if Europe wants to lead and prosper, it should limit its ties with Russia as much as possible, and should seek partners and allies elsewhere in the world.
The on-going disputes between Moscow and Brussels reflect this deeply rooted scepticism on both sides. Russians accuse Europeans of being too slow on the liberalisation of visas, of blocking Russian energy companies from access to Europe’s downstream markets, of instigating anti-Russian sentiments in the post–Soviet era and even of trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic politics.
Europeans, in their turn, have major reservations over Russia’s track record on human rights, its adherence to European values, on Russia’s position on international crises, especially in the Middle East, on the Russian legal system, and so on. Moscow’s scepticism feeds the scepticism in Brussels, and vice versa, with the result that we keep losing momentum and getting nowhere.
If this trend prevails on both sides, it is highly probable that Russia and Europe will drift apart. The two powers will not necessarily clash with each other, but relations will at best be those of benign neglect. Russia and Europe will continue to be united by geography, common history and day-to-day economic interests, but strategically they will be pursuing diverging trajectories. It seems all too likely that at the end of the day both Russia and Europe will try to imitate what they perceive to be more promising and attractive social and economic models, so both will be following the so called “catch up” modernisation model, with all its shortcomings as well as its advantages.
But an attractive alternative to this scenario does exist, and it is embedded in something that unites Russia and Europe even more than their common history and geography – it is the quality of their human capital. This, rather than the resource base, production capacities or financial reserves, constitutes the foundation of our development policies. The quality of human capital is the defining factor in the quest for global leadership, and for this to accumulate states need an appropriate cultural environment, systems of general as well as higher education along with research and innovation centres. Because of their strong traditions of building human capital and creating environments that encourage this, Russia and Europe really do have a lot to offer one another.
In today’s world, economic development is meaningless without social modernisation. And social modernisation is, in turn, impossible without the critical evaluation and indeed re-invention of major social institutions. It is often argued that in both Russia and in Europe, social infrastructure has become too expensive, so that social costs are now an obstacle to a more efficient and dynamic economy. The conclusion seems to be that abandoning the social state and dismantling its parts is the only way to move ahead. But how can social programmes be curtailed without jeopardising human capital? Should Russians and Europeans risk depriving themselves of their most significant comparative advantage, or should they instead try to preserve what they have by enhancing the efficiency of the social state? These questions are as important for Europe as for Russia, so it is here then we should be looking for overlaps in the Russian and European modernisation agendas.
If this assumption is correct, Russia and Europe should be making efforts to interact and identify ways of increasing the efficiency of their human capital. This would involve a very diverse range of issues, from education to public health to environmental protection. While industrial production might flee to China or Indonesia and new technologies may gravitate to Silicon Valley or Bangalore, if handled properly, human capital will remain the main comparative advantage of the Greater Europe, which Russia is undoubtedly an organic part of.
Such a Russian-European modernisation partnership is feasible despite all the residual problems that date back to the cold war era. We should take a second look at the concept of “common spaces” that Russia and Europe adopted about ten years ago, for unfortunately, the practical implementation of the roadmaps leading to these “common spaces” turned out to be too complicated and proved precarious. But the approach was the right one, and with political will, commitment and stamina on both sides Europe and Russia could certainly bridge the gap that still divides our continent.
Europeans have every right to criticise Russians for the imperfections and shortcomings in our political, judiciary, and business systems and practices. But Europeans must also be careful not to ostracise these systems. We should none of us forget that Russia underwent a profound change of its economic, social and political systems only 20 years ago. Such changes in national psychology, self-perception, political culture and social behaviour take time, and that’s something Europeans should understand all the better in light of their own complicated experience of EU enlargement.
Laying down the law and waiting for Russia to “mature”, as a pre-condition for European-Russian collaboration, will be counter-productive. An isolated and ostracised Russia will mature more slowly than a Russia that has been integrated into European institutions. Russian participation in the Council of Europe, for instance, had a revolutionary impact on the Russian prison system, which is now – shortcomings aside – in a much better state than it was in a decade ago. Likewise, when Russian corporations launch their IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) on European stock exchanges, that newly acquired status has a profound influence on their corporate governance, social responsibility, treatment of minority shareholders, and so on. In short, more interaction, not less, should be actively encouraged. And this interaction should range from small specialised institutions to major European and Atlantic organisations.
Dialogue and co-operation are the most efficient ways to nourish mutual trust, and without that trust it is hard to imagine a real and lasting partnership. This applies above all to the most sensitive matters of security; a gradual engagement of Russia into political bodies of the North Atlantic alliance could open up the prospects of building an indivisible Euro-Atlantic security community. It is hard to imagine Russia becoming a full NATO member, in the foreseeable future at least, because there are too many structural, technical and even psychological obstacles in the way of full membership. But political integration is easier to achieve and it would definitely benefit both powers. In this framework we could not only discuss such issues as the future of Afghanistan, international terrorism or nuclear proliferation, but could also agree on specific joint initiatives and even on joint strategies.
The institutional integration of Russia into the Euro-Atlantic space will require a lot of commitment, effort and stamina. But in this globalised century it is the only option. As Jean Monnet wisely put it many years ago, “nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions”. It will be interesting to see how Monnet’s idea could be applied to relations between Russia and Europe.
Igor S. Ivanov was foreign minister of Russia from 1998-2004. He is President of the Russian International Affairs Council.