EU-Russian Relations: Tough Love Played by a Backstage Orchestra?

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EU-Russian Relations: Tough Love Played by a Backstage Orchestra?
Published 27-03-2013, 09:13
The President of the European Commission looked more Russian than the Russians at the conference on EU-Russian relations in Moscow on March 21. He reeled off a long list of Russian writers, composers and artists as evidence of Russia's European credentials (and that fell pretty much in line with the arguments that the Russians use to prove that they are an integral part of European civilization). The message was clear: to demonstrate the openness and willingness of the European Commission to cooperate with Russia. This line is pragmatic and is mainly determined by the current economic situation in the EU. Barosso’s position was happily reciprocated by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who at the same meeting stressed Russia’s readiness to further boost relations with the European Union.

Does that mean that the EU has abandoned its usual logic, i.e. its demands that Russia improve the situation on human rights, democracy and the rule of law as a precondition for deepening EU-Russian relations? Not at all. In a sober reminder, Mrs. Ashton, in parallel to the speech of Jose Barroso in Moscow, expressed regret that the inquiry into the death of Magnitsky had been terminated. At the same time a member of the European Parliament Werner Schulz wrote a letter to the President of the European Commission urging him to stop negotiations on visa liberalization with Russia because Russian officials guilty of human rights violations could take advantage of the new visa regime. In other words, the customary critical tone has not disappeared; Brussels has just toned it down and pushed it into the background.


What is interesting, however, is that, similarly in the background, Russia has been developing alternative ways to challenge the EU's normative power. This new strategy has manifested itself in reports on the situation on human rights around the world and in the EU in 2011 and in 2012, as well as in Russia's 2013 foreign policy concept.

 


The first aspect that Russia has explored deals with providing a vivid illustration that the EU is not perfect and therefore does not have the right to position itself as the supreme authority in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Both the 2011 and 2012 reports on the situation on human rights around the world and in the EU are full of examples, ranging from xenophobia and discrimination of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic countries to the worsening of social security as a result of the economic crisis. In other words, Russia has started criticizing the EU using its own paradigm. The 2012 report also stressed that this situation was in ‘dire contradiction of the EU’s mentor rhetoric targeted at other countries,’ hinting that the EU had no right to look down on others in its promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

 

 

Russia's criticism is, of course, not without its weaknesses. Firstly, its own track record on human rights and the rule of law, carefully documented by various international and non-government bodies, is far from perfect; as a result there is a credibility gap. Secondly, and probably most importantly, there is no single yardstick with which to measure Russia's protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Russia relies on open sources, and reports by NGOs, and hence intellectually depends on their data, methodology and line of reasoning. However, the move towards criticizing the EU under its own paradigm and challenging the authority of Brussels in this domain is a break with past Russian positions on human rights, democracy and the rule of law and their role in international relations.


The second aspect that Russia has explored to challenge the EU's normative power and which is still on the sidelines is crafting its own version of human rights protection in the world today. On the one hand, Russia has addressed the procedural aspects. In doing so, it has had to walk a fine line of balancing the need to protect human rights with the necessity of ensuring non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. As a result it has sought to prove that what was needed was a degree of criticism, without pushing forward any recipe of how to remedy the situation. Furthermore, Russia has insisted on depoliticizing human rights, which has been understood as a decoupling of human rights, democracy and the rule of law from other aspects of international relations. Vladimir Putin further refined the definition of the politicization of human rights as ‘using it as a means to exert pressure’ on external partners. This point is diametrically different from the EU’s strategy of integrating the promotion of human rights and democracy into all aspects of its external activities.

 


On the other hand, Russia has sketched out a substantive alternative to human rights protection, which includes Russia's readiness to share its experience in building a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society and preoccupation with the rights and freedoms of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic countries. Furthermore, Russia stands for the preference of the rights of groups over that of individuals, but also for the equal treatment of all groups in any society. Moscow also emphasizes the importance of economic rights and gives them prevalence over political rights, which is not surprising given its usual way of thinking. Finally, Russia is concerned about ‘the revision of history’ that is taking place in some European states.

 


To sum up, in the space of a few years Russia has gradually set up both substantive and procedural alternatives to the EU's normative leadership, which is its second challenge to Brussels.

 


These steps by Russia in the domain of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are not spontaneous. If anything, they are a logical development of Russian foreign policy thinking. Firstly, they form a part of the civilizations’ (or 'values’) competition, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken about a great deal since 2008. This idea was finally fully reflected in Russia's 2013 Foreign Policy Concept. Secondly, both strategies serve to reestablish equality among key global players, a principle which Moscow has always adhered to. The criticism of the EU's internal situation demonstrates that Brussels has no right to look down on others and that the only accepted strategy is dialogue between equals.

 


The EU's normative power, sustained by the elite in Brussels, as well as new Russian responses, make all official statements which accompanied the visit of Jose Barroso and his commissioners to Russia less credible. Backstage events demonstrate that the parties will stay in a state of confrontation rather than shift toward cooperation; and the reciprocal lack of trust will continue. The situation will be further worsened by the crisis in a common strategic vision, by the absence of any joint and shared project for long-term relations. This is indeed unfortunate, given the increase of competition from other parts of the world which both Russia and the EU are encountering in the global arena.

Dr. Tatiana Romanova is Associate Professor, Jean Monnet Chair, School of International Relations St. Petersburg State University.

 

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