EU and Russia: to accuse or to help?

01. March, 2005


Dace Akule

Foto: Gerhard Mangott

Interview with Gerhard Mangott, Associate Professor at the Political Science Department, University of Innsbruck

Many analysts warned that the relations between the European Union (EU) and Russia would change with the accession of the eight post-communist countries, especially the Baltic States and Poland. Less than a year after the big bang enlargement, do you already see this change?

Yes, I think so. I mean, Russia’s policies vis-à-vis the EU have never been up to the realities of the European integration as Russia does not see Europe as now a community of 25 countries. It sees Europe as a continent with leading powers such as Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, and Russia sees its European policy as doing bilateral relations with these four countries, not seeing the EU as a unity, as a union of 25 countries. That is a problem. It worked for the past 10 years – this approach of having these Troika relations particularly with France and Germany. But it does not work any longer because the new countries have acceded to the EU and as a result the EU today has more a coherent policy vis-à-vis Russia. The influence of the European Commission has become stronger; the EU does speak more with one voice. That is due to the demands and the interests of the new countries of the EU. So it is a new reality for the Russian Federation. It has to cope with that reality and it is difficult for Russia to realize that now it has to deal with the EU as a unity of 25 countries, including those countries that not long ago have been part of its communist empire.

Is this change in the EU-Russia relationship a change in content as well as tactics?

Well, the Russians have tried to impose their will on the EU in several areas, but it did not work, which is a proof to the argument that the content has changed. You know that the EU and Russia are now talking about four common areas of cooperation. The Russians have had the approach and still have this approach to deal with these four areas separately. One area is the economic area that would work perfectly fine. The second one is on research and culture, which would work fine as well. So the Russians want to conclude the talks on cooperation in these two areas, even if there is no consensus yet in the other two areas, namely, internal security and justice affairs, and external affairs. In these two areas there is no consensus yet and the EU insists – very much because the new countries want the EU to insist – that Russia has to come to a consensus with the EU in all four areas before any area cooperation can be launched and started. So you see that there is a difference in content.

The EU is dealing with Russia differently. It wants Russia to accept the whole spectrum of cooperative relations with the EU, which is not just interest-based – as the Russians think – but which is also value-based. This is where the EU criticism is the strongest – and that is very much due to the new countries – the EU emphasises that you can’t cooperate with the EU unless you accept the full set of common values. That, of course, includes democracy, human rights, the rule of law and how you deal with conflicts you might have in your territory. One issue where the EU insists particularly is on how Russia deals with its Chechen problem. The EU wants to discuss this problem and wants to deal with this problem in the area of internal and justice affairs, but the Russians say – no, that’s an internal affair, we don’t talk about that, and we don’t talk about what the Europeans call the authoritarian trend in Russian politics. This is nothing that you see in bilateral relations [between the big European powers and Russia]. So you see that there is a different approach.

In earlier days Germany and France would have their will and maybe the negotiations [on cooperation] would be concluded in the first two areas where there is already a consensus. Today that is not possible because the EU now includes the new countries of Eastern Europe.

Is this not a bit of an exaggeration about the impact these new EU members have on the Russia-EU relations? Has this change taken place only because of the accession?

No, not only, but there is some sort of coalition that has been built within the EU. We had a great many of countries in the old EU that have not been very happy with the fact that France and Germany had their own bilateral diplomacy with Russia, trying to impose the results of this diplomacy on the Union as a whole. These countries are now in a formal coalition with the new entrants that for different reasons do not want to accept that the EU policy against Russia is decided solely in Paris and Berlin. So it is not only the new member states that have this impact, but also some of the old dissatisfied members of the EU that have joined the new entrants, that by tradition and for historical reasons are very sceptical of the Russian policy vis-à-vis the EU which is just interest-based, not value-based.

How would you describe the position that the Baltic countries and Poland has against Russia?

I think that in particular Poland, Latvia and to certain extent also Estonia – less so Lithuania – do remind the EU that its policy vis-à-vis Russia must be value-based, which reflects the fact that Russia does have increasing problems with dealing with the quality of its polity, the democratic nature of its politics. It is also these countries that force the EU, the Commission and particularly the member states to have a different Union’s Eastern policy, a policy which does not share the principle that ruled this policy during the early 90s which was “Russia first”. This means that [Poland, Estonia and Latvia want that] when the EU deals with countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova these countries are addressed individually by the Union and the relationship between them and the EU is not subordinated to Union’s overall interest to be on good terms with Russia.

What about the Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia, which is one of the reasons why bilateral relationships between these two countries and Russia are as they are and also one of the reasons why these countries look at Russia with different eyes. What is your opinion on this issue?

There are two sets of problems here. The first is that indeed Latvia and Estonia do have a very serious minority problem and it is dangerous from the democratic point of view. Unlike Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia decided not to grant citizenship to its Russians and the Russian speaking minorities – which are bigger in these two countries than in Lithuania – despite the fact that these groups had supported the idea of Estonian and Latvian independence. Given the historical developments of 1945 it is quite understandable that in the process of nation building, re-establishing independence and sovereignty there was a reluctance to grant citizenship to absolutely everybody living on the territories of these countries. It is understandable that these two countries have had some specific language and citizenship laws. However, from the point of view of the democratic inclusion, this solution is not acceptable. Due to the European institutions, particularly by the Council of Europe and the OSCE, both countries have for the past 10 years radically changed their laws, making it easier for Russians and Russian speakers to get citizenship. Still, it is quite difficult, particularly for the elder people to obtain citizenship. It would be a gesture of sovereignty in a political, not it a legal sense by these countries to make it [the obtaining of citizenship] for these people even easier. From a political point of view, there should be some sort of political generosity, which does reflect to a greater deal the self-consciousness that these two countries have.

That’s one set of problems. The other set of problems is, how Russia makes use of this fact? The Russian government always claims that it is viewing itself as the defender of the legal and political rights of the Russian minorities in these two countries. However, I don’t think that the Russian government is so much concerned about these people. It is quite happy that, while these Russian minorities exist, Russian government has some sort of leverage on these two countries. It wants to use the existence of Russian minorities in these countries as an instrument to influence political developments – both domestic and foreign policies – of Latvia and Estonia. So whenever Russia is bringing up arguments how concerned it is about Russian minorities – well, yes, we have to listen to them, talk to them and find solutions to the common problems. Whenever we see that the Russians are using the minorities for the sake of some political objective which has nothing to do with the minorities themselves, then we should tell them and be quite frank about that.

But is there no expiration date on how long these methods can be used from Russia’s side, i.e. are the Western countries still listening?

It [this argument] never worked perfectly well for the Russians. I would say that it is some sort of a revenge for the EU member countries’ arguments regarding Chechnya. Whenever Europeans mention the human rights violations in Chechnya where they do have serious human rights violations, Russia is coming up with Estonia and Latvia. As long as it serves its purpose, Russians will use it. However, it’s not a very strong political tool. It’s not a convincing argument as all the players in the world know whenever Russia is trying to play that card now nobody is really taking it seriously that for Russia it is really about the minority rights.

We will talk about the Chechen problem later, but what about the generosity on Russia’s side to at least acknowledge the way these Baltic countries see their history? I am now talking about Putin’s invitation that has been sent to the European leaders, including the presidents of the three Baltic countries, to celebrate the victory over Nazis that for the Baltic people marks the beginning of the Soviet occupation.

I think that it is a very vicious invitation that Russia has given to the leaders of the Baltic countries, still I think the Baltic leaders should accept it. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania should accept that the end of Nazi rule in Europe is a very important event for the people which these three countries are part of. So they should demonstrate that they accept the very import contribution of the then-Soviet union to ending this dictatorial rule of Nazi Germany. So they should go to Moscow and show their commitment to keep up this idea. At the very same time – not at the very same day, but at the very same time – they should argue however that the Russians do have historical responsibilities as well to accept and to acknowledge that the Soviet leadership primarily Russian-lead has used the liberation these and other countries received to impose on them its economic and political system lacking basic freedoms. Russia will not accept that. Russia will not acknowledge that, but then it becomes Russia’s problem! It is Russia’s problem that it does not accept the wrongdoings of the country of which Russia is a legal successor state. That would be a wise step – accept that it was a great event for Europe to be liberated from Nazi Germany, but at the same time demanding from Russia the sense that these countries could not make use of this liberalization from Nazis to restore freedom and democracy.

It is a different thing, however, how the Baltic countries deal with that historical period internally. I mean that not all the Baltic countries to the same extent, but all of them in general have to deal with some sort of collaboration by parts of their population with Nazi Germany – with various motives, with various interests involved, but still collaboration. It is not that Russians have to address the problem of the Baltic collaboration with Nazis. It is not the EU member states that should start this discussion. That is a specific problem of the Baltic populations and it would be very grand step by the Baltic societies to start this debate openly as it would demonstrate to the Russians and to the Europeans what is the difference between the Baltic countries today, and Russia today, namely, that the Baltic countries are able to address issues of historical importance whereas the Russians don’t seem to be ready to do that.

Well, it’s also the question of collaboration of the local population with the Soviets, but that is another issue that is not widely discussed either.


And it’s also linked to the occupation fact that Russia is not willing to admit.

Yes, that is absolutely true. I agree. Russia is not yet ready to address its past, namely, to admit that in addition to having lost an empire it has to acknowledge that it was an evil empire. Maybe it is a task for the future generations. The Russian society some day will have to address this issue, but maybe the current generations may not yet be ready to do that.

What about the present Russia – let’s turn to Russia itself. Would you agree to the belief that many people in Baltic countries have that Russia is an unpredictable country – or that it is predictable in its own way – or do you see towards which direction does Russia go?

I think that Russia is predictable. It has accepted its commitments on the international arena. It has accepted the agreements it has signed, it respects the treaties it has signed in the legal area. It sticks to the political and legal commitments. It does that also with economic and financial commitments. So it is a predictable country as far as its behaviour in the external area is concerned.

It is quite unpredictable as far as Russia’s domestic problems are concerned, at least in the eyes of those in the western world who expected Russia to be on the path to democracy that was considered to be irreversible. Well, that notion was false from the very start as it assumed that Russia would really start democratise itself. I think it was a false assumption. What actually happened in Russia in the 90s was not democratisation, but the privatisation of state functions, a creation of some sort of oligarchy between the political and the economic elite having very close linkage with the state institutions.

What Putin has managed to do so far is something that I would basically call productive. I would not say positive, but productive. He is re-establishing Russian statehood not in a nationalistic sense, not in a ‘dangerous for its neighbours’-sense. He is really establishing statehood as an institutional setting that does take over responsibilities that do start to govern the society. He is doing so, however, by the instruments which by large do not encourage the participation of the people.

However, this is not what the Russian people are asking for – to have the right to participate in the decision making of the state institutions. They want a caring and responsible state – that is what Putin is creating. It may happen, I stress – it need not happen, but it may happen, that in one or two generations the Russian society will democratise the ready state, but what it now needs is building the state, building responsible state institutions, building a functioning state. That is what Putin’s rule has been about, and we may not be particularly happy about the process, but we have to accept now that this is the primary interest for Putin’s presidency. Therefore before we start to criticize the non-democratic aspects or nature of this Putin’s state, we should think of how the Russian society was governed in the 90s and how it is governed now; how irresponsible the state behaved in the 90s and how responsible the state is acting today. So yes, we might criticise some non-democratic aspects of his rule, but Putin is building a functioning state and he has been quite successful so far.

You talked about building the state, but what about building the rights of individual people and state’s respect for its citizens, the value of individuals? Many in the West were shocked by the way Russia handled the terrorist attacks in Beslan and in Moscow’s theatre…

We must not forget that Russia has shared many European traces of developments, but has not been part of others. One of those traces of development or evolution of the European civilization that Russia has missed so far at least to a very large extent is the value of individualism, the value of each individual being a self-responsible person. It will take the Russian society generations to adopt the same attitude towards the value of each individual as the West European civilizations are viewing their societies. However, I would say that we should not use, for instance, what happened in Beslan last September or what happened in the musical theatre in Moscow in 2002 as a case in point. It would have been difficult for any government including the western European ones to deal with these hostage dramas in these two cases. Even if the Russians would have used different weapons, it is very likely that hundreds would have been killed in both cases. Those kinds of problems no government can actually deal without being accused by the relatives of those who died in such operations of disregarding individual’s value of life. It was a tragedy for the Russians, for its society, it was a very difficult problem to be solved by the Russian governmental institutions.

It is of course linked with the Chechen question, on which many analysts in the West believe that independence is the only solution. Would you agree?

No, I don’t think so. Actually we have two periods in the 90s when Chechnya was in fact independent. It was independent from October 1991 to 1994, and particularly from 1996 to 1999. In each of these two phases the Chechen society – so strongly fragmented – has demonstrated that it is unable to form a coherent nation-state accepting the monopoly of power by the legitimate democratically elected state organs. In both periods, particularly in the second phase, Chechnya descended to some sort of anarchy with guerrilla gangs taking control over car smuggling, drug smuggling, kidnapping and taking ransom for these kidnappings of people – even those who actually went to Chechnya to help this poor country in building its infrastructure.

The probable independence of Chechnya would not have the negative effect or domino effect that many observers think it would have on the other republics in the Caucasus, that, for example, Tajikistan and Tatarstan would follow the Chechen example of declaring independence. No, it’s not the real problem. The real problem is that an independent Chechnya would most likely become what we today call a failed state. We have seen other examples of failed states that have become very dangerous for the international community. Think about countries like Afghanistan and the Taleban regime, think of a country like Somalia. We don’t need yet another failed state that would eventually serve as a territorial base for international Islamic terrorism. So no – from a security point of view it is not wise to grant independence to Chechnya.

The second proposal often expressed to Russia that you have to negotiate with the rebels to find a solution, is also not very helpful. The question – with whom to negotiate and on what? I’ve already spoken about the ‘what’, saying that I don’t think that negotiations should aim at the independence [of Chechnya]. But the second question – with whom to negotiate?

Many say that – well, negotiate with the elected president of Chechnya Mr Maskhadov. I have two problems with that. First of all, Mr Maskhadov may have been a person worth to be negotiated with between 1995 to 2000 and 2001, and ever since then Maskhadov has lost his personal integrity for various reasons. He has joined ranks with the increasingly Islamic part of Chechen society. So his personal integrity is in doubt. He has not in time condemned terrorist attacks in Beslan and Moscow. Only after these terrorist attacks had failed, he publicly condemned these attacks. It does not make him credible. Moreover, the worst example of his lost integrity is his interview with Reuters in July last year when he said that we [Chechens] should use airplanes and bombs to bring the war to Russian cities, which is actually what happened. Two civilian Russian airplanes were kidnapped and exploded in summer 2004. There seems to be a linkage between Maskhadov and some sort of terrorist trend among the Chechen society. So he has lost integrity that does not make him credible and acceptable for negotiation partner. But there is more to that! Whatever we agree with Maskhadov will not be implemented because it can not be implemented by Maskhadov as his support among the Chechens is so small that he is not able to impose his will on the rest, even not the majority of the Chechen society.

So it does not make sense to speak about Chechen independence, it does not make sense to push for negotiations with Maskhadov – and that is the tragedy of the Chechen problem. There is no easy way out. It is not that Russians don’t want to find a solution. It is very difficult to find a solution to such a problem. However, I would like to stress very strongly that the proposed and implemented Russian policy in Chechnya will not work either.

So as far the EU is concerned I would say – stop asking to start negotiations with Maskhadov, start helping the Russians to address the root causes of terrorism, separatism in the Northern Caucasus. Force Moscow to develop a coherent policy to do away with the social problems in the region that requires money, technology, the know-how. Russia has to be ready to accept that.

Something that has not been noticed in the past is that Putin last year for the first time accepted that Russia may need help to deal with the Chechen problem. He repeated that when he was visiting Germany [in December 2004]. He said, we will take any assistance we can get to rebuild the Northern Caucasus. So let’s start drafting a coherent programme, force Russia to take the problems of the Northern Caucasus societies seriously! Russia has not done that so far and it is high time for that to stop.

Is the unwillingness to accept help in the Chechen problem an issue of showing weakness by the big power or why was Russia not willing to accept help before?

Because when one was talking about external assistance in Chechen problem, one was always thinking of sending, say OSCE mediators between the two negotiating partners: Russia and the Chechens. That happened in 1996, it worked for a while, but Russians will never ever accept that again. There is no political mediation role for any international institution, be it the OCSE, the Council of Europe or the EU. So, as far as this is concerned, Russians will not accept foreign assistance. But they have realized that there is no solution in just addressing Islamism, extremism. They have realised that what they need is a coherent policy for that region. It is a region with very big social problems, poor population, very young population that does not have many employment offers for these young men to take over. The Russian government finally has realized that these issues can be solved only by finding solutions to the economic and social problems of the region, and this is not something that Russia can deal with alone. It needs assistance, it needs help, so let us help – also to make this assistance credible in the eyes of the Chechen people. It is not just a question of money – Russia could find means to finance the programmes – but more about the credibility of the policy which European institutions such as the EU could bring. Europeans should therefore realize that it is in the long-term interests of Europe to assist Russia in this question. We don’t want any more sources of terrorism in this world.

Your view somehow contradicts the general attitude that we should only increase pressure on Russia because only then it will act on the Chechen problem.

Why not do both? Why not assist Russia in addressing the core causes of the problem and at the very same time criticise Russia that it is using methods to dealing with that sort of resistance that is not compatible with the solid understanding of human rights. Let us do both, but let us not just attack and accuse the Russians about violating human rights. It does not help anyone! raksts

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