The 31st EU-Russia summit will be held today (3 June) in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg. No breakthroughs or surprises are anticipated, but EU representatives are expected to warn President Vladimir Putin about “repressive tendencies” in Russia.
EU sources said that for bilateral relations to develop successfully, it was important that commitments already made are respected, including fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression.
“We have to be very frank, strong concerns about certain domestic Russian developments will be raised at the summit, especially the recent series of restrictive legislation, which makes the exercise of democratic rights and freedoms more difficult for Russia’s civil society,” an EU diplomat told journalists.
He said that the implementation of those laws had now begun, and “unfortunately” proved that all the EU’s initial concerns were “fully justified”. Also, the diplomat said the EU side had no illusions that Russia would reject the criticism.
The summit in Yekaterinburg will begin with a dinner and continue with discussions tomorrow, ending after lunch.
Energy, world trade relations, visa issues will feature among the subjects discussed, but no breakthroughs are expected, diplomats said.
A conference on Russia held in Brussels on Friday (31 May) painted a bleak picture of rising authoritarianism in Russia. Speaking at the event, organised by the EU-funded EU-Russia Centre, Ben Judah, a Reuters correspondent in Russia, said that the country had “stopped being a managed democracy” and had become rather an “emerging dictatorship”.
Judah said the EU needed to redefine its Russia policy, because the country had greatly changed.
Alain Délétroz, vice president of the International Crisis Group think tank, said Putin had “zero respect” for the EU, especially because the Union was being silent on developments in the country. He said Russia preferred to deal with the EU’s present 27 members bilaterally, which in his words it was able to do “very well”, playing on the bilateral tracks very often against the common EU interest.
Luis Felipe Fernández de la Peña, managing director for Europe and Central Asia in the European Commission's External Action Service (EEAS), said he accepted the concept of “rethinking” only in the context that “everything” needs to be rethought. He said that the in spite of criticism that the Union was often driven by interest, EU relations with Russia were interest-based and value-based at the same time.
Faced with criticism of the EEAS, De la Peña also said that putting together a common EU foreign policy takes “geological time”.
Part of the discussion concentrated on whether Putin was to be regarded as a strong leader or whether, to the contrary, his powers were eroding. Judah gave various examples from his Russian visits that the anti-elite feelings of a majority of Russians, furious by the state of roads or hospitals, were conveying a clear message that the Putin majority was now “a myth”.
Ksenia Vakhrusheva, member of the steering committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, an NGO, said that on this point, she disagreed with Judah, because in her view the Russians who remembered the state failure under the late president Boris Yeltsin were still not ready to oppose Putin.
The bilateral summit is also expected to discuss Syria, where Russia strongly supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The EU is striving to help organise a peace conference on Syria in Geneva later this month.
But as Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told journalists, the failure to renew the EU arms embargo on 27 May was “not helping” in this context.
Speaking in a separate briefing, Chizhov, who is known for his dry sense of humour, said he had a “positive attitude” on the ability of the EU to reach common decisions, but was “a bit perplexed” on its performance on Syria. The EU message to the anti-government forces was, he said, “hold on until August, and [EU] weapons will arrive”.
Chizov also insisted that the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles his country was sending to Syria based on an agreement from 2007 were purely defensive and could not be used against any other targets than airplanes.