Russian President Vladimir Putin and his EU hosts appeared in a conciliatory mood following a two-hour summit held in Brussels on Tuesday (28 January). Surprisingly, Putin made no political accusations against the EU for meddling in its neighbourhood, and obtained bilateral consultations aimed at reassuring Russia on the economic consequences of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.
Despite statements made at a lower level, no clash or blame game on Ukraine took place. Against the background of a de-escalation of the tensions in Ukraine, which unfolded the same day, the messages from the EU-Russia summit also appeared to convey a spirit of détente.
The term détente or “razryadka” in Russian has often been used in the past, in reference to the general easing of the geo-political tensions between the Soviet Union and the West.
Putin said that the summit marked progress between the two sides.
For his part, Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that over the last ten years, he had seen those summits and EU-Russia relations expanding “in a spectacular way”.
Asked if human rights had been discussed, Council President Herman van Rompuy said that this issue was always part of the summit agenda, but admitted that this time it had not been discussed in detail.
Eastern partnership in limbo
Putin stressed that the 32d summit had not been about Ukraine, but about the Eastern Partnership.
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the flagship EU initiative initiated by Poland and Sweden, launched in 2009 with the aim of improving EU ties with Ukraine as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. The EaP does not offer the prospect of EU membership to the former Soviet republics, although it largely replicates the engagement used in the EU enlargement process.
An EaP summit in Vilnius on 28-29 November 2013 ended with a major disappointment for the EU, as Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, decided to put off the signature of a landmark Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, coupled with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Meanwhile, Yanukovich turned to Russia, obtaining a $15 billion loan and cheaper gas.
Following the agreeent with Russia, pro-European Ukrainians staged protests which developed into a popular revolution to oust Yanukovich.
Russia has put pressure on its neighbour countries to prevent them from signing AAs with the EU. Armenia previously backed down from one and saying it would join instead the Moscow-led Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Currently only Moldova and Georgia have plans to sign AAs.
Despite of this heavy political brinkmanship, both Putin and his hosts alluded only to the economic dimension of EU’s integration policies. Van Rompuy spoke of the need to overcome “different interpretations and misunderstandings” on the AAs.
“We both agreed to pursue bilateral consultations at expert level on the Eastern Partnership Association Agreements and on economic consequences on both sides,” Van Rompuy said.
He added that the AAs and DCFTAs negotiated with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, were fully compatible with the existing trade agreements those countries had with Russia or with the Customs Union. He also said that the EU hoped to sign the AAs with Moldova and Georgia by early autumn at the latest.
Van Rompuy added that the EU would be prepared to do the same with Ukraine, “provided the authorities confirm their adherence to a democratic Ukraine”.
Barroso quoted Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote that “much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid”. He praised the atmosphere of the summit of being one of “frankness and openness” and said that it had provided the opportunity “to clarify some issues”.
‘From Lisbon to Vladivostok’
The Commission president said that an important way to foster trust was to work on the “most important strategic and shared objectives,” namely to create a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
This idea of a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok was in fact described by Putin back in 2010. In the meantime, Putin has built instead a Customs Union, as a backbone of a Eurasia union, reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.
Barroso said the common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok could not be achieved overnight and that the EaP was key to achieve this “strategic objective”. “The partnership is not against someone, it’s for something”, he said, adding that it was about making countries more prosperous and giving citizens’ better living conditions.
“It may seem a dream, but dreams can become reality”, Barroso said.
Putin praised the “open, constructive atmosphere” of the summit, saying that the “strategic goal” of EU-Russia relations had been discussed, including the perspective to create a “united economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to the Pacific Ocean”.
Speaking about the EaP countries, Putin said that those wanted to develop active relations with the EU, but also wanted to preserve the close historic and cooperation ties with Russia.
“We should undoubtedly support this. But to create new dividing lines is not acceptable,” he said.
Putin added that he had proposed to his European counterparts the establishing of a free trade zone between the EU and the Eurasian economic union, which is being established between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He added that the EU was not enthusiastic about the idea as yet, but that it needed to be further discussed at expert level.
The ?U position is that trade agreements can interact constructively with the Customs Union, as long as WTO rules are applied and free decision-making is guaranteed.
As EU diplomats explained, the Customs Union was not registered with WTO and basically was not abiding by international rules. Since Russia joined the WTO in 2012, this country had become “the champion of protectionism” and the EU was “extremely disappointed”, Western diplomats said.
Loan “to the people of Ukraine”
Asked whether the $15 billion loan he personally signed with Ukraine last December remained an offer, even if the new government is run by the opposition, Putin said that the money was offered against assurances for structural reform, and that Russia needed to make sure that Kyiv would repay its debt. Reportedly, the disbursement of the second tranche of the loan is not yet made.
He also said that this loan was not made to the Ukrainian government, whose prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned yesterday, but to the Ukrainian people.
Putin also indicated that the financial situation of Ukraine was not good, as in his words Kyiv had asked for a delay in payments for this year, for gas on discounted prices. “It is a difficult situation for us, for Gazprom, because these incomes were planned,” he said.
“But we will continue the dialogue with our partners in Ukraine, no matter who will lead the government,” he said.
“We will not reconsider our credits or gas price if the opposition comes to power,” Putin repeated, having been asked the same question again.
Only on one occasion did the Russian President make low key remarks about the EU meddling in Ukraine affairs.
“Regarding the advice to Ukraine on what to do, I think that the Ukrainian people are capable of sorting it out by themselves. In any case, Russia has no intention of interfering. But I wonder how our European partners would react if in the midst of the [Eurozone] crisis, say in Greece or in Cyprus, at one of the anti-EU rallies, our foreign minister would appear and voice some sort of appeals. We think that it is very inappropriate,” Putin said.
Putin also warned that anti-government protestors in Western Ukraine should not be seen as saints.
“Your media doesn’t show this. But we see it. In Western Ukraine, a priest called on the people to go to Kyiv and to put down the government. And this is his argument: so that we are no longer governed by niggers, moscals [Russians] and Jews. Firstly, it’s amazing that a priest makes such appeal, and secondly – what an extreme outburst of nationalism, absolutely unacceptable in the civilised world,” Putin exclaimed.
Van Rompuy and Barroso wished Putin success for the winter Olympics Russia is hosting in Sochi from 6 to 23 February.
In an attempt to defuse tensions with the West ahead of the games, Russia has set free former Yukos tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovski and the two remaining jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot.
The spirit of détente of the EU-Russia summit may also be seen as part of the effort to secure good atmospherics for the games, for which Russia has heavily invested.