Arab revolutions: Implications for EU-Russia relations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

While the energy price increases triggered by the the Arab revolutions appear to have strengthened Russia in its relations with the European Union, never before has Moscow been so vulnerable to the EU's demands on human rights and the rule of law, writes Eugenia Vesanto of the EU-Russia Centre.

This commentary was authored by Eugenia Vesanto, information centre director at the EU-Russia Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"Events in North Africa have led to an upheaval in the region's seemingly stable condition. Until recently the internal problems of these countries had hardly attracted attention, while externally they have served as more or less dependable partners of the USA and the European Union. Over the past few months the situation has changed dramatically. Thanks to the Libyan crisis the EU has faced a drop in oil supplies.

The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, meanwhile, has put paid to the already weak conviction that nuclear power could be safe within the EU. On top of this has come a sharp increase in the number of refugees fleeing the North African disturbances, which only highlights the lack of an effective strategy within Europe for integrating those who arrived before.

Of greatest immediate importance to the EU are the events in North Africa. Examining the consequences of disturbances in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Dmitry Trenin, commented: 'The European Union has been confronted by the dysfunctional nature of its foreign policy. Egypt and Tunisia were the main bulwarks of the Mediterranean Alliance created on the initiative of France. Unregulated immigration from North Africa has forced Europeans to recognise that they can neither integrate these immigrants following a policy of multiculturalism nor absorb them through the 'melting-pot' model of the USA.'

These dramatic developments, it is important to note, have also changed the balance of power between Russia and the EU. At first glance it would seem that Russia has been the beneficiary. The events in Libya exclude any possibility of a fall in oil prices (though Russia, unable to boost its output, could not replace the shortfall) and the ever-increasing influx of North African migrants puts pressure on the social welfare expenditure of EU member states.

Since the economies of many countries within the EU continue to face significant difficulties, Russia may well feel that it has never been in a stronger position in its negotiations with the European Union. This perhaps explained the confident tone of members of the Russian delegation to the inter-parliamentary gathering in Brussels this February.

At a press conference on 24 February 2011 held by Vladimir Putin and José Manuel Barroso, president of the [European] Commission, the Russian prime minister referred to the consequences of events in Northern Africa and reproached the EU with being short-sighted: '[…] all our infrastructure projects for supplying Europe and the European market, both South Stream and Nord Stream, become particularly relevant. The risks to Europe would be considerably reduced if these two projects had already come online. Considerably reduced, and worries would be fewer also.'

[Putin] also commented that the continuing requirement for a visa between the EU and Russia was becoming an obstacle to their economic interaction and development.

So at first [glance] it appears that Russia hopes to put pressure on the EU this year, both as concerns the visa regime and energy supplies. Any conflict, whether it be within the Union or on its borders, will only strengthen Russia's bargaining position. Yet all is not as simple as it may seem.

The Kremlin is not concerned about gaining the approval of EU politicians. It has long ceased to worry about criticism of the conduct of elections in Russia or the state of human rights there. The Russian leadership want very simple things – an end to obstacles in the way of the energy projects linking Russia and Western Europe and a visa-free travel regime.

Many Russian experts see the latter desire as a populist gesture, since any major businessman or politician from Russia has little difficulty in obtaining a Schengen visa. There is something more than just populism behind this demand, however. The Russian elite has never appeared to be more confident. At the same time, it is riven with internal contradictions.

As public confidence in the regime declines the struggle is increasing between various power groups in Russia. The evident crisis of the judicial system deprives not just ordinary people but also members of the elite of the guarantee that any disputes or conflicts can be resolved by resorting to the courts. Despite the rise in oil prices the economic situation in Russia is unstable. There is a budget deficit, expenditure on social welfare is high, inflation is growing and tax increases are putting [a] squeeze on small business.

United Russia continues to lead the field in elections but the authorities can see that the party has not become a reliable framework for its activities. Society is thoroughly atomised and this means that any jolt to the system (it might be a technological disaster) could trigger an uncontrollable reaction. Earlier Russia's elite felt confident that if things took a turn for the worse it could withdraw to London or Nice. Growing talk of a 'Magnitsky blacklist' and a 'Khodorkovsky blacklist' suggests that certain individuals should now be looking to acquire property in Venezuela or the Congo.

The self-confidence of the Russian premier in Brussels, therefore, was only for TV, a gesture to ordinary Russian citizens to reassure them that all was under control and that Europe 'cannot do without us' now. In reality, Russia has never in all her history been so ready to make concessions and to compromise over issues of genuine importance – changes in the judicial system, human rights, and so on.

Events in North Africa and Japan have shown the world that only societies with a developed system of common values, shared by all their citizens, are likely to withstand such catastrophic experiences. Among these values are some which are not very popular in Russia today: human rights, an independent judiciary, civil society, and a regime that is answerable to its citizens."

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