Towards a single voice for Russian political elite on EU policy

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

No matter whether Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev will be president of Russia after 2012, recent developments suggest there will be a genuine positive shift in the country's policy towards the EU, writes Denis Maksimov, an expert on EU-Russia relations, in an opinion piece sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Denis Maksimov.

''Top politicians in Europe said that the 7 December EU-Russia summit with Dmitry Medvedev in Brussels was nearly the 'most productive in history'. Moreover, a usual critic of the EU (usually in response to EU criticism of himself) Russian Prime Minister and maybe President-to-be-again in 2012 Vladimir Putin has delivered what some are calling a 'revolutionary' article with brave ideas of a free market and trade space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Europe granted WTO access to Russia, [and] there were many discussions on issues of environmental protection, visa regime abolition in the future and mediation of local conflicts in former USSR republics.

However, it seems that the results of the summit are emotionally overestimated, because it hasn't brought anything revolutionary or surprising, but in fact just another regular step in a long-lasting diplomatic story.

Firstly, WTO accession was supposed to be granted to Russia by the EU after successful negotiations with the United States held earlier.

Secondly, visa issue talks didn't bring anything new to the table apart from new promises of drafting special agreements, although everyone at the negotiating table understood perfectly that it wouldn't be fully achieved until Russia can ensure the solution to systemic problems – safety and control of transits on its southern border.

Just recently, [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy gave a more or less honest estimate [that it will be] 15-20 years before Russians will be able to travel to the European Union Schengen zone without queuing in advance at the embassy to get stamps in their passports.

Thirdly, the 'partnership for modernisation' – initiated as a motto in Rostov during the previous summit – still remains nothing more than that.

Fourthly, talks on an Energy Charter maybe revealed another language, but didn't change the meaning of the message from the Russian side: Russia is not going to ratify it until the document fits fully into Russian interests and priorities.

But what is indeed interesting and attention-grabbing is Putin's activity in a recognised 'Medvedev' area – foreign policy, though it is directly connected to economic issues.

According to some European analysts, Medvedev is still playing a secondary role while Putin's status in this tandem is still dominant on most issues, including foreign policy.

That is not true. The balance of the areas of responsibility between them has been carefully weighted since the moment of role-play change became a reality – Putin, as prime minister, got economic and social policy as well as budget regulation. Moreover, he left his previous strategy of political impartiality, joining the United Russia party as its leader.

Medvedev, as the new president, is in charge of foreign affairs, general strategy of the state and 'overall modernisation' in the form of a new Russian mantra with iPads, Twitter, etc.

There is an interesting fact: the previous populist mantra, headed by Dmitry Medvedev as deputy prime minister, was called 'prioritised national projects' and passed into history almost without result. It is also worthwhile to mention that Putin's 'doubling GDP' aim was distracted by many factors and not achieved in the end, despite numerous attempts to manipulate statistics.

Putin's publication of foreign policy guidelines in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on 25 November could be part of the path of crossing the Rubicon towards his third presidency term in 2012. It is enough to remember that just several months ago, when asked about his position on foreign policy matters, Putin's response was something close to 'this is the area for the president to decide'.

Russia will turn into an election carnival quite soon and the chessboard might look very different to what was observed just half a year ago.

Putin's readiness for a wide and strategic partnership with the EU in the context of common market development shows continuity with Medvedev's course of bringing Russia closer to its European partners, which was chosen as a strategic direction in the foreign policy of the new president at the beginning of his term.

Previously, the Putin administration's position on the issue, back in his time as president, was much sharper around the edges: if you don't want to cooperate with full acknowledgement of Russian positions and interests, than we will simply turn our head to the East and South, as we are still a geopolitical power and have [enough] resources and legacy to choose [our] orientation.

Furthermore, recent developments show the opportunity for a real positive shift in Russian policy towards the European Union and the prospective message is: whoever is president in 2012, the strategic line for widening an exclusive partnership will stay the same.''

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