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By Quentin Peel

Russia looks to its future role

The Financial Times, May 27, 2002

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned summit in the Kremlin between erstwhile superpower rivals, with a treaty on nuclear missiles thrown in for good measure, to get the pundits excited.

That is what it has been like these past few days in Moscow. The travelling circus was all over town. Only this time, the summit between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin was almost like an event in a time warp.

Scrapping nuclear weapons, even several thousand apiece, scarcely seems dramatic any more. It amounts to little more than recognition of their irrelevance. This summit between US and Russian presidents was really just a footnote to history, a belated move to bury the cold war long after it had been declared dead. It was scarcely a breakthrough in international relations.

But there is another summit this week that matters potentially a lot more: the meeting between Mr Putin and the leaders of the European Union. It matters because talks between Russia and the rest of Europe are about the future. A meeting between Russia and America is primarily about the past.

Perhaps that sounds exaggerated. On the face of it, the Russia-EU event does not look so important. They will probably spend most of their time squabbling about the future of Kaliningrad, the city that was once KÜnigsberg, the proud capital of East Prussia.

Moscow wants visa-free travel for the inhabitants of what is now a miserable Russian military enclave locked between Poland and Lithuania. They are both set to join the EU, while Kaliningrad's only claim to fame is that it has the highest incidence of Aids in Europe. The EU is determined not to allow a visa-free corridor through its future territory.

But Kaliningrad is a distraction. This meeting matters, not just for Russia or for the EU but for global peace and stability.

Funnily enough, it was Mr Bush who put his finger on it in Berlin last week. He spoke of the shared task, for America and Europe, to "encourage the Russian people to find their future in Europe and with America". Note the prepositions.

"Russia has its best chance since 1917 to become part of Europe's family," he said. "A Russia at peace with its neighbours, respecting the legitimate rights of minorities, is welcome in Europe."

To Russian ears, those were welcome words. They may not have gone down so well in western European capitals. Mr Bush does not seem to have consulted anyone else before he spoke. His tone was condescending. But he was perfectly right, at least in principle.

The future of Russia is as a regional power in Europe. That is the main source and destination of its trade and its foreign investment. Its cultural ties are with Europe. More than 60 per cent of its international telephone calls go there.

Russia is a natural part of what Mikhail Gorbachev once called the "common European home". It is time the leaders of the region faced up to what that implies. Does it mean full membership of the EU, with all its requirements for integration into a single market, and a common foreign and defence policy? Or is it nothing more than belonging to the Council of Europe, as a guarantor of basic good behaviour? Or is it some half-way house called a "single European economic space"?

In Moscow, opinion has shifted towards full EU membership. In an opinion poll published by the Public Opinion Foundation a week ago, 52 per cent of respond-ents were convinced that Russia must seek EU membership, against 18 per cent who opposed it.

As for the leaders of the EU, they know it and they fear it. They do not want to do too much about it. Their plates are full, handling enlargement to take in a few small and medium-sized countries in central and southern Europe. They are tying themselves in knots trying to reform their own institutions to avoid bureaucratic gridlock. The last thing they need is to bother about how to accommodate a country with a population larger than Germany and France put together and an economy smaller than that of the Netherlands.

There are plenty of people in western Europe who think that the enlargement currently being negotiated is already a step too far. In France, most people oppose it. In Germany Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian prime minister and conservative presidential candidate, is adamant that enlargement must be limited. He says Turkey should not join, although it is an official candidate.

Yet the current enlargement will leave the EU with a host of outstanding problems - mostly on its eastern borders. It is in danger of creating a new Iron Curtain, or a curtain of poverty, along the western borders of Belarus and Ukraine. If Turkey is seem as a genuine candidate for membership, can the EU really say no to Kiev - or to Moscow?

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party in the Russian Duma, the parliament, is grateful to Mr Bush. "The door to Europe is in Washington," he says. "He has to give his sanction."

He is both cautious and optimistic. "We have only one way forward if we want to be stable, secure and without threat," he says. "That is to be a full member of the European club - in 20 years from now. What form it takes we can discuss."

Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, is also convinced that Mr Putin has cast his die. "There is no Eurasia to go back to. With the EU arriving in Warsaw, and eventually in Kiev, there must be a place for Russia in that Europe. This is where Russia is moving."

That is the subtext of the EU-Russia summit this week. Russia wants an ever-closer relationship. The EU is nervous about how it may look. What is needed is an idea about whether it is realistic to think of Russia as a full union member at some stage; then, a strategy on how to get there.

The idea of a "common economic space" has been propounded but without real content. It should include both a free trade area and a customs union. The former would underpin trade flows in both directions. The latter would help Russia overhaul its corrupt and inefficient customs services.

At the same time, Russia is keen to be more closely involved with the EU's common foreign and security policy. That could grow naturally out of the closer integration of Russia and Nato, to be agreed in Rome tomorrow.

With quicker economic integration, the prospect of eventual membership might not seem so alarming. But it might worry the man who seems most relaxed about it: Mr Bush.

See also:
the origainal at http://news.ft.com
Russia-EU Relations

The Financial Times, May 27, 2002

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