Monday, May 14, 2007

Russia and the EU - Too Far Apart

The upcoming summit between the EU and Russia, scheduled to happen at the end of this week in the Southern city of Samara, will most likely be an unprecedented failure on a scale bigger than the last summit which was blocked by Poland over a meat export dispute with Russia.

Today, German Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will fly to Moscow for an unscheduled meeting with his Russian colleague, the Financial Times reports. The reason for the visit - a last attempt to save the EU-Russia summit; the most likely result, however, will be Russia shifting the blame on its Eastern European counterparts, and vice versa (something that has already happened at the EU gathering of foreign ministers). The German foreign minister is facing a very tough situation, one so complex that the blame now falls on all bargaining sides. Poland still has not given the "all-clear" to start a full-fledged dialog between the Old Continent and Russia on a new long-term partnership agreement because of Russia's ban on Polish meat. Lithuania threatens to put down its veto for Russia's shutdown of the oil pipeline to its country which Russia claims is in poor condition. And finally, Estonia is deeply distressed with Russia's reaction over the movement of the Bronze soldier, the riots in Tallinn, and the "siege" of the Estonian embassy that have recently been put to rest in Moscow.

As Russian Kommersant reports, several weeks ago the only question in dispute was the ban on Polish meat, which Poland and Russia were willing to settle for the sake of the EU-Russia summit. Yet the tension over Russia's aggressive response to Estonia's actions followed by ear-drilling propaganda on Russian television set to further increase tensions amongst the Russian people, revitalized the Soviet-era fears for its Eastern neighbor.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that Germany must mend the dent in EU-Russia relationships before its rotating EU presidency expires this Summer. Being the leading proponent of warm Russian relations, Germany faces tough questioning from the new EU members over the appropriateness of such a policy after Russia's continued attempts to solidify its position as the monopoly supplier of energy to Europe, and the failed diplomatic actions to solidify its positions in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states which sent a very negatively sounding echo across the whole of Europe.

Add to this problem Russia's stance on Kosovo, inter-European disagreements over the US ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, the entry of new players into the EU in the face of Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, whose policy toward Russia is as clear as mud, and any reasons to expect a "breakthrough" in EU-Russian relations vanish. Yet, given the die-hard stance of Eastern Europe toward Russia, the only chance of success if it is actually desired by both sides will come from the position of the new EU players - the heads of the UK and France. Germany alone has no power to fight off vetoes from Poland, and maybe even Lithuania and Estonia. The balance of power right now is in free float, the direction in which the scales will tip will be decided in the next months by the foreign policy makers in London and Paris.

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