The EU should take a harder line on Russia’s democratic deficit

Europe has been a busy place recently, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Angela Merkel’s visit to Moscow a few days ago attracted little attention. But it is a pity because, unlike most official visits, this one pointed towards a real shift in not only Germany’s but the whole of the EU’s relationship with Russia.

The background is that a number of core European states, with Germany in the lead, have hitherto maintained a very cosy relationship with Moscow. This relationship has been built on two pillars: energy dependence, and a reticence, given Russia’s size and recent history, about expecting too much, too early in the areas of human rights and democratic governance.

Both those pillars are now eroding. Unprecedentedly, Merkel’s visit was preceded by a serious Russo-German spat on human rights. The Bundestag (encouraged by Merkel’s office) passed a resolution criticising Russian backsliding on democracy. The Kremlin responded with an angry attack on Merkel’s point-man on Russia, Andreas Schockenhoff. The visit itself closed with an awkward press conference where, in the midst of the normal warm words about trade deals and future co-operation, Putin brutally embarrassed Merkel by implying she was soft on the alleged antisemitism of a member of the jailed “Pussy Riot” pop group. The post-visit word in Berlin is that while economic co-operation remains important Russia can expect much less latitude on human rights in the future.

The energy relationship is changing too. Europe depends on Russia for 25% of its gas. It was a nasty shock for some European governments when, in 2005 and 2009, an interruption to Russian supplies caused European homes to go cold. It is the job of European ministers to avoid such disruption, and they have conducted their relations with Russia accordingly. But the so-called shale gas revolution – the opening up of vast new reserves worldwide by unconventional extraction techniques – may well end Russian dominance of European markets within a few years. The US has, in a decade, moved from a large gas deficit to a large surplus. Prices of Russian exports to Germany have already been forced down, and seem certain to fall further. The European Commission has, to Russian official fury, suddenly found the courage to launch what seems certain to be an intensely bitter and political anti-trust action against Russia’s gas export monopoly, Gazprom. This will be seen by the Russian elite, with its intimate interest in gas issues, as a slash to the jugular. But it clearly shows that the balance of power in European energy markets is shifting.

I hope that someone in Brussels or London or Berlin is joining up the dots. EU policy towards Russia has hitherto been supremely ineffective. The union has been split between, on the one hand, those like Poland and Estonia who essentially view Russia as an unreconstructed menace; and, on the other, those like Germany and Italy who have seen it as important to cosy up to a major energy supplier and trading partner. When I was ambassador in Moscow, the inability of the EU to pull together on such scandals as the Litvinenko murder and the cyber-attack on Estonia was abject. And the Russians of course saw the disunity, and exploited it to the full.

That is now changing. As the Merkel visit showed, there is deep disillusionment within the EU on Russia’s political course. Russia’s key acolytes in EU councils – Messrs Schroder and Berlusconi – have departed. The noose of dependence on Russian gas is loosening. It is time for the EU to find an effective common approach to Russia. This would have two strands. First, continued engagement with Russia through expanding trade and other contacts. Reform will only come with economic growth. But, second, much more clarity with Russia on issues of governance and human rights. Not the least of the virtues of the EU coming together in this way would be the impact in Russia itself. The Russians see themselves as Europeans. The best of them want their country to meet the highest European standards. A Europe firmly united in support of those standards would be a major shot in the arm for those who are taking real risks to move Russia into the European mainstream.

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