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A summit that simply went too far

Mn Hebbar
Filed on May 22, 2007

ONE would have thought that the beautiful scenic resort of Samara in the Russian hinterland would have calmed the frayed nerves, tempers and apprehensions of the members of the European Union as they struggled to forge a new partnership agreement with Russia at the long-awaited EU-Russia summit.

But increasing tensions on the latter’s bilateral problems with individual EU members have only served to exacerbate the issues, witness acrimonious exchanges and leave nothing to write home about.

Signs of impending trouble were already visible at the pre-summit ambassadors’ meeting in Brussels. The Lithuanian ambassador, holding forth on blocking negotiations on a new partnership agreement between the EU and Russia, was curtly interrupted by his German counterpart and questioned over the possible political advantage that Vilnius would obtain by its proposed course of action.

Far from a simple disagreement over energy supplies, the spectacle of Germany taking the side of Russia against one of the new EU entrants – which Berlin had pledged to treat "equally" with other EU members – raised eyebrows across the gathering and pointed to the nature of things to come.

But there were other surprises in store.

German chancellor Angela Merkel – Germany holds the rotating presidency of the EU —was obliged to remind Russia of its lack of democratic processes in the wake of an event, both striking and pertinent, that could well have been avoided. Officials at Moscow airport had prevented anti-Kremlin activist and chess champion Garry Kasparov and others from boarding a plane for Samara in a bid to stop them from reaching the summit venue. They had planned to lead an anti-Kremlin march.

It was only to be expected that Mr Putin would lash back at the EU, pointing out that the EU was no bunch of daisies and that EU countries also had serious flaws in their democracies. He said a pure democracy was not definable and that it was a question of "seeing the glass half full, or half empty".

The summit failed to make headway following the Polish veto on talks following a trade row with Russia. If Moscow had hoped that the EU leadership would persuade Poland – as well as Estonia and Lithuania, which have their own squabbles with Russia – to moderate their stances, it was disappointed. And it became rather bitter when Ms. Merkel joined European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in defending the new member states, making it clear that the bloc was squarely behind its members and that no attempts should be made to divide them.

Mr Putin’s world view has found the EU complicating relations, accusing some of the EU states (read Poland) of "economic selfishness" that does not always correspond to the EU’s interests —Poland blocked the talks after Russian imposed a ban on imports of Polish meat. Moscow has accused Estonia of desecrating the memory of Second World War victims after it moved a Soviet-era war memorial. Lithuania is unhappy with the 10-month long stoppage of Russian oil supplies to its refinery.

But the summit highlighted the fact that EU leaders’ vision for an ever-closer partnership with Russia based on shared values was clouded by differences that were mostly laid at Russia’s door. It delivered a message to Moscow that close-co-operation with the EU was based on "principles of solidarity" whereby the problems of Poland, Estonia and Lithuania automatically became EU problems.

Moscow was also reminded that the onus of repairing the damage to EU-Russia relations was on Russia inasmuch as the partnership treaty has been stalled by its refusal to ratify an energy charter that the EU argues is the key to ensuring reliable long-term oil and gas supplies from Russia.

However, it must be said that the disagreements over Poland, Estonia and Lithuania cannot but be temporary and do not affect the core of EU-Russia relations: massive trade links that are growing rapidly. In fact, Ms Merkel and Mr Putin took great pains to stress the boom in EU-Russian trade and its augury for the future.

The summit saw its lighter moments when the delegates were exposed to the finer side of Russia’s performing arts. A concert performed by the Samara symphony orchestra and talks on a moonlit boat ride by Ms Merkel and Mr Putin on the Volga put a pleasant face on the formal proceedings. But there was no hiding the widening cracks in the relationship at a summit that ended without agreement or even a joint statement. As summits go, this was one big disappointment.

It is understandable that Russia finds relations with its former Warsaw Pact states both embarrassing and difficult as it is loathe to give up its accustomed bullying vis-à-vis these eastern European countries in past years. And it seems to regard the EU as an entity devoid of effective bargaining power. The situation has deteriorated rather sharply and it’s no use disguising this fact, however unpleasant, by pretending to reach agreements. No agreement is preferable to a bad agreement.

Russian, European and US diplomats deny that the chill in any way heralds the start of a Cold War. But those attending the Samara summit may be forgiven for coming away with the impression that relations between Russia and the west have probably hit their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A senior Russian official pointed out that it mattered little if a new EU-Russian agreement took another year or two in the making. But what was perhaps more important was the need for Brussels to "teach" new member states how to behave, just as it tried to give Russia lessons on issues such as democracy!

In the meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy – often dubbed by the Left in France as "Sarkozy the American" – has been installed in the Elysee Palace. Indeed, the victory has been greeted in conservative circles as an unprecedented break with the "French disease" – welfare state, 35-hour workweek, national arrogance, anti-Americanism, etc.

It’s worth noting, though, that his first act within hours of being sworn in was to hop on a plane to Berlin where a delighted Chancellor Merkel was all praise for his "wonderful gesture" of showing where his priorities lay. Any concerns about a Berlin-Moscow axis prematurely raised a few months ago during Mr Putin’s visit to Dresden have now been set aside. The Franco-German axis is alive and well.

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer

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