No good news from Moscow
28.01.14 @ 14:40
BRUSSELS - This week’s summit has already been downgraded to a brief encounter between the European Union and Russian leaders and will not be able to overcome the deep rift which is widening between the EU and Moscow.
The political reality is far from the "strategic partnership" we mutually pretend to have established.
The Russian Federation under Putin, despite the media charm offensive in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, has backtracked on democracy and the rule of law, and is run and governed by a regime more interested in feathering its own nest than improving the lives of Russian citizens and modernising its country.
The EU and its member states must change their rhetoric vis-a-vis Russia and drop the celebratory talk of "strategic partners - Putin's Russia does not share our democratic values and does not want to constructively engage with the EU beyond business and trade links.
However, despite Russia's often hostile actions against the EU and its own democratic opposition and urban middle class, we should not resort to painting the country as an enemy or as a threat.
Russia is, despite its size, not the hostile behemoth of the Cold War.
A new strategy
Lilya Shevtsova from Carnegie has rightly characterised Russia as a petro-state due to the interconnectedness of the authorities and business. Her analysis points to strong state intervention in the economy, systemic corruption, and the domination of large monopolies controlled by the central administration.
It is a set up which leaves Russia dangerously exposed to external economic shocks and with a huge income gap between rich and poor.
One of the major foreign policy challenges facing the EU over the next five years will be how to conduct its policy towards Russia in a way which allows for pragmatic co-operation and trade, while strengthening efforts to secure democratic reforms and to promote the rule of law.
The European Union is in urgent need of a new narrative on how to engage pragmatically but critically with an authoritarian Russia.
The next European Parliament should instruct the incoming new High Representative to draw up a new strategy to guide a more robust EU policy towards Russia. It must be made clear to Russia that the EU's only ambition is to spread stability and prosperity in its eastern neighbourhood - not to create new barriers and borders.
While the EU's policy towards Russia must become more critical and based on the full use of reciprocity against Russian actions designed to pick off EU member states, it is clear that we also must take more time to explain to Moscow that progress and cooperation is a win-win game.
In 2013 we witnessed Russia pursuing a combination of hostile economic and political measures towards the countries that were actively seeking a closer association and integration with the European Union.
Russia succeeded in blowing the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit off course, but the EU's neighbourhood policy is still in place.
Russia imposed a series of targeted sanctions against Ukraine's exports designed to undermine the government commitment to finalise the Association Agreement with the European Union. As a response to these bullying tactics, we need to become faster and smarter.
I have called on the European Commission to draw up a list of possible responses to Russia's failure to meet its World Trade organisation commitments, both towards the European Union and towards the Eastern Partnership countries.
Sochi - better to stay at home
In parallel with a new EU-Russia policy framework, it is clear that the EU can and should play a stronger and more pro-active role in the search for political solutions to the frozen conflicts in its eastern neighbourhood and the EU’s External Action Service should come forward with an action plan for a renewed EU engagement in finding political solutions to these conflicts.
A number of European leaders have declared that they will not be attending the Sochi Winter Olympics next month.
I call on those yet undecided to take a close look at Russia's track record on democracy, the rule of law, respect for fundamental rights, and its discriminative attitude towards the LGBTI community - and to decide it is better to stay at home.
We have recently celebrated the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and Artic Rise activists.
These individual cases should not distract our attention from the systematic and worsening crackdown on human rights defenders, civil society and political dissent.
I am convinced the EU has leverage and influence and soft power to influence developments abroad.
However, for soft power to work, our engagement must be backed up by more robust measures when provoked or challenged.
The writer is the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament and a former Belgian prime minister