Putin's return poses questions for EU strategy
Germany and Poland have said the EU should co-operate more closely with Russia despite calls by liberal MEPs and the Russian opposition for a more confrontational approach.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and Poland's Radek Sikorski in a joint letter to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton at the weekend said she should focus on modernising Russia's economy and keeping oil and gas flowing as a top priority.
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The letter brushed aside concerns on the prospect of Vladimir Putin's non-democratic return to office in 2012 and urged Ashton to help make him a "reliable partner" on international security and energy issues.
"Although the 'swapping of posts' between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not encouraging, we must stay the course to intensify ties with Russia and overcome political and economic lethargy," the Westerwelle-Sikorski text said.
The letter also undelrined that Russia must be hled accountable for shortcomings in the areas of "respect for law, human rights, free media and democratic values."
Despite the caveats on accountability, it highlights Poland's shift to a more Russia-friendly policy in the past few years. It also comes amid hopes Russia will stop using trade to bully its neighbours if it joins the World Trade Organisation, a development expected in July next year.
Finland on board
For its part, Finland, which has the longest EU land border with Russia, supports the Germano-Polish realpolitik.
Asked by EUobserver at a conference on Russia in Helsinki last week if he is concerned about the prospect of 12 more years of Putinism, Finnish defence minister Stefan Wallin said: "Finland is used to all kinds of regime in Russia - it was part of tsarist Russia in the 18th century, then we had 70 years of Communism. We are used to dealing with all kinds of regime."
Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie noted: "If you want to force your hand with Russia, you'd better make sure you are strong enough." Recalling the 2009 Russia gas crisis, he added: "We criticised them. But the next day [relations] were back to normal because we were rather cold."
The Helsinki event saw a number of speakers call for a more robust approach to Putin despite the prevailing mood among diplomats.
Westerwelle's fellow German liberal party member, Markus Loning, in charge of human rights in Germany's foreign ministry, said the EU should press for reforms at the Russia summit in December: "EU countries are too weak and we are not respected because of this ... We should not be so impressed by the Russians - they are not as big as they pretend to be."
The head of the Liberal group in the EU parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, said new Russian MPs should be excluded from entering the EU assembly because Russian parliamentary elections in December have no legitimacy - most opposition parties were not registered and international monitors are not being allowed to come in full strength.
Putting aside the moral imperative, Russian opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov warned that the EU risks seeing political upheaval in its giant neighbour on current trends.
He noted that corruption and poor governance is seeing a mass exodus of young people and capital, while those left behind become increasingly restless. "The country is becoming a shambles and an Arab Spring situation is becoming inevitable," he said. "The [economic] situation is very fragile. Oil needs to stay at $120 a barrel to balance the budget. If it falls to $60 or $70, then our currency will be devalued by 30 percent."
Lilya Shevstova, the head of the Carnegie Centre NGO in Moscow, added: "Russia could collapse into chaos, but it's a nuclear state ... This is a very real scenario."
Despite his pragmatism, Finnish defence minister Wallin gave some credibility to the 'Russian Spring' scenario.
"The biggest threat nowadays to any society, especially in terms of its young people, comes from economic uncertainty, so of course we have to be concerned," he said, when asked by this website if Russian disorder is on the cards.
This article was amended at 13.45 Brussels time on 15 November to add that the German-Polish letter also called for Russian accountability