Sunday

16th Jan 2022

Opinion

Time to choose on Russia: regime first or people first?

  • What is our modus operandi with Russia and other non-democratic powers? (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The situation in Russia and the state of EU-Russia affairs is not an ordinary one.

The latest EU-Russia high level contact has served once again as a reminder how hard it is to engage with Moscow on its playground.

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We, Lithuanians, better than anybody else know that such an attempt is always more likely to be a trap, rather than just a challenge.

Last week, at the EU Foreign Affairs Council, we arrived to a unanimous agreement to sanction some perpetrators from the Kremlin's inner circle.

I do hope that it will increase the likelihood of seeing Alexei Navalny and his supporters leaving Russian prisons alive, unharmed, and in the nearer future than otherwise.

However, the main question we, as the EU, should all ask ourselves is as follows: what is our modus operandi with Russia and other non-democratic powers?

We all need to continue an honest discussion on how the EU approaches the tyrants and dictators – not only in Russia.

It is up to us, the EU-27, to decide whether we choose to sign investment agreements and engage in a 'dialogue' where one of the interlocutors speaks the language of threats, insults and humiliations.

Or we may, alternatively, choose granting more Erasmus+ scholarships for students in Khabarovsk, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok and offering real assistance to local opposition.

Lithuania has made her choice already: more engagement with real people, and much less with the 'Lavrovs' [Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov] of this world.

That is why I suggested meeting Navalny in jail during the high representative's visit to Moscow. That is why the diplomats from Lithuania and other EU member states are present as observers in the sham trials of the opposition activists in Moscow, despite the threats to expel them from Russia.

Five principles

That is why, we, the EU-27, should be honest with ourselves and put the new lens on the existing five principles for EU-Russia relations, agreed back in 2016:

The EU has been the greatest promoter of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in history.

Thus when we look for ways to engage with countries that do not adhere to these fundamental values, we must act not on the rule of 'Interests First' which in turn actually means 'Regime First', but on the principle 'People First'.

Only engaging with the people makes the EU a true value-based union.

Freedoms, liberties, and the right to fair elections of far too many people are obliterated at the trumped-up court cases and locked up in jails and re-education camps in Russia and Belarus, Myanmar and Xinjiang, as well as other parts of the world.

If we want to be a 'People First' union, we have to weld our economic needs and modes of political engagement to the values that we defend.

That is how 'People First' engagement works.

During the last council we didn't impose any sanctions and gave Vladimir Putin the benefit of a doubt which he saw as his chance to jail Navalny.

We are also giving the Kremlin the grace of another chance when we allow it to continue building the Nord Stream-2 pipeline.

If we are serious, however, Nord Stream-2 should be put on hold at least until the elections to the Russian Duma this autumn.

The people of democratic Russia may truly deserve a pipeline with the EU and, I'm sure, much more than that.

Thus, in the best spirit of a dialogue, let us give Putin yet another chance. A chance to prove that Russia is capable of conducting truly free elections, with real participation of the real opposition – not in prison, but on the ballot.

If that happens, if Russia stops violating international law and sovereignty of neighbouring states, we will all be for engagement with Russia. If not, let us keep sticking with the people, and not the regime.

This is important for democracy-loving people in the EU and far beyond.

Eastern Partnership countries, who still see the EU as their shining light, need perspective and reassurance that this is still the same Union of values that cares about the sovereign choices and European aspirations of Eastern partners.

Five principles for EU-Russia relations is our best strategy towards Russia. If we honestly adhere to those principles, the EU will become even more resilient and our partners will feel stronger vis-à-vis unavoidable neighbour.

Our democracy in the EU is only as strong as our uncompromising commitment to uphold our values. The area of freedom extends only as far as our political will to stick to our fundamental values.

So when we are looking for the principle of European unity, for the reason to stay united, this very well might be the one – how we deal with Moscow is a test of those principles that brought us together and continues to keep us so.

Author bio

Gabrielius Landsbergis is foreign minister of Lithuania.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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