Russia-EU relations: changes possible?

What is happening in Russia-EU relations? Judging by statements made by some European leaders, the relations are wonderful, much better now than ever since the creation of the EU or the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who visited Moscow and went with President Vladimir Putin to Lipetsk for the presentation of a new Merloni factory this week, said once again that he envisions Russia as a member of the EU and NATO. Berlusconi has been talking about this dream of his so frequently and convincingly that some people in Russia are accepting his words as a statement of an inevitable fact. The more so that other European politicians often speak about the idea in similar words, if not quite the same what Berlusconi says.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission who has visited Moscow in the wake of the Italian premier, also smiled a lot and made quite a few compliments to Russia and its leadership. His visit made me think about the recent celebration of the birth anniversary of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, where Putin was one of the most notable guests and the only foreign leader. This prompted the conclusion that modern Russia is closer and more pleasant to the German Chancellor than ever before.

The good-mannered Russian president is also friendly with his European colleagues, even when they discuss very serious matters. The recent example is the statement made by Vladimir Putin to the effect that the NATO patrolling of the air space of the former Soviet republics in the Baltic accepted to the bloc and located barely a 15-minute flight from Russia, did not endanger the country. Some four of five years ago, such a statement would have been impossible. Hypothetically, it would have cost the president his post. But Putin's making such statements means that something has really changed. And if Berlusconi is inviting Russia to the EU and NATO, this means that something has really changed in Russia-EU relations. What is it?

This brings us to unpleasant, from the viewpoint of diplomatic protocol, questions. On May 1, the EU will admit ten new members, including the former Soviet republics in the Baltic and Russia's East European partners in the deceased Comecon. Until recently, they accounted for about 10% of Russia's foreign trade. After the EU expansion, the introduction of European duties and quotas in them will inevitably reduce Russian exports there. Two months ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry again sent (it first did it in 1999) to its European colleagues a letter of concern over this issue, without getting any explanations. The EU promises to supply them by the Russia-EU summit in Moscow in less than a month's time. So far, there is no answer and hence we can proceed from the assumption that trade will indeed be curtailed.

But trade is not everything that matters. What about Kaliningrad (former Konigsberg), Russia's territory on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea? After the EU expansion, it will become a Russian enclave and European duties will be levied on Russian cargoes from Russia to Kaliningrad and back. At least this is what the EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy has inferred.

So far, Moscow has settled, more or less, the issue of the visa regime for Russian citizens going from Kaliningrad to "mainland" Russia and back across Lithuania. Russians will be issued Facilitated Transit Documents but the issue procedure is so complicated that old men swear and young people refuse to travel to Russia. Instead, they go to Europe: about 80% of the Kaliningrad young people have been to Europe and many of them see their city as part of united Europe, just as the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia did. But they see their city as part of Europe without Russia, contrary to the futuristic forecasts of Mr Berlusconi.

The situation is more complicated than may seem at first glance. The Kaliningrad problem can be solved easily, by simplifying Russia-EU trade regimes, opening up the border for the movement of goods, people and capital. This will effectively settle the issue of secession. The formulas are trite and well known; they are sealed in the standard protocols of the WTO and are effective with regard to all WTO members.

But this brings us to one more problem. The EU has erected the highest barriers to Russia's accession to the WTO. Europe demands that Russia raise domestic gas prices to world standards, disregarding the fact that Russia is the world's topmost producer of gas and can use its competitive advantages in price formation. The European press has recently reported that Russia and the EU have allegedly come to an agreement on gas prices within the framework of Russia's accession to the WTO. However, this is nothing more than an unconfirmed information leakage. No official statements have been made on this account. But we remember how the EU waved off Russian concerns for years and agreed to discuss them only recently.

We should wait for the results of the Russia-EU summit. They will show if anything has really changed in Russia-EU relations and the flight of fantasy of visiting politicians means something more than good humour and personal sympathies.

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