Russian and EU leaders will gather in Rostov-on-Don for their bi-annual summit on 31 May ? 1 June. The geographical symbolism is not good: Rostov is only a few kilometres from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The political mood leading up to the summit seems a little better.

The EU and Russia are gathering for their bi-annual summit in Rostov-on-Don on 31 May-1 June. The geographical symbolism is not good. Rostov is close to Russia's troubled North Caucasus, as well as to Sochi where Russia will host the Winter Olympics in 2014, only a few kilometres from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, the political mood-music before the summit is much better. The last summit in Stockholm in November arrested the deterioration in relations since the war in Georgia in 2008; now the main theme for the summit is set to be a ‘partnership for modernisation'.

EU Member States are closer together on Russia than they have been for a long time. Germany and France were always in favour of a new partnership. The Polish-Russian rapprochement is gathering pace. The Baltic States, led by Lithuania's new President, are newly pragmatic, given their pressing economic problems. Sweden has dropped its objections to Nordstream; the UK continues to push the Litvinenko affair, but with little hope of progress. Southern European states eye expanding business opportunities to aid their troubled economies. That leaves nearly all the main Member States in favour of a ‘reset' of relations. 

Russia, on the other hand, was already hard-hit by the global economic crisis, but also finds its basic energy export model challenged by the rise of LNG and shale gas. The ‘reset' with the US and more locally with Ukraine have decreased Russia's traditional fears of the West undermining its ‘near abroad', leaving it freer to look further afield. Russia's internal debate on ‘modernisation' is becoming more substantive. Prolonging the life of the Putin Model is still the Kremlin's priority, but, as the global economic crisis puts the domestic social contract under increasing strain, a rapprochement with the West is increasingly seen as a potential bolster for the regime rather than a threat.

But the EU should follow four key principles to get the new ‘partnership' right. First, the recently leaked letter by Foreign Minister Lavrov talks of Russia creating separate ‘alliances for modernisation' with no less than fourteen EU Member States. In order to avoid duplication, the relationship would be best handled at the Commission level. Second, the new Partnership cannot simply replace existing agreements. Russia hasn't delivered on everything it has already promised, and the new relationship should not simply allow it to cherry-pick whatever it wants from the EU. Third, the Partnership must not be a lofty statement of general principles, but offer concrete benefits for both sides. For the EU that should be an improved investment climate, a stronger rule of law and Russian progress towards the WTO. Fourth, in order to maintain internal EU unity, progress with Russia should be balanced with progress with Eastern Europe. Too obvious a quid pro quo will undermine basic conditionality principles, but, if for example Russia is offered a road-map towards visa-free Ukraine should be offered the prospect too. Neither state should get it for free. Russia should abolish the obligatory registration process for foreigners, Ukraine should toughen up its borders and make progress on biometric passports.

Russia, however, also thinks the EU is preoccupied by the Euro crisis. The summit is a good opportunity to show that the EU's powers of attraction are still strong.

Read this piece in Spanish on the ECFR, FRIDE & Foreign Policy Español "Shadow Presidency blog". 

Read more on: Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.