2012 was a good year for European unity and resolve in relation to Russia – for a long time one of the most divisive issues in European foreign policy. But although the year started with excitement and expectations of possible changes inside Russia, it ended in disappointment after Vladimir Putin was re-elected as president in March. Putin’s new regime is weaker than it previously was, but therefore resorts to coarser measures to deal with dissent. Although the pro-Putin consensus of the first decade of the century has collapsed, there are no credible challengers, and neither the regime nor the opposition has a viable strategy for the future. European disappointment and Moscow’s unwillingness to cooperate with the EU on almost any issue made real dialogue almost impossible in 2012.
After meeting with force the first anti-Putin demonstrations that broke out after the December 2011 parliamentary elections, the regime changed tactics and, up until the presidential elections in March, allowed rallies to proceed peacefully. It also relaxed controls on the media: between January and March, many opposition figures who had been banned from the state-controlled television channels for years were invited to participate in talk shows and the state-controlled media also started to cover the demonstrations and did not hesitate to ask Putin inconvenient questions. Even though this new, open approach was clearly dictated by election-campaign logic rather than respect towards rights and freedoms, the EU still welcomed it. It also gave a moderately positive assessment of the presidential elections: it asked Russia to address the shortcomings in the conduct of elections but did not question Putin’s victory.
However, immediately after Putin’s inauguration in May, there was a crackdown. Demonstrations were once again dissolved by force and many activists were detained (quite a few still remain behind bars). New laws were adopted that re-criminalised slander and severely restricted freedom of assembly as well as working conditions for NGOs. The vague way in which these laws are formulated means that they can be arbitrarily applied to punish almost any civic activism.
European leaders criticised these developments with unanimity and clarity. Most significant was the change of mood in Germany – in the past, Russia’s best friend in the EU. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s envoy for relations with Russian civil society, Andreas Schockenhoff, was publicly critical of Putin’s handling of the trial of members of the punk band Pussy Riot and of Russia’s response to the Syria crisis. In November, ahead of a visit by Merkel to Moscow, the Bundestag adopted a resolution (drafted by Schockenhoff) that was unusually critical of developments in Russia, which was followed by a sharp exchange between Merkel and Putin about Russia’s human-rights record just a few days later during their meeting. Thus Germany, which was once a problem for a coherent and effective European policy towards Russia, might slowly but surely be becoming one of Europe’s leaders on this issue.
Despite this new resolve, however, the EU’s actual influence on conditions on the ground in Russia remains very limited. Still, the EU did not hesitate to demonstrate its muscle on energy relations with Russia and, in September, the European Commission took an unprecedented step by launching an anti-competition probe against Russian state energy giant Gazprom for possible abuse of its dominant market position in Central and Eastern Europe. In response, Putin issued a decree forbidding Gazprom and other “strategically important companies that do business overseas” from providing information to foreign regulators unless they obtain approval from the Kremlin.
EU–Russia trade relations could have been the success story of the year. In August, Russia finally became a formal member of the WTO – the step that had been strongly supported by the EU during the 18-year-long negotiations. But Russia’s application of new protectionist measures even after officially joining the WTO has made the EU visibly frustrated, prompting Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to complain in December that “Russia is doing exactly the opposite to what it is supposed to do” and to hint that EU retaliation – for which the WTO framework provides legal options – may be on the cards some time soon.
In recent years the EU has made progress in diversifying its energy imports, especially gas-supply sources, by building interconnectors between member states. However, the Nabucco project, one of the EU’s main projects to ensure gas supply from sources other than Russia, now seems to be viable – if at all – only in its “lighter” version as “Nabucco West” after Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s announcement in 2012 that they would build their own pipeline. In December, Russia raised the stakes by announcing construction of the South Stream pipeline, a direct competitor to Nabucco – but so far it is unclear to what extent this will actually influence the EU’s energy policies.
There was also little substantial cooperation between the Europeans and Russia on resolution of the protracted conflicts in the neighbourhood. Germany remains heavily involved in the Transnistria dispute, but apart from re-launching the formal talks in the 5+2 format (including Moscow), there was little progress. However, the EU did occasionally stand up to defend its neighbours against Russian pressure and did so more vocally than in the past: Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger called on EU member states to stand by Moldova and called a possible gas-price hike from Russia “pure blackmail” and Moscow’s behaviour “unacceptable”.
The EU and a number of individual member states also worked hard to persuade Russia to drop its opposition to more determined international action on Syria. But although the question was on the agenda of most bilateral exchanges with Russia, it had little success: Russia, together with China, vetoed resolutions pushed by the EU and the US to impose UN sanctions on the Assad regime.
Thus, although Europe has demonstrated laudable unity in its reactions to the events and flexed its muscles on several important dossiers – namely, in energy and trade relations – it clearly lacks power to influence developments inside Russia. In handling relations with Russia, the EEAS was not in a lead role – the most important issues were handled either by the member states or by the European Commission – but it has been instrumental in exchanging information and contributed more substantially to certain policies, such as the EU’s stance on human rights in Russia. The challenge for Europe is now to capitalise on its new unity and resolve and devise smart ways to contribute to democratic change in Russia, while also engaging in diplomatic “contingency planning” in case things get worse before they get better.
|13 - Trade liberalisation with Russia||5/5||4/5||5/10||14/20||B+|
|14 - Visa liberalisation with Russia||5/5||3/5||4/10||12/20||B-|
|15 - Rule of law and human rights in Russia||4/5||3/5||2/10||9/20||C+|
|16 - Media freedom in Russia||4/5||2/5||2/10||8/20||C|
|17 - Stability and human rights in the North Caucasus||4/5||2/5||2/10||8/20||C|
|18 - Relations with Russia on the Eastern Partnership||4/5||4/5||3/10||11/20||B-|
|19 - Relations with Russia on protracted conflicts||4/5||3/5||3/10||10/20||C+|
|20 - Relations with Russia on energy issues||4/5||4/5||5/10||13/20||B|
|21 - Diversification of gas supply routes to Europe||3/5||3/5||4/10||10/20||C+|
|22 - Relations with Russia on Iran and Proliferation||5/5||4/5||4/10||13/20||B|
|23 - Relations with Russia on the Greater Middle East||5/5||4/5||4/10||13/20||B|
|24 - Relations with Russia on climate change||3/5||2/5||3/10||8/20||C|
|25 - Relations with Russia on the Arctic||4/5||4/5||5/10||13/20||B|