Tuesday, 11 November 2008

EU foreign ministers right not to treat Russia as pariah

European Union foreign ministers have decided that they would prefer partnership with Russia to fomenting a new ‘cold war’. Edward Lucas will be livid. Against the ever temperate advice of Lithuania, 26 other member states have decided to resume talks aimed at reaching a new partnership agreement with the Federation. Whatever the reservations of Lucas and his Baltic nationalist fellow travellers, less febrile observers will recognise that a constructive relationship with the Kremlin is to the benefit of the EU and does much more to encourage good governance within Russia than treating the country as a pariah.

I noted below that Barack Obama’s election victory offers something of an opportunity to repair relations between the US and Russia. Despite being prompted to do otherwise by Baltic states and other former eastern bloc countries, Europe must also strive to foster a more constructive relationship with Medvedev’s government. For his part, Obama can rethink positioning a missile defence system so ostentatiously close to Russia’s borders. The EU can work with the Kremlin on a range of issues and should be looking to move towards visa free travel within its borders for Russian citizens.

Treating Russia as a pariah simply fosters resentment and reinforces Russians’ suspicion that the west does not view them as equals. As a strategy it is counterproductive. Although the path which Putin chose (and which Medvedev maintains) does not always adhere to precepts we expect from a liberal democracy, it is an attempt to adapt democratic freedoms and market principles to the extraordinary difficulties which post-Soviet Russia experiences. Whether the EU and US find Putinism unconvivial or not, it has an inarguable mandate from the Russian people.

Above all, ‘Putin’s path’ (a pun which makes sense in Russian) represents a rational response to the various challenges which he acquired from Yeltsin’s regime. Putin inherited from Yeltsin an emasculated, fractured party system. Through changes instigated by Putin, he actually substantially facilitated the Duma’s serious participation in national politics. Although the Kremlin’s attempts to engineer strong political parties may not be to western tastes, it has consolidated something approaching a viable system, which may yet take root and bequeath upon Russia stable recognisable party politics. Putin himself has urged United Russia and other parties to cultivate independently their own ideologies and to develop interest based political cultures. Reforms, which are often portrayed as stiflingly centralising, have served to weaken regional clans and standardise the political representation accessible to Russian citizens, wherever in the Federation they happen to live.

No-one would seek to defend everything VV Putin has done. The point is that he and his successor have been engaged in a rational, defensible political project which is not at its essence either anti-democratic or inimical to freedom. It is flawed and it is on occasion contradictory, but it does not legitimise treating Russia as a pariah. Neither Lithuania, not Edward Lucas, should persuade you otherwise.

No comments: