How Russia is acquiring new cultural and territorial borders: does this interfere with EU’s policies of democracy promotion?

The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart. Mahatma Gandhi

During the last decade, EU’s and Russian interests have started to intersect in a bigger amount of fields. One and probably the most important of them is the promotion of democracy, what includes enhancement of compliance with human rights, rule of law and modernization of economic institutions. Mostly, there are CIS countries as well as those of Southern Caucasus, which are at stake. However, geographical proximity and historical bonds of these counties with ‘non-democratic ’ Russia allegedly back-pedal the democratization process carried out by the EU. The majority of the EU’s attempts to foster democracy promotion evolve around the establishment of long-term economic agreements. Moreover, the EU integration process itself was built upon the economic core, shifting from cooperation within the framework of Economic Community to the very emergence of the European Union. Apart from that, the EU started developing security and foreign policy objectives, which were supposed to spread far beyond its borders. With the view to establishing common grounds for cooperation, EU engaged in spreading its democratic values not only to the Union’s member states, but potential candidates as well as other states, serving as buffer zones between the EU and its larger neighbors. Moreover, since the emergence of EU, it was largely engulfed by the strategy of enlargement. The first fiddle in this expansionism was played by the Copenhagen criteria of conditionality, serving as a tool for democracy promotion. During this mission, both noble and strategic, EU was growing not only in scale but in the ability to influence other world powers. The improvement in the international standing of every European Member State due to its attribution to a larger and stronger community was also accompanied by their allegedly increasing ambitions. Apart from the desire to gain and enhance stability within the newly established European borders, the EU strived to surround itself by well-governed neighbors. As it has been said above, the main clash between European and Russian flows of influence is seen in the post-Soviet place, meaning today’s CIS countries. Even though Russia is not explicitly expanding its territorial boarders, it tries to ally with its closest CIS neighbors, who also present interest for the EU. For instance, Belarus, located ‘between two fires,’ matters for both EU and Russia. Thus, Belarus has become prone to falling under European soft power and Russian economic influence. As a result of the EU enlargement, Ukraine also found itself on the border of EU, what made it enticing in the eyes of EU to establish partnerships with.
Even from historical perspective, perception of the Russian people regarding their own culture has no single stance. Centuries ago they used to mingle between being ‘Westerners’ or ‘Slavophiles’. These different conceptions, with the former evolving around European values and the latter putting an accent on Russian traditionalism, made Russia not narrow-minded but able to use both of these views for its own good. By applying any of these concepts to a real situation, Russia is able to adjust its behavior on the international arena by declaring itself ‘purely Russian’ power today, while ‘European’ tomorrow. On the one hand it helps Russia gain leverage tools to influence the fates of ‘target-countries’, while on the other hand, such code of conduct often causes frustration of the EU, who becomes unable to predict what will come out next in the EU-Russia relationship: trick or treat. It is a mistake to claim that Russia sees the shift of EU’s geographical borders as offensive, even though the very geographical proximity between Russia and EU has drastically reduced. However, cultural similarities of Russia and its neighbors, located in the post-Soviet space, constitute a significant basis for mutual understanding and cooperation. Thus, Russia is trying to achieve bilateral agreements with those, who are seen as its ‘cultural’ (Lithuania, Estonia etc) or ‘intellectual brothers’ (i.e. Germany, for instance). Apart from being the EU’s largest neighbor, Russia is the most important gas and exports provider for the Union. Not surprisingly, Russia itself was in the first flight to appear on the list of the countries deemed essential to establish understanding with. Overall, Russia-EU relationship is developing in a forward trend due to the increased amount of partnerships dedicated to various spheres and with the emergence of PCA, which was spoken about as a great success in the bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the EU encountered a number of entanglements in an attempt to spread its values as well as democratic institutions to prepare a fertile soil for further cooperation with Russia. Russian practice of establishing bilateral relations vis-à-vis other countries rather than supranational bodies as a whole should not be seen only from one angle. Apart from pursuing mercantile interests and ‘cherry picking’, such Russia’s strive can be explained by a number of historical reasons. Thus, Russia seeks bilateral agreements with Ukraine also due to the fact that they both speak the same language and share common values. Moreover, was not ‘Moscow born in Kiev’ at the times of Kievskaya Rus’ ? At the same time, Russian interest in Poland is to a large extent accounted for by their entwined history at the times of Rech Pospolitaya, while relatively warm relations with Belarus smolder thanks to the common mentality- the heritage of the Soviet Union. Having mentioned the Soviet Union, it is important to say that now, having lost its imperial territorial scale, borders of Russia are crafted not on the maps but in people’s minds. That is to say, the Russians still regard post-Soviet states as ‘us’, what is marked not only by semantics but policy-making approach. Apart from that, Russia is home to 126 various nationalities and different linguistic groups. Though nationalism is present, it is not indoctrinated or institutionalized in Russian society. That is why for the country, which comprises both East and West, it is sometimes much easier to find understanding with those of another religion and customs. Thus, such states as Turkey and Belarus, for instance, are still partially seen by the EU as ‘outsiders’, who are in the urgent need of EU’s recipe of ‘democratization spell.’ At the same time, Russia is willing to accept them as they are by letting them know there is no need to give up a single proportion of sovereignty, as would have been the case with these countries vis-à-vis EU, in order to gain access to beneficial treaties. Such behavior of Russia, which is tacitly shifting its borders due to spreading its influence, really offends the EU’s eye. Europe sees such intricacies as an attempt of Russia to undermine EU’s authority in the eyes of its partners. Especially acutely EU took Ukraine’s decision to freeze recent bilateral trade pact: Ukraine conducted it with Russia, preventing EU from anchoring its influence. Such a policy faced clear dissatisfaction of the EU: it claimed that the attempt of Russia to ‘intervene’ in the Union’s internal parts will only loosen its mutual bonds, which are already under high pressure of 28 Member States. Moreover, while EU tries to promote and sustain democratic institutions by the well-known means of ‘stick-and-carrot’, Russia offers EU’s members as well as its partners only the ‘carrot’. In other words, Russia is pursuing its interests by proposing mutually beneficial agreements: it is not interested in promoting its values beyond its own borders as well as it doesn’t appreciate the ‘imposition’ of democracy and respect for human right from EU. However, the EU’s approach is really contrasting. Apart from spreading ‘evangelic values’ it also strives to change political regimes of CIS countries in order to enhance democracy, which would become a common basis for further fruitful cooperation. Even thought that according to public opinion Russia is far from being democratic, it still possesses considerable leverage to influence other States. This is due to the fact that many actors are afraid of being sanctioned, especially with respect to essential energy supply from Russia. It is considered to be more important that long-term EU economic propositions, which clearly reflect the imposition of democracy through European Neighborhood Policy. It might be rightful to state that such a relative success of the EU in promotion of democracy can be explained by the very provisions of the ‘Wider Europe — Neighborhood’ and the 2004ENP Strategy Paper: both aim at sustaining stability rather than indeed promoting democracy. In this respect, it means that the way Russia devises it borders, i.e. spheres of influence, in the most up-to-date sense, would have had little effect on EU’s democratic agenda had EU chosen other means to care of budding plantlet of democracy in neighboring countries. Moreover, instead of appealing to Beslan tragedy in order to show the contrast between EU’s stability and Russian chaos, European community could have found relevance means of aid: not only it would have been noble, but would produce a positive image of the EU, underlying the fact that it is eager to defend values no matter where on the globe. What seems to be of grave importance in EU-Russia dialog is the understanding by the former, that Russia is unlikely to comply with a definition of a liberal democracy in the near future. Nevertheless, it does not signify that Russia will not absorb any signals calling for democracy- it will just “do it its own way”. At the same time, there is no necessity in sparking accusation of Russia in diverting attention of a number of states from the EU. Even in case of Ukraine , Russia did not try to negotiate the deal at the expense of the EU,- “We are not against Ukraine’s sovereign choice, whatever it is ,” claimed Mr. Putin. Nevertheless, the accusation of Russian power game seems to be more relevant though to some extent exaggerated. It is true that in many instances Russia is just willing to check limits of its power by trying to conclude treaties with the EU’s wards. However, Russia should be careful not to extend the legal limits. Otherwise, when the countries it is ‘playing’ with will present not only democratic appearance while being corrupted in the core but a regime, truly close to democratic, Russia might lose its weight as its former allies will become reluctant to tolerate agreements made at the expense of human rights. Even though EU’s leverage to trigger democratic reform is limited, Russia is likely to become more predictable and less ‘aggressive’ in its ‘attacks’ on EU’s partners should it get what it has been striving for,- meaning the liberalization of visa regime. Thus, instead of trying to convert Russia by the means of a ‘stick’ by embedding foreign NGOs, which would allegedly alter a hard pressure on civil society, Russia might be much better raised up on a ‘carrot diet.’ As for the promotion of democracy in neighboring areas, what constitutes an important facet of European foreign policy, the role of EU is undeniable, especially after Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgian and Ukraine respectively. In this respect, even while standing on top of so called- winner’s podium, EU should acknowledge Russian default influence in the region and thus try to work out strategies not avoiding it, but turning it to the benefit of EU as well.