Time to Take the Riddle Out of Russia

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Europe's view of Russia frequently reflects misconceptions. Some Europeans hide behind Winston Churchill's famous -- but often misrepresented -- comment that Russia is a mystery, riddle and an enigma. Others adhere to a naive, visionary optimism about Moscow's understanding of democracy and the rule of law.

But neither view reflects the true nature of Russia. What Europe needs is a healthy and robust realpolitik, one that is free from illusions about the giant next door. Past experience shows that there is nothing mysterious or enigmatic about Russia's pursuit of its national (even imperialist) interests. The trick for Europe is to counterbalance Russian self-interest, and this means the EU has to agree on -- and jointly promote -- Europe's own interests and channel relations with Moscow into an international framework that upholds the rule of law.

The danger of taking Churchill's phrase at face value has been clear enough for some 80 years, especially at times of crisis. Western leaders have used it as an excuse for making ignoble compromises that undermined Western values, and Eastern Europe suffered the tragic results of these compromises after World War II. The "Russian-riddle" mindset is still to be found in the confusion and hesitation of Western policymakers who often desperately try to reconcile their strategic and pragmatic interests with a democratic code of conduct, even though Russia mostly ignores such international standards.

Viewing Russian behavior as a riddle also reinforces Moscow's traditional position of being a country with a unique role in history -- one that is allowed to function outside any existing political or national models. Moscow expects people to make an exception in Russia's case, and its refusal to ratify and implement the Energy Charter was just one example of this conduct.

It would be far better if Europe rigorously applied internationally recognized standards when judging Moscow's actions. These standards should include reciprocity based on common democratic values and the rule of law. There was a chance to start implementing such a policy in 1991, when the West had "won" the Cold War. Instead, the West fell for the second great illusion about Russia -- that provided the opportunity, and enough freedom and plenty of Western goodwill, it would transform itself into a democratic society and respect the rule of law. This optimistic view ignored the question of whether post-Soviet Russia had sufficient goodwill of its own to make such a transition, even when it refused to make moral or political judgements about its totalitarian past.

Deluded by its own mistaken views of Russia, Europe has failed to find a coherent and realistic strategy on how to deal with its biggest neighbor.

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Anti-democratic developments in Russia make it essential to understand where in real terms we stand vis-a-vis Russia. This is all the more urgent as spin doctors are busy creating new illusions around the personality of President Dmitry Medvedev. Depending on who you listen to, Medvedev is either a new John Kennedy or he's a harmless technocrat with no KGB background. Western leaders who buy into such illusions and race one another to the gates of the Kremlin demonstrate a classic case of European confusion regarding Russia.

What, then, are the current realities that should inform a more accurate EU analysis of Russia? First, we have to acknowledge that Russia is not a democracy. In fact, the policy of building a "normal" society that respects the rule of law has been reversed. Under the guise of "sovereign democracy," Russia openly and defiantly abandons the goal of becoming an advanced open society, marked by political liberty and the rule of law.

That does not mean that Russia is the same as the Soviet Union, but Europe must stop thinking of Russia as a "normal" strategic partner. While the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement declares common values as the basis of a partnership, this is deceptive. We can speak about common interests, certainly, but not common values. Russia no longer aims to integrate with the West under Western terms and conditions.

The European Union should forget any notion that Russia is a friend, ally or reliable partner. Russia's strategic interests in Europe directly oppose those of the EU. Moscow wants to split the EU apart and is trying to set old and new member states against each other. The former Soviet-occupied Baltic states are the main target and testing ground for these divisive policies. Russia combines political and economic pressure on the three Baltic states with disinformation campaigns and the exploitation of Soviet-era immigrants. Russia has also tried to turn these EU members into bargaining chips in possible future deals with the EU.

Energy is a sector where the EU needs to get a real grip on today's realities. The EU is increasingly dependent on Russian oil and on gas, but a more sober economic analyses show that Russia needs the EU more than the EU needs Russia.

European companies continue, meanwhile, to do business with Russia despite its flagrant disregard for Western norms, its dramatic lack of reciprocity and its general disdain for legal guarantees. They rush into Russian markets in search of short-term gain and accept the crippling moral price of having to share their profits with the ruling elite. The business practices involved cast aside most EU principles of fairness and transparency. This sort of systematic disregard for the rules of fair play undermines the credibility of our own value-based, free-market economy.

The EU's weakness extends beyond economic and commercial relations and into the political sphere. Russia's Council of Europe membership is a case in point. In 1996, Russia was accepted as a member only after lengthy debate and in return for a long list of democratic commitments which were to be met in the shortest possible time. The decision was purely political: The majority concluded that Russia was "better in than out." The justification was that membership would speed up Russia's democratic transformation. Sadly, the opposite is true.

So where do we go to from here? An intriguing analysis by Mexican political scientist Fredo Arias King compares Russia to a person with the psychological condition known as borderline personality disorder. This involves a split cultural identity, unstable self image, black-and-white thinking and difficulties of perceiving one's own responsibilities. Sufferers often have bursts of anger and aggressiveness and attempts to appease and indulge them are counterproductive. The way to handle them, it is said, is to be stable, polite and firm, defining non-negotiable rules that are then stuck to.

Applied to Russia-EU relations, this formula could be the best remedy. The EU should set clear rules that are not subject to change as a result of whim or exceptional circumstances. They must be based on the international standards for the rule of law. Europe's working relationship with Moscow should start afresh on the basis of friendly -- but firm -- reciprocity.

The mission of a united Europe should be to speak the truth, set boundaries and underline that our Western principles and values are not up for negotiation. Such a common and unwavering EU policy would help Russia to differentiate between normal national interests and imperial ambitions, eventually resulting in a Russia that is less unpredictable and more cooperative.

Russia is not a mystery. When people quote Churchill's celebrated 1939 remark, "It [Russia] is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma," they unfortunately leave out the phrase's essential continuation: "but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

Tunne Kelam, an Estonian member of the European Parliament, is part of the delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. This comment will be published in the spring issue of Europe's World (www.europesworld.org).