Russia, Its Neighbors and EU Expansion

Almost two decades ago, I called for the building of a common European home, an idea that became central to perestroika's new political thinking. In the years that followed, decisive steps were taken to make it a practical reality. Democratization in the former Soviet Union, freedom of choice in Central and East European nations and the ensuing "velvet revolutions" created conditions for ending the division of Europe. In the autumn of 1990, European leaders signed the Charter of Paris and in effect drew a final line under the Cold War.

Today, a great deal hinges on where Europe goes from here. It can head towards new dividing lines or towards a truly united Europe that includes Russia. A Europe that embraces Russia is the only Europe that could become a credible partner to the United States, China and other emerging powers.

The enlargement of the European Union and the deepening of its integration is a part of this process. But those who want to see a whole, peaceful and strong Europe should also welcome the emerging process of integration in the east of the continent. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- nations that account for the bulk of the former Soviet Union's resources -- are working to create a common economic space.

It is true that EU enlargement has recently caused difficulties in EU-Russian relations. It is now necessary to readjust the mechanism of relations, address specific trade problems and make sure that there is no slackening in the pace of mutual rapprochement. The task is not easy, but both Russia and the EU have taken a responsible approach.

Therefore, it is harmful to European construction when some politicians and commentators lapse into old-style rhetoric. This is why I was shocked by the vision of Europe's future that George Soros recently outlined in the Financial Times. He seems to see Russia as the main source of danger to Europe: "In the east ... the EU cannot entice [Russia's neighbors] with membership any time soon, whereas Russia would be only too happy to lure them into a reconstituted empire." The EU's goal should be "to counteract Russia's pull," he said, and everything should be subordinated to that goal, including "greater access to Europe's common market, more favorable visa regimes, job and immigration opportunities, and access to capital, cultural contacts and technical assistance."

At the heart of Soros' thesis is a distrust of Russia and a pessimistic and profoundly erroneous assessment of its prospects. "After a chaotic period, the restored Russian state is shedding the few attributes of an open society it had acquired," he said. He added that it was time to cease treating Russia as a "nascent democracy."

But Soros' fears do not have any basis. The process of regional integration of the four republics, based on common economic interests that evolved historically, is not at odds with the desire of those nations to build stronger ties with the EU. Nor does it threaten in any way their political sovereignty. Seeing the closer interaction of post-Soviet states, which is natural, as a manifestation of Russia's "imperial ambitions" is at best an error of judgment and at worst a malicious distortion of reality.

Instead of presenting this as contrary to the overall European construction, we should focus on developing a modern relationship between the EU and its neighbors. It is clear that, following expansion, the EU will take many years to modernize the economies of the accession countries. What is wrong with having a credible and strong EU partner emerging in the east in the meantime? It would be better for the EU to deal with such a partner rather than with what are currently failing economies of resource-rich provinces.

I have often asked my American and European counterparts what kind of Russia they wanted to see -- a strong, responsible, good-faith partner, or a weak, insecure, dependent one. Russian citizens have answered this question. They concluded that Vladimir Putin's policies during his first presidency were needed for political and economic stabilization, and they entrusted him with a new four-year mandate. The next few years must be used to continue the democratic process, modernize the economy and strengthen the institutions of civil society. I am sure that Putin shares this vision and is aware of his responsibility. But Russia needs the understanding, good will and faith of its partners in Europe and elsewhere.

Mikhail Gorbachev is the former president of the Soviet Union. This is excerpted from a comment that first appeared in the Financial Times.