Working group:
EU and Russia in the world

Co-chairs: John Lough and Nikolai Petrov

The group discussed the common challenges facing the EU and Russia, how the two sides can prevent further alienation, and what is needed to transform EU-Russia relations.

Today, Russia’s relationship with Europe can be described as a “stable non-partnership.” The Kremlin openly opposes Europe and the Western model of liberalism, though it does not completely rule out dialogue. The working group argued that the Putin regime is currently leading in terms of two global trends— rising authoritarianism and the shrinking civic space. One of the reasons authoritarian regimes are gaining momentum throughout the world is because their leaders offer what looks like simple and fast solutions to a number of complex issues facing many countries today, while the workings of a democracy appear too slow and too sophisticated in the modern fast-paced world. Besides, as recent developments have shown, democratic institutions can fail in addressing and resolving some of the most acute issues of the present time, e.g. securing stability and sovereignty.

The group also stated that Russia’s democratic rollback and slide into authoritarianism are caused by the constraints of its short transition period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian public did not have enough time to adjust to the change. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russia has grown to become the key driver of global authoritarianism, leading in terms of legal and judicial suppression inside the country, while using hybrid warfare and waging disinformation both in Russia and abroad.

The global authoritarian challenge is further aggravated by the fact that in today’s globalized world, Western interests are deeply intertwined with the interests of corrupt, authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, which prevents the West from protecting its own democratic values and supporting human rights. Still, according to the members of this working group, the EU remains the last truly “open space” in the world, regardless of all these tensions.

From the Kremlin’s prospective, the key stumbling block in terms of the EU-Russia dialogue is the European sanctions policy imposed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggression in eastern Ukraine. As the efficiency of these sanctions has become a matter of a heated debate inside the EU, an argument was made by some participants in the working group that Europe needs to shift its approach from sanctioning industries to targeting individuals—corrupt Russian officials and human rights violators—as part of a broader policy of deterring certain types of behaviour by the Russian leadership. At the moment, it seems that the EU’s approach toward Russia has been reduced to a ‘sanctions only’ policy. Sanctions are not a substitute for a policy, argued the group members.

Several solutions to resolve the current stifling relationship between Russia and the EU were discussed.

First, Europe needs to engage with those Russians who disagree with the regime, it should offer support to the Russian activists and help them build a sustainable opposition movement.

Second, NGOs working inside the European Union need to lobby their respective governments and donors to ramp up efforts to support civil society in Russia. Investing in building a strong civil society is important: when change comes to Russia, civil society will be the key driver of peaceful social development.

Third, people-to-people contacts can lay the groundwork for the most meaningful avenues of EU-Russia cooperation on countering common challenges together. Intellectual cooperation and fostering a cross-border “community of experts” can create additional opportunities to deal with these challenges on a global scale.

Fourth, an argument can be made that, given the right approach, working with the Russian diaspora in the EU countries can help Europe bridge some of its differences with the Russian-speaking world. However, this option remains debatable: some participants described the Russian diaspora as a major problem because it often serves as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in Europe. The majority of the diaspora supports Putin; these people are often not well-integrated into European society; they largely consume Russian state media and therefore are difficult for the West to influence. Still, some members of the group believed that the diaspora should be seen as a potential agent of change.

Finally, the EU must work on increasing transparency at home as one of the tools to prevent the export of corrupt practices from Russia and other authoritarian regimes. One concrete proposal that was put forward was granting free public access to all EU real estate and land registers. In its turn, all registers should also enable a free, nationwide name search into whether foreign individuals holding official positions own any property in the EU (at the moment, only few EU registers offer name searches free of charge). This would help many anti-corruption journalists and activists in their efforts to investigate and expose corruption.

As a general recommendation, the group agreed that EU leaders should stop trying to return to “business as usual” with Putin and avoid equating Russia with the Putin regime. Doing so undermines the efforts of those Russians who oppose the current authoritarian government and hope for a brighter future for their country.

The group concluded that Russia remains key to the development of the whole former Soviet region. It is important for the EU to try and stop the current social “de-globalization” and degradation that Russia is experiencing under the Putin’s regime.

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