The European Union will expand for the fifth time on May 1, 2004, accepting a record number of new members in the process. The EU club and its total population will virtually double, which means that its economic potential will be in a position to expand considerably, as well.
Russia also views the EU's enlargement as an extraordinary event. This is because some former Soviet republics, as well as countries that had co-operated with the Soviet Union and Russia for decades, including at the co-production level, will be welcomed into the union.
Therefore, Moscow believes that the forthcoming EU expansion influences Russia's national interests to a much greater extent than previous regional-integration processes. The people of Russia continue to debate the enlargement's pros and cons. The brief answer is that the disadvantages are likely to dominate in the short-term, while the advantages should emerge in the longer-term.
Some short-term losses for Russia are self-evident and Moscow sent a 14-point document to Brussels in mid-January to inform the EU about its concerns. Anxieties over the agro-industrial sector are a case in point.
Russian agricultural producers often lose out to their European rivals even on the domestic market despite the fact that European wholesale purchasing prices exceed Russian prices several times over. These losses can be explained by substantial EU subsidies for agriculture, i.e. direct and export subsidies. The new EU members will also be entitled to them, with local agricultural producers getting an estimated 4.72 billion euros over the next three years. This means that Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian food, which cannot compete with Russian produce today, will become quite competitive. On the one hand, Russian shops will be able to offer greater choice to customers; on the other hand, Russian farmers will face serious problems. When you take the country's climate into account, these problems might prove to be unsolvable. This is bound to happen if Russia and the EU cannot find some mutually acceptable solutions.
However, this does not spell the end for the Russian agro-industrial sector's difficulties. The point is that Russia traditionally sells its dairy products and meat to prospective EU members. New veterinary regulations will be introduced on their territories after such countries join in, which means that Russian exports will be curtailed. In other words, Russia will receive a great deal of EU food, while movement in the other direction will be seriously curtailed.
Furthermore, there is another example. Russia can annually export about 1.5 million tonnes of grain in line with current EU quotas, which will remain unchanged, once the EU admits new members. The same limitations will also apply for Russian nuclear fuel, steel, etc. This obviously means that Russia will lose its traditional markets, which is another considerable negative aspect of the enlargement process.
The Russian economy will probably not be undermined completely, if the EU disregards our problems and concerns. However, if EU countries do not display any understanding of Russia's concerns or a willingness to act as friends and partners, there could be very serious political consequences for our relations.
Much now depends on mutual approaches within the next weeks and months. Russian and EU trade ministers are set to hold their latest negotiations in Brussels on March 26, while the next Russia-EU summit will start on April 21, heralding a moment of truth. As far as Russia is concerned, it wants to become the EU's reliable and predictable partner. One should admit that some Russian and EU forces are not interested in our mutual rapprochement and they apparently have some unseen links. They interact in earnest, profiting from their mutual efforts. Russia's "hawks", who want to stop all co-operation between Russia and the outside world, claim that Europe considers Russia as a mere raw-materials appendage, that European politicians are trying to prevent Russia from exporting its goods, services and people. For their part, EU "hawks" point to their Russian counterparts and claim that the latter determine the modern Russian political system, and that they stifle local democracy and market economics. Consequently, they think that Russia is Europe's inconvenient and hopeless partner.
Fortunately, these are marginal opinions in Russia and the EU at this stage. They do not determine all the main aspects of Russo-European co-operation and do not have any chances of doing so. We have merged closely enough today. Although there is still no common economic and legal infrastructure, our mutually integrated economies are so inter-dependent that common interests will always prevail, thereby prompting politicians to look for reasonable compromise solutions all the time. This, in turn, will neutralise the "hawks" on both sides. One can feel quite optimistic, because those advocating isolationism in Russo-European relations have no future at all.
Mutual rapprochement is our real prospect and a common idea of human rights and human freedoms principles is a top-priority aspect.
However, there should be clarification here, as human rights are a two-way street with heavy "traffic".
It should be mentioned in this connection that it took the EU several decades to unfailingly abide by the human rights listed in the European Charter. Each country did this stage by stage and in a rather comfortable manner without any external prodding. However, Russia, which signed up to the European Charter relatively recently, is subject to clearly exaggerated requirements. Moscow is supposed to travel the same road in just a few years, without the necessary preparation and often without the nation's legislation being adapted to the European Charter's requirements.
One can state that the problems arising as a result of this are purely temporary. They are not caused by conceptual differences with regard to basic values. Russia sees human rights as a priority, just like EU countries. It is another matter that some European Charter provisions are not universally applicable, and, therefore, should not be treated like some form of dogma. Capital punishment is a classic example. Russia has not abolished the death penalty legislatively so far. And although not a single criminal has been executed in Russia for more than a decade now, Moscow still comes in for some heavy criticism on this score. Meanwhile, US legislation openly allows state authorities to execute convicted criminals, a right that is practised often enough, but is not reproached by the EU for this. Frankly speaking, this amounts to nothing but double standards.
And here is one more example. Russia is drawing the attention of its EU partners to the violation of the Russian-speaking diaspora's rights in the Baltic states, which frequently fail to observe the European Charter. Moscow is often being told that the Baltics are too small, and that they must therefore be treated carefully and patiently, to avoid insulting them. One can hope that the enlarged EU will examine local human-rights violations much more seriously than before, at any rate, if the EU and Russia are to continue to heed each other's positions and continue their search for mutually acceptable compromises. As far as our overall relations are concerned, then this will serve to guarantee expanded co-operation in the future.
The difference between the West and the two mighty allies in the East - Russia and China - is enormous. In fact, it is not a difference, but an outright contrast