EUROPE: RUSSIAN RUMBLINGS

European diplomats called it "the Polish path." In this rosy view, Russia would--like Poland and other post-communist countries before it--proceed down a slow but steady path of democratization and free-market reform. Never mind George W. Bush's talk of forging a special U.S.-Russian relationship; an upwardly mobile Russia would inevitably gravitate into the European Union's orbit, irresistibly attracted by the EU's geographical proximity, its 10 trillion euros market and common bonds of history and culture. One fine day, it seemed, Russia might even become a member.

These days the view from EU capitals couldn't be more different. As Europe sees it, President Vladimir Putin is taking Russia down a very un-European track by sharply curtailing democratic rights. The economy and media are coming more and more under state control. The bloody military campaign in Chechnya--with some 150,000 civilians dead--is deeply offensive to soft-power Europe. The idea that Russia is becoming more and more European today seems bizarre. The new conventional wisdom: Europe stays Europe, Russia stays Russia, and never the twain shall meet.

The estrangement runs deep, is mutual--and has in recent weeks come to a head. Two weeks ago Putin unexpectedly called off a planned summit with EU leaders in The Hague after clashes over human rights and security issues became too fundamental for even diplomatic verbiage to paper over. The summit has now been rescheduled for this week, but diplomats say bluntly that the quarrel won't be resolved. Europe has put on hold negotiations for a promised free-trade agreement with Russia. Moscow, in turn, is threatening to boycott the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, accusing the EU-dominated group of anti-Russian bias. If the hope was once for increased integration, Russian Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov tells NEWSWEEK, today's standoff is more reminiscent of the ugly diplomatic battles of the cold war. Says Katinka Barysch, Russia expert at London's Centre for European Reform: "Relations between Europe and Russia have broken down."

What happened? As little as two years ago, the future still looked bright. In 2002 Russia had just gotten its long-sought voice in the NATO military alliance, which assured Moscow that future security decisions in Europe would not be made without a Russian say. To prepare for the creation of a gigantic free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Bering Strait, Brussels and Moscow were busy implementing a 1997 "partnership agreement" committing Russia to start aligning its laws and trading standards with the EU's. Putin was in high regard in Western capitals, seen not as a crypto-Soviet autocrat but as a leader who could restore badly needed order after the chaotic reign of Boris Yeltsin. Amid the transatlantic row over Iraq, there was even talk of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, an ever-closer alliance driven by mutual distrust of American unilateralism.

Yet all these overtures ignored the extent to which Europe and Russia lived, then and now, on different political planets. The EU is the ultimate soft power, its foreign-policy goal the creeping transformation of neighboring countries into images of itself--through either membership or close association. The reward is economic integration, collective stability and access to its wealthy market. For most of the EU's neighbors, that deal has proved irresistible. To Russians it is anathema. Unwilling to subject itself to Brussels's rules, institutions and collective decision making, Russia prefers to see itself as a great power on par with China and the United States. "There is a basic discrepancy in our values," says Sergei Karaganov, head of Moscow's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

More than any other event, EU enlargement this May intensified these differences. With the accession of 10 new members, including the three formerly Soviet Baltic republics and five other ex-communist states, not only is the EU now on Russia's western doorstep. With Bulgaria and Romania on target to join in 2007--and Turkey a likely candidate--the EU is encroaching on southern Russia and the Caucasus as well. All of a sudden, EU-Russian relations have become a kind of strategic game, feeding Moscow's deja vu of foreign "encirclement" first brought on by American troops in Central Asia and a rising China in Russia's east. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma's foreign-affairs committee, two weeks ago accused Europe of "forcing countries to accept an anti-Russian orientation" and denounced the EU as "a giant whirlpool, slowly but surely drawing in our neighbors."

Europe and Russia must now learn to live with what Kosachev warns is a "growing confrontation." Right now the tug of war between Brussels and Moscow is playing out most dramatically in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 50 million people squeezed between Russia and the EU. Western observers have accused Russia of massive interference in last Sunday's presidential election on behalf of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a stalwart Moscow ally. That's because opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, whose supporters have complained of widespread vote fraud and intimidation, has promised to steer the country on a pro-European course. As the votes are counted this week, the result will either magnify Russian fears of "losing" Ukraine to the EU or bolster hopes of regaining control over what Russians call their "near abroad."

As usual, there is no uniformity within Europe on how to handle the new clash with Russia. In February 2004 the European Commission dropped what many considered a naive approach and laid out a confidential new tough-love strategy toward Russia, documenting increasing strain and promising to vigorously defend EU interests while reminding Russia to stick to "shared values." So far, so good. But only days later, French President Jacques Chirac huffed that Europe should show "more respect" for Russia's national interests. In August, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder also did his friend Putin a favor, contradicting the EU line by praising the Chechnya elections as "free of any substantial interference." The Germans also contravened a common EU visa policy--a big carrot in any deal with the Russians--by unilaterally handing out five-year German visas, with which Russians can then move freely in Europe. "The countries pushing strongest for a common European foreign policy are undermining it when it comes to our biggest neighbor," complains Toomas Ilves, the former Estonian foreign minister who is now one of the most vocal critics of Russia in the European Parliament. Indeed, it is the EU's new Eastern European members--with fresh memories of Soviet domination--who are pushing hardest for what they say is a "realist" take on Russia.

How bad can things get? Relations are unlikely to break down completely, not just because Putin has such good friends in the West. The two sides also depend on each other. Forty percent of Russia's exports go to the EU, while Europe gets one third of its imported energy from Russian oil and gas. If anything, Russia needs Europe more than the other way around. "If they want to have any hope in hell of diversifying their economy, they can't do it without us," the CER's Barysch says. Despite the bad vibes, there have been recent successes, such as Moscow's adoption of the Kyoto Protocol--dear to Europeans' hearts--as well as a deal for the EU to support Russian entry into the WTO. Rapid economic growth in Russia fueled by sky-high oil prices is, analysts say, boosting Russian pride and self-confidence now. Once growth drops again, Russia will likely be more accommodating.

Until then, relations will likely get worse before they get better. In Moscow last week Russian officials again said nyet to the EU's offer of membership in its New Neighborhood program, which offers many of the benefits of EU membership--such as development aid and market access--in return for commitments to enforce human rights and play by the rules. As Europe sees it, Russia continues to export instability to its near abroad, which makes it impossible for Europe's model of soft encouragement to work in countries like Moldova or Ukraine. In the long run, the EU model will inevitably prove more attractive to those neighbors than Moscow's chilly embrace. For now, however, the mutual estrangement--and test of wills--between Brussels and Moscow continues.

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