Big things ahead' for Russia and EU

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, head of the Russian mission to the EU, talks to New Europe about EU-Russian relations and the political situation in his country after the parliamentary elections and in the wake of the upcoming presidential election.

The new basic agreement between the EU and Russian Federation has had a difficult and slow start, Chizhov admits, but stresses that Russian representatives and their EU counterparts studied together all the possible options for a new legal basis for co-operation several years ago, “including a big partnership and co-operation agreement, switching to sectoral agreements or having no agreement at all”.

Ambassador Chizhov underlined that political agreement for new framework was reached in 2006 and that by the end of that year the Russian position was formalised by governmental degree and he was put in charge of leading the Russian negotiating team.

He pointed out that things were “much slower on the EU side”, indicating that it took the EU 18 months to approve a negotiating mandate for the European Commission.

Negotiations began in July 2008 and, since then, 12 rounds have been completed. Chizhov avoided speculating on the potential length of negotiations and stressed that they were for the last year “at a technical pause” caused by delay in Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was successfully completed in December 2011, and was supposed to create the base line for further talks with the EU.

In addition, reflecting on EU and US mediation over Georgian opposition to Russia’s WTO membership, the ambassador rejected insinuations that there were any deals made behind the scenes regarding Georgia’s NATO membership, which, he said, was “a theoretical, rather than a practical issue”.

Chizhov pointed out that another important issue has emerged in the meantime; the progress in “integration processes on the post-Soviet space”, namely creation of the customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which has evolved into a common economic space and finally into a EurAsian economic union, which has “brought a new dimension into negotiations with the EU”, bringing some competences in areas of trade and investment from the national level to the supranational level.

Chizhov, however, rejected the notion of the EurAsian union as an alternative to the EU for Russia, saying that processes of European and EurAsian integrations are complementary rather than exclusionary.

Nevertheless, he pointed out the appeal that the new EurAsian union may have for some countries of the European Neighbourhood Policy area, primarily Ukraine. He added that creation of EurAsian union is rather an “incarnation of what is now universally recognised as the multiple polarity of today’s world”.

Regarding the parliamentary elections which took place in Russia on 4 December 2011, Chizhov said he was “aware that some people were unhappy, some had complaints, and some complaints were channelled through court procedures”, adding that this was “quite natural”. He said that rallies went peacefully and that “they were competing rallies”, with “the biggest rally being in favour of the Putin candidacy”.

With regard to the presidential elections on 4 March, Ambassador Chizhov believes Putin would “win in the freest and fairest election” adding that “international observers are pulling in in the hundreds and no problems are being detected”.

He reflected on complaints on the part of the EU that the opposition candidate Grigory Yavlinsky was taken off the ballot saying that the reason was “that the number of forged signatures in his support was above the margin allowed by the legislation [5%] – 25%.

Chizhov says that a number of reforms will be introduced to strengthen democracy, such as lowering the number of signatures required for candidacy, which will apply from the next election onwards, and said that the conduct of the parliamentary electionsn, and the upcoming election, is a positive sign of a maturing civil society in Russia.

The ambassador emphasised that Russia is a “normal democratic country”, but conceded that “perhaps not all laws are perfect”.

Reflecting on the apparent critique of the economic policies of President Dmitry Medvedev in Putin’s economic agenda, Chizhov ascertained it not as criticising, but rather complaining “about the lack of results”. He explained that many unresolved issues remained from the “volatile days of the wild privatisation of the 1990s”.

Chizhov offered reassurances that the Putin of the second decade of the 21st century will not be the same Putin as in the first decade.

“Remember, when he became president in 2000, he had challenges of a country on the verge of splitting apart, and that is not an exaggeration,” Chizhov said.

He added that Putin inherited a myriad of local and regional laws that were contrary to federal ones, parts of Russia that declared local legislation to be above the national one, and the crisis in the Caucasus.

The Russian ambassador explained that for all those reasons “a more rigid than he [Putin] would have wished ‘vertical of power’, as it was called, was created”, adding that among many plans for democratisation, Putin had envisaged “proceeding to totally different level of democracy” and direct elections of local governors, instead of the system where Kremlin was appointing them, which “served its purpose” in times of volatility.

“What Putin managed to achieve was pulling the countries back together, and that was a major achievement that people may too easily start forgetting,” Chizhov concluded.
New Europe