Analysis: Russia and Europe must cast aside mutual distrust for future prosperity

Russian president Vladimir Putin. Picture: Getty
Russian president Vladimir Putin. Picture: Getty
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Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a Europe “that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals” was provocative. Today, Russian president Vladimir Putin has advanced an even more ambitious goal: “a common market stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

In the race toward globalisation, the stakes are high for both Russia and Europe. If Russia continues on its current path toward becoming solely a raw-materials producer, it will not only become vulnerable to global energy-price fluctuations, but its scientific, cultural, and educational potential will decay further, eventually stripping the country of its global clout.

If Europe, for its part, fails to respond to the challenges of the 21st century, it will face chronic economic stagnation, rising social tension, and political instability. Indeed, as industrial production migrates to East Asia and innovation remains in North America, Europe risks losing its position in the most attractive international markets.

To avoid these outcomes, Russia and Europe must identify where their interests converge, and work to establish a mutually beneficial partnership in those areas. But, in order to foster such a partnership, they must first alter their negative perceptions of each other.

Many Russians do not regard Europe as a political and economic partner, or even as an ally. In their view, Europe has already lost the battle for innovation and economic development, and is gradually becoming an “industrial museum.” Russia, they argue, should form partnerships with more dynamic countries.

Likewise, many Europeans believe that, while a partnership with Russia might be an asset now, it would corrode Europe’s economies and politics in the long run. If Europe wants to lead and prosper, according to this view, it should limit its ties with Russia as much as possible.

Ongoing disputes between Russia and the European Union reflect this mutual distrust. Russians accuse Europeans of taking too long to liberalise visas, blocking Russian energy companies’ access to Europe’s markets, instigating anti-Russian sentiment, and trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic politics.

Meanwhile, Europeans have serious reservations about Russia’s human-rights record, legal system, failure to adhere to European values, and position on international crises, especially in the Middle East.

Without a fundamental reset, relations between Russia and Europe will continue to decay and their strategic trajectories will diverge.

An alternative scenario relies on the powerful unifying impact of human capital, the defining factor in the quest for global influence. Human capital should constitute the foundation of Russian and European development policies.

Russia and Europe have much to offer one another. By focusing on the areas in which their modernisation agendas overlap – from education to public health to environmental protection –they can identify ways to increase their human capital’s efficiency.

While Europeans have reason to criticise Russia’s shortcomings, they should recognise that only two decades ago, Russia’s political, economic, social and legal systems underwent a huge shift, which significantly affected its people’s psychology, self-perception, and behaviour. Given Europeans’ complicated experience with EU enlargement, they should understand the challenges that accompany such a profound change.

• Igor Ivanov, Russia’s former foreign minister, is president of the Russian International Affairs Council.